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Science in Science Fiction: A Proposal

sterrab's picture

My tongue is “jumbled and jangled”1. Growing up speaking Arabic, English, and French, I am most self-expressive juggling between all three, casually in conversation. I relate feelings and emotions with specific language expressions that are meaningless if not incomprehensible when translated. The importance in the phonetics in the Arabic language allows me to translate my emotions in the stress of the sounds in words. Saying “stupid” in Arabic is not only the same word for “ass” but also has an “h” sound that resonates from the roof of your mouth, as if having a bundle of red chili peppers scorching one’s throat while shouting out a sharp “HHH’OT!”. I cannot however participate in a serious, intellectual discussion in Arabic but rather speak English, my language of education, from which I have learned the big words and forms for argumentation. First learning French from TV or overheard conversations between my parents, I speak it to communicate my work and education to those who do not understand English. All three languages have become inevitable pieces to my language and cultural puzzle that intertwine to translate my thoughts and ideas to others.

Being multilingual has allowed me to value the importance in language preservation and examine cross-language experiences. Although fluent in English and comfortable in sharing what I have learned in the English language here at Bryn Mawr College, I still fail at fully conveying the complete sincere message from the missing word sprinkles from the other languages here and there in conversation.  The sounds, the hand gestures used as additional emphasis in meaning, and the colloquial expressions are lost in translation. But how are errors in translation minimized to limit miscommunication and misinterpretation?

Although not a linguist, the scientist me has grown interested in how science is translated from the language of mathematics which is used in structuring the science laws and principles to the language of the humanities. In my first web event, I explored how science breaks from the lab to mass-produced science news. I have found that texts about the latest science research did not necessarily break in meaning but the heavy mathematics-based jargon was suddenly replaced by a variety of anecdotes and comical phrases in order to be more digestable and accessible to a wider public.

My experience with the science fiction novel first took place in this Literary Kinds course as we explored Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Based on the four-dimensional relativistic space-time continuum which maps time as a timescape, the block time universe is presented in the novel through the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s encounter with the extraterrestrial Trafalmadorians who believe in the non-simultaneity of all time and hence the presence of all time. There is no past, present, or future but the moment of “now” to be lived as if there were neither tomorrow to live up to nor yesterday to remember. As such, Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time and re-experiences his life out of order. His death is therefore somewhere sandwiched in time and does not mark the conclusion of his life. By presenting block time as a direct consequence of core physics principles, Kurt Vonnegut teaches a core relativistic physics through the science fiction narrative.

If the block universe were to be presented in a traditional physics course, background on relativity and the spacetime continuum would first be presented. Einstein’s theory of relativity claims that speed of light in a vacuum is the same regardless of the frame of reference. Additionally, all laws of physics hold for observers moving at the same speed relative to one another.  When an observer is in an accerlerated reference frame, time is dilated, lengths are shortened, events are non-simultaneous with respect to another observer. Time and space are interconnected and hence the four-dimensional space time continuum is formed to include time as a fourth spatial dimension. Transformations across frames of reference are manipulated with intricate mathematical derivations. Manipulations in the space-time coordinate system are operated under the mathematical Riemann space.2,3  

What I have formulated here above is my attempt to put words to a subject topic based on math and hence reads math. Speed, coordinate system, space, operations, transformations, dimension are all understood with respect to the mathematical manipulations that relate and define them. Although physics may still be translated to present the final outcomes to be expected in spoken language, physics principles stand from mathematics. Eugene Wigner, a theoretical physicist and mathematician explains:

“…the laws of nature must be already formulated in the language of mathematics to be an object for the use of applied mathematics. The statement that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics to was properly made three hundred year ago. However, it is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena. This shows that the mathematical language has more to commend it than being the only language which we can speak; it shows that it is, in a very real sense, the correct language.”2

Wigner’s claim that mathematics is the “correct language” for the natural sciences makes the possibility to share the knowledge of science questionable. Given that science is constructed atop mathematics, which has only been properly around for the past 300 years and hence not yet entirely part of human culture, how then can science be taught through science fiction?

 I decided to return back to physics Professor Peter Beckmann’s  office and finally bring back what he meant by our culture’s lack of  language to describe and relate to quantum mechanics, a topic he mentioned in the introductory Quantum Mechanics course last year that went unanswered and unquestioned at the time.

