by Joan Slonczewski
Today I have the great pleasure of hosting my friend Joan Slonczewski, who will discuss how textbooks can fire the imagination of future scientists. Dr. Slonczewski is Professor of Biology at Kenyon College where she teaches, does research in microbiology, and writes a leading undergraduate textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton). She is also an SF author well-known for incorporating real science in her fiction, as highlighted by her justly famous A Door into Ocean. Her recent SF novel, The Highest Frontier (Tor/Macmillan), shows a college in a space habitat financed by a tribal casino and protected from alien invasion by Homeworld Security.
When the film Avatar opened, it drew many critiques based on science. The planet Pandora could not exist around a gas giant; the neural-linked ecosystem would have no predators; and the Na’vi should have six limbs, like other Pandoran fauna. The greatest flaw was that the Na’vi have breasts, although their class of creatures are not mammals. Non-mammals having breasts would be an error unthinkable in real science.
Yet I wonder what might happen if an introductory textbook in biology were to receive scrutiny similar to that of Avatar. If non-mammals should not be shown with breasts, does it follow that true mammals, named for the mammary gland, should indeed show breasts? The typical textbook section on “mammalian diversity” shows scarcely a mammary gland. One would never guess that we drink milk from cattle, mares, camels, and reindeer. The more modern books do show prominent breasts on a human. In other words, a view of life surprisingly similar to Avatar.
I first saw the fictional aspect of textbooks from the viewpoint of a science fiction author writing a college text, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (W. W. Norton). As a fiction author–my book A Door into Ocean won the Campbell award–I well know the dilemma of “hard SF,” which aims to invent a future world of gadgets that don’t yet exist based on science that actually does. Even “hard” science fiction often dodges inconvenient points about exceeding the speed of light, breathing the air on any planet where the starship lands, and mating with the seductive native “aliens.”
A textbook, I thought, would be different. My coauthor John Foster would correct what I wrote, and our publisher provided a throng of editors and expert reviewers. The art budget paid for stunning visuals from a first-rate graphic arts firm whose artists actually check details in the primary literature.
Our early illusions about textual perfection fell away in the light of reviewer comments based on errors entrenched in other books, and editorial “corrections” that often made clearer English but muddier science. But the art process was what really made me think of fiction. Early on we chose a “palette” in which color conveys information: DNA was purple, RNA was blue, proteins red, yellow, or green. And cell interiors, with their nucleus, mitochondria, and so on, offered a rainbow of colors from lilac to salmon. Our color-coded figures are more than informative; they are gorgeously attractive, so much so that prospective adopters have been known to caress them on the page.
But DNA is not “really” purple, and RNA is not really blue. Chloroplasts are indeed green, as typically shown, but mitochondria are not red aside from a few of their iron-bearing proteins. And what of individual atoms as ray-traced blue and red balls and sticks? This aspect of science art goes beyond fiction–it is fantasy.
Despite their limitations, the visuals in a textbook illustrate in that they form a pattern in the reader’s mind; a pattern that deepens understanding of a concept. This aim of illustration is actually shared by the best science fiction. Frank Herbert’s Dune illustrates how water scarcity drives an ecosystem. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood illustrates how organisms trade genetic identity for survival.
So if textbook art is “fictional,” what needs to be “correct”? The mental patterns formed by the text and art need to be honest; to spark genuine insights that lead to understanding. A cell’s nucleus is not “really” lavender in color, but the colored shape draws attention to the nucleus as a compartment enclosing the precious DNA. By contrast, an image depicting the nuclear contents as spilling out of the cell would not yield insight, but confusion. A troubling new group of textbooks aim to sow such confusion–books with titles like Exploring Creation with Biology and The Lies of Evolution. Such books aim to inoculate “inquiring preteens” against the founding principles of biology, geology, and cosmology.
If deliberate confusion is the worst sin of any book, the next worst sin is boredom. Teachers can make students read the most boring book; but will they stay awake?
A key decision we made for Microbiology: An Evolving Science was to tell stories. We told how Bangladeshi women taught the world to fight cholera. How life began out of atoms formed by stars that died long before our own sun was born. How a high school boy testified at the Scopes trial that humans evolved from microbes. How Louis Pasteur as a student discovered mirror symmetry in biomolecules–a tool that astrobiologists may use to reveal life on other worlds.
A textbook, like science fiction, should raise questions. Is there microbial life on Mars–and what might it look like? Textbooks should take the reader to new places where we’ve never been–and perhaps could never go, such as the interior of a cell, the electron cloud of an atom, or a planet where people have three sexes. Like science fiction, a textbook should inspire people to learn more about real science, and even become scientists. After Jurassic Park came out, some scientists felt embarrassed by the book’s technical flaws and its portrayal of money-mad dinosaur cloners. But so many students came to Kenyon College wanting to clone dinosaurs that we founded a new program in molecular biology.
My latest work of fiction, The Highest Frontier, has already drawn complaints. The space elevator won’t work; the casino-financed satellite can’t be built; and the aliens could not really evolve like viruses. Let’s hope at least the book inspires students to pursue virology.
Athena’s coda: Readers of this blog know the reasons why I detest Avatar, which go beyond its sloppy science; so do some attendees of Readercon 2010, because Joan and I had a lively exchange about it in a panel. Even so, I entirely agree with what Joan says here, as attested by The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.
In my essays and talks, I have repeatedly used A Door into Ocean as an example of outstanding “hard” SF that does not trumpet its hardness and also contains the additional layers and questioning of consequences that make it compelling fiction.
I also had the privilege of reading the penultimate version of The Highest Frontier. The novel is an unusual combination of space opera and grounded near-future extrapolation — and Harry Potter aficionados would love it if they found out about it (unfortunately unlikely, given the proliferation of unlinked subgenre ponds in speculative fiction). It’s fascinating to compare and contrast it with Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, also from Tor. Both are set in beleaguered space habitats where cooperative problem-solving is the only viable option; both literally brim with interesting concepts, vivid characters and exciting thought experiments.
The two novels are proof of three things: women can write stellar hard SF; scenarios for a long-term human presence in space that ignore biology (very broadly defined) are doomed; and I need not despair of finding SF works that engage me… provided that authors as talented as these continue to be published against least-common-denominator tides.
Images: 1st, a Sharer of Shora (from A Door into Ocean) as envisioned by Rowan Williams; 2nd, Slonczewski’s microbiology textbook opens with the NASA Phoenix lander and asks, “Is there life on Mars?”; 3rd, a glimpse of the habitat in The Highest Frontier.