Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

Cyborgs, Zombies, and P-values

Full amazing stories february

Image: Cover of Amazing Stories, February 1956

I have a confession: Sometimes I take a break from the world of mealy technical papers, robust peer review, and excessively precise science writing. Instead I journey into the near and far-flung futures to ask “What if?” questions, free of the constraints of rigid empiricism. In short, I write science fiction.

Science fiction, particularly “hard” science fiction — the kind grounded in scientific fact but extended forward to explore the consequences of technology and scientific advancement — is a way to investigate how knowledge shapes our world, to think critically about the implications of discovery, and to communicate those possibilities to a new and different audience.

I started writing stories during graduate school, as a release from the unrelenting pressure of dissertation work and as a chance to flex my creativity. I quickly discovered that writing science fiction not only helped me manage my stress but also improved my scholarly writing. Balancing fact with the conceits of a fictional universe helped me as a practicing scientist become a better science communicator.

Science is an adventure, but that adventure is often hard to see in the final product. Writing science fiction can help you develop an eye for narrative in your research. Not all scientific research follows a narrative structure, but there are narratives embedded in every research project. Every study has a story, sometimes dozens of stories. That story may be about the researchers, the discovery, or the process of doing science. Finding those narrative threads can help you build connections between your audience and your science.

Focusing on the narrative doesn’t compromise the value of the science, but rather expands it to include the human component that is integral, yet often invisible, in any scientific document. Becoming a good storyteller — and engaging an audience in the process — allows readers to feel like they are part of the journey. Finding the right narrative thread can, for example, help transform something as dry as the regulatory framework for maintaining historic naming rights on restored maritime vessels into a compelling, engaging, and informative piece of outreach (“How Cyborgs are like Old Wooden Ships”).

Science is a passionate pursuit. Researchers care deeply about their subjects, and often forgo anything resembling reasonable compensation for the chance to pursue knowledge. Yet rarely does that passion shine through the scientific literature. Writing science fiction can help you develop the skills to make those emotional connections with your audience — even in the driest, most analytical research papers. Science fiction lets you explore those emotions, stretching a narrative out beyond the research. It can help you understand why certain topics resonate so strongly with you and then translate that passion to your audience.

Science fiction can also offer an escape, particularly for scientists working in crushingly depressing fields like conservation biology, where every win is temporary and every loss is permanent. Science fiction gives us an outlet to express our greatest fears (“Rockall”), explore our hopes (“Whatever Happened to Deep-sea Mining?”), or, in the most extreme case, tear everything down and start again (“Prepared”) or leave the world behind (“A Crack in the Sky Above Titan”). That, alone, can be cathartic.

Finally, beyond the pragmatic benefits, writing science fiction is another way to just keep writing. To be a good writer — whether you are writing technical reports on the state of Atlantic fisheries, policy papers on the impacts of deep-sea mining, or short stories about zombies (“The Lucky Ones”), the only way to become a better writer is to write. Being able to jump into a fun science fiction story (or really, any kind of narrative fiction) ensures that you keep writing on those days when you just cannot craft yet another sentence about p-values.

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