“ Can science fiction be used to teach science? ” I inquired.

“Of course, ” he replied. “Good science fiction looks at all rules of reality, the rules of physics, and breaks [one] rule.”

Although mathematics defines most principles, there remain physics concepts that can be channeled from lab applications to the humanities where they can be taught to a wider public. The laws of physics are invariant with respect to reference frame. In that sense, there must be an agent to drive a change, a cause to an effect. Causality becomes the break to the rule in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. As Billy Pilgrim, travels out of order in time, experiencing his death somewhere or sometime during the plot story, he is not experiencing causality which is in violation of physics laws. It would be fantasy, something that is not real and may not be defined or understood scientifically.

 Vonnegut breaks this rule purposefully. The entirety of reality is done and time similar to space is mapped out for Billy Pilgrim to return to. By breaking the causality rule in this science fiction text, Vonnegut emphasizes the political satire in framing the events of the Second World War and hence presents Slaughterhouse-Five as an anti-war novel. He claims that war is a “children’s crusade” and that connections between events, the cause to a bombing, a death, a fire, are all “jumbled and jangled” to form a war-time horror 4.

Slaughterhouse-Five remains crucial in conveying and sharing the block universe and implementing the physics concept as a tool to build an anti-war novel. Although mathematics was not implemented in the construction of the block universe as seen by the Trafalmadorians, the concept was presented precisely. I believe that science fiction, in this case, serves as an introduction to a concept which can later be researched and broken down further for deeper understanding. Similar to what I have concluded from my first web event, the filtering of the mathematics and jargon from science allows for wider access to science and remains important in science teaching.

I hence conclude my webpaper by enlightening the various possibilities in teaching science concepts through science fiction. I propose to explore the topic in my final project for the Literary Kinds course and examine much larger parallels, if to be found, between science and science fiction snd how science fiction can be used in teaching science.



My acknowledgements to Professor Peter Beckmann for his invaluable time in discussing the aforementioned and AnneDalke for her advice and orientation through this field of popular science teaching.



Vonnegut, Kurt. SlaughterHouse-Five. 1969 [1,4]

-        “jumbled and jangled” from Pg.24 [1]

Wigner, Eugene P. The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. Communication on Pure and Applied Mathematics. 1959 [2] [3]



sterrab's picture

I admit I was pretty vague in

I admit I was pretty vague in saying: "The laws of physics are invariant with respect to reference frame. In that sense, there must be an agent to drive a change, a cause to an effect. Causality becomes the break to the rule....". What I am stating here is the fixed laws of physics, regardless of the frame or scenario of some sort. All laws of physics will be the same everywhere. For example, Newton's first law of inertia indicates that an object in motion will remain in motion or one at rest will remain at rest unless there is something else acting against it. This law is universal and will be experienced everywhere, in any possible frame. Similarly,  the 3rd Newton law which states that for every action there is an outcome reaction indicates that there must be a cause to any effect. In this case, this law was being violated in Slaughterhouse Five given that any  moment in time was untied to the moment preceding it which has affected the now moment.

You are addressing interesting questions about the broken rule in science fiction as mentioned by Peter. I have dismissed that point in my paper but I hope to further explore that in my final project. Thank you for finding the gap to my interpretation/discussion on the topic.

Anne Dalke's picture


I am of course delighted to see your continued working across the two cultures divide (which Peter and I have been negotiating since time began!), and will be quite intrigued to see where you will go next with this notion of the possible use of science fiction for "translating" scientific concepts to a larger, more general audience (in which of course I place myself....).

I could use some help in translating, for instance, some of what you say above. I'm entirely flummoxed by this sequence of sentences: "The laws of physics are invariant with respect to reference frame. In that sense, there must be an agent to drive a change, a cause to an effect. Causality becomes the break to the rule...."


More generally, I'll be interested to see how you can play out Peter's idea that science fiction is less a translation of scientific concepts than a thought experiment that " breaks one rule.” Why break the rule, rather than represent it as it is understood? Could science be better (more accurately? more efficiently?) taught to non-scientists, via fictional representations where the rules are not broken?