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Teaching science with science fiction

David Brin writes

Science fiction has become a central part of our culture’s myth-making engine, engaging children and adults of all nations. Yet the breadth of SF and its ultimate importance can be difficult for a non-aficionado to grasp. After all, isn’t it just spaceships, lasers, and childish stuff? Well, no it isn’t.

As with any branch of human storytelling, science fiction offers a spectrum of quality and depth, ranging from Star Wars romps to the profound explorations of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Mary Shelley. A key element in all is fascination with change, and how human beings respond when challenged by it.

In other words, there is no genre more relevant to this rapidly transforming world we live in, where citizens of all ages are called upon to contemplate issues that would have boggled their grandparents: environmental degradation, the extinction and creation of new species, cloning, artificial intelligence, instant access to all archived knowledge, and the looming prospect that a coming generation (perhaps the very next one) may have to wrestle with the implications of physical immortality.

As Professor Jim Gunn puts it: “Science fiction is the literature of change, and change is the only constant in our world. Hence the only literature that is ‘realistic’ is science fiction — any literature that doesn’t include and assertively confront the human response to change is historical or fantasy.”


Graboids (from the Tremors movies) – Learning classification and evolution

Could Game of Thrones’s Dragons Really Fly? We Asked Some Experts

Sci fi about ecology and biology

The Hunger Games

Teach.com Jabberjays-teaching-science-with-science-fiction

Learning.blogs.nytimes Hunger-games-science-investigating-genetically-engineered-organisms


World War Z, zombies, viruses

Biology of Zombies. Dr. Steven Schlozman, Harvard Medical School, gives the real life neuroanatomy behind how zombies could work. A Harvard Psychiatrist Explains Zombie Neurobiology

Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? CDC – Zombies



“The Core”, 2003, Paramount Pictures, Director: Jon Amiel.

Doctor Who (BBC television series)

Star Trek: The Physics of Warp Drive

Ant Man, Fantastic Voyage, and the physics of miniaturization

Batman – Physics analysis of scenes

2001 A Space Odyssey, movie and novel by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

Ringworld, series of books by Larry Niven

The Expanse is a series of novels, and a TV series, based on novels, novellas and stories by “James S. A. Corey” – the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2012. In 2017 the series as a whole was nominated for the ‘Best Series’ Hugo Award.

Rotational motion

Artificial gravity in a space station

Rotating space stations in fact and science fiction

Short Story – “Spirals” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. First appeared in Jim Baen’s Destinies, April-June 1979.  Story summary – Cornelius Riggs, Metallurgist, answers an ad claiming “high pay, long hours, high risk. Guaranteed wealthy in ten years if you live through it.” The position turns out to be an engineering post aboard humanity’s orbiting habitat. The founders of “the Shack” dream of a livable biosphere beyond Earth’s gravity, a permanent settlement in space. However, Earth’s the economic conditions are getting worse, and the supply ships become more and more infrequent…

Spirals by Larry Niven

SPIRALS – The short story.doc


Earth Science

The Core

“The Core”, 2003, Paramount Pictures, Director: Jon Amiel.

The Core: Badastronomy.com

Did The Movie ‘The Core’ Get Anything Right? ScienceFiction.com

“2012,” An American epic science fiction disaster film directed in 2009 by Roland Emmerich.

What’s the most inaccurate movie, in terms of science? Quora

In 2012 neutrinos melt Earth’s core, and other disasters: Scientific American

“Deep Impact,” 1998 American science-fiction disaster film directed by Mimi Leder,

Deep Impact: Bad Astronomy

A Scientist Responds To Deep Impact. Io9.com

Deep Impact science fact vs fiction. Karen J. Meech, Astronomer


Using games to teach science

Movie Physics

Grading the physics in some major motion pictures


Physics on Film pages in The Physics Factbook™

Hypertextbook.com analysis of movie scenes

The Physics Factbook™ for 2006

The Physics Factbook™ for 2005

Astronomy and astrophysics

List of short stories and novels that use more or less accurate science, and can be used for teaching astronomy or physics concepts.

Astronomy and Astrophysics stories

Speculative History

Speculative history: Possibility of prehuman civilization

There’s a story about that

For decades a number of “hard” science fiction folks have consulted with various companies, foundations and especially DC agencies, where earnest civil servants fret about potential threats to our unusual civilization. Aware of of their own constrained imaginations, members of the Protector Caste keep inviting some of the top authors of “hard” or realistic science fiction to offer either big picture perspectives or else terrifying possibilities. “You sci fi guys think up the scariest things,” one official commented, with evident approval, recognizing the value of science fictional thinking.

The same can be said for tech innovators, social entrepreneurs, and visionary artists of various stripes, searching for insights into where we are heading and how we can design our way to a better future.

And yet, there has always been one frustration. When thinking about some real or hypothetical scenario, it might be easy to paraphrase an example or two, but there’s no one place to find truly relevant stories, amid the vast number of past tales and thought experiments. The solution? TASAT (There’s a Story about That!). There’s A Story About That

Scientific investigations into the fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft


German Poo-Caamano (CC BY-NC-ND)

External resources

Using Science Fiction to teach science, curated by David Brin


Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange

Technovelgy, the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers

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