Monday, September 06, 2010

Second thoughts

One more blog entry of name dropping and narcissism, and then it's back to issues of substance.

One of the high points of the Writers of the Future trip was the awards ceremony and being introduced before going on stage by Jerry Pournelle. Together with Larry Niven, Dr. Pournelle wrote a number of science fiction books, scenes and ideas from which are still lodged in my memory twenty five years later. If someone had told me as a child that I'd end up receiving an award from him, I'd have been speechless--which would have been no small feat at that talkative age.

During his introduction Dr. Pournelle mentioned that I had worked rhesus monkeys as a research technician, and that the Darwin Society would be protesting the fact that I was spending a week with a group of science fiction writers. That got a good laugh and knocked the nervousness out of me about getting up on stage and making my acceptance speech.

However, I will admit that I had been having second thoughts about having included my past work as a research tech in my bio for the anthology. Some of the research projects that I supported were fairly innocent and fun, liking taking care of monkeys living in open corrals or enclosed group shelters. The research conducted on these groups was either behavioral observation or consisted of periodic roundups to take samples in order to track the spread or loss of specific genes over the course of generations.

Such work with groups also afforded me the opportunity to have daily social interactions with the kids, ranging from letting adolescents tug on the tips of my latex gloves to hand-feeding a dominant male bamboo leaves, or scratching presented monkey butts--the closest thing a human gets to performing grooming. That and standing in an enclosure with half-a-dozen juveniles clinging to my lab coat as they dug through my pockets for animal crackers.

Other projects that my work supported carried a high cost, but at the same time those were the ones that produced important results for both our broader understanding of biology as well as specific advances in medicine and biotechnology. Some of these were proof-of-concept or statistical validation studies for treatments that involved spinal regeneration, or enhanced stroke recovery, as well as very specific looks at how select diseases play out on molecular level in vivo. Others were pre-clinical trials of potential pharmaceutical compounds.

If having worked in the biological sciences runs the risk of drawing fire from the left, my student job in Nevada as a lab tech in the climate sciences opens me up to a similar risk of criticism from those on the right who disparage the reality of human-driven climate change.

Which brings me to why I worked in the atmospheric and biological sciences, and why I like to write science fiction that draws in part on real world science. And that is that science's various branches describe the underlying factors that makes us who we are as human beings--our evolutionary heritage, the nature of our primate cousins, our biology, the history of the changing land and climates that shaped us, and the economies that are an extension of the ecologies that we depend upon. Not only that, but technology derived from science profoundly influences the present-day expression of our inherited nature.

Where ideologies on the right and left have fought over whether we are the products of our nature or environment, our present-day scientific understanding is that we are a feedback cycle between these two poles of influence. We are in part primates built to cope with the necessities of group survival in paleolithic Africa, and in part we are modern beings shaped by a technological environment.

At best, ideologies on either side of the political spectrum are black-and-white still photos of these complex and evolving realities. Such doctrines of ideals and desires are useful in helping to organize anarchic humans into groups capable of changing the world from how it is to how it ought to be, but they also come with a high epistemological cost. A big part of that price is that ideologies do not deal well with the findings of science when these run contrary to their world views.

The scientific world view on the other hand is dynamic. It checks for and admits error, it constantly incorporates new findings, and it gives us a view of existence that is colorful and changing. These days that outlook has shifted from strict reductionism to a kind of holistic approach that embraces the complexity of systems.

This isn't to say that science is the end-all, be-all of the human experience. Religion, humanism, the arts and letters, and traditional cultural outlooks have much to say on how we perceive existence as well as how we should ethically apply the knowledge and capabilities that science provides us.

Still, given its importance in describing us and our world, science needs a voice in literature, and that's not an easy thing to pull off. Science is clunky. It speaks of probabilities rather than certainties. It is very specifically counterintuitive as it is designed to grapple with those aspects of our world that our intuitions cannot perceive. Where our commonsense readily describes the dynamics of the immediate human-level world around us, it struggles with the mathematics that underlies our universe, the laws of physics, chemistry, and cellular biology, and it staggers when confronted with the alien realities of existence at the quantum and cosmological scales.

So it wont be easy to tell gripping tales with science and technology blended seamlessly into the narrative. Then again it's neither easy to work in the sciences nor easy to deal with those who object to the findings of researchers on the basis of ideologies. If either my past work as a technician or my future literary works are controversial, so be it. I have high hopes that both will have positive impacts on our understanding of the world.

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