Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Keeping up with science

Writing SciFi is quite a challenge these days, it often seems that scientific advances and technology is advancing so fast it is almost impossible to come up with something "futuristic". When I started writing my Harry Heron series, the idea of ships that were run by "intelligent" computers seemed like a suitably "future" scenario. The book was no sooner in print than I discovered that there were already plans for a computer that ran on a sort of neural net rather than on banks of processors, hard drives and so on as we have now. I had already envisaged my future computers running on fibre-optic type wiring, so in the next I took that step further and made the ships self aware and able to "converse" with the heroes. Book 3 takes that to its ultimate expression with the ships experiencing a range of "emotions" and emotional problems. Where to from there?

Reading several scientific journals and blogs I find myself sometimes wondering whether this is a sustainable growth or whether it will eventually lead to something like the human race dividing as H G Wells "Time Machine" envisaged with one group of tree-hugger types being cultivated by the sinister sub-surface dwelling cannibals. The world seems to be dividing into a scientifically adept and aware group and those among them who use science (or a "media ready" version) to manipulate politics and the people they rule, and those whose scientific understanding is best described as "limited" and rely on what they are told in the media to even begin to grasp some concepts. Hence the whipped up storms over things like GM foods, irradiated fruit and the "Sky is falling" Global Warming debate. The divide is gettig wider all the time and is made far worse by the refusal of some members of the science community to consider anything which challenges their own favoured theories or to consider data which comes from another discipline which may suggest a different path to the one followed by a particular line of theory.

Part of the problem is the misuse in the media of the word "theory" which, in scientific terms, has a particular meaning. It is further complicated by the use of statistical analysis in "proving" theoretical work. Statistics can be used and misused in a number of ways and almost all the data used in the Climate Change modelling or reporting is "smoothed" in some way. Put simplistically, "smoothing" involves "averaging" the data so you end up with a "mean value" which is easier to work with, but this excludes sometimes significant variations in the measurements. That is not, in itself so significant, but it can, if extrapolation is then applied, produce some very dubious results. Statisticians look for "significant trends" in their numbers and most would be very quick to tell you that it still provides only a snapshot of what has happened, not necessarily what will. And therein, for the wider public lies the problem, most of us do not have the technical expertise to understand the processes or the significance of a very complex process of analysis - and most media reporters don't either, so they go for the sensational interpretation and the politicians encourage this.

What concerns me more than anything else as I try to stay abreast of science is the knowledge that the vast majority of the human population of this planet don't even have a basic understanding of the science or the technology we in the "developed" world take for granted, but seldom fully understand ourselves. This gap is getting wider as well and I'm not at all sure it can be bridged. Which leads me into my final point, one of the things I have had to consider in writing about the future. What will the future world population look like?

I'm still not sure, though I think it will be much more racially mixed than at present, I think the divide between the educated and the under developed will get wider - but above all the ppulation will have to be reduced and that is neither popular nor easily achievable in any forum. Study of the socio-economic relationship between wealth and population quickly exposes that poverty and population are linked, so is education and wealth. Poorly educated populations with a low per capita wealth index are much more likely to be found in overpopulated areas than in wealthier ones. How one addresses this, particularly in fiction is tricky and in reality I suggest impossible despite all the good intentions in the UN and various governments. That makes one aspect of writing SciFi easy. Human nature doesn't change - the human propensity for corruption, self-interest and their opposites provide plenty of fodder for storylines and will do for as long as there are human beings telling stories.

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