Imagination and science

Scientists need inspiration and for many it comes from science fiction literature

Muhammad Hamid Zaman February 27, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

I must have been very young when I first saw a Tintin comic at our house. It must have belonged to my siblings, but I remember being fascinated by the characters, particularly of one Professor Calculus. This was before I knew what either of the words, Professor or Calculus, meant. One Tintin story in particular, Destination Moon, stuck with me and to this day is one of my favourite. When I grew up and found that Herge had written this story, which is quite accurate, nearly two decades before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, my bond with Tintin and its author grew even stronger. I have often wondered how could someone write about the experience, that no one had ever had, with such clarity and authority.

My sense of curiosity was also driven by H G Wells and Jules Verne, both long gone before I was even born. While their stories may be scientifically naïve, the sense of imagination that they create is timeless. Herge, Verne and Wells played an important role in helping me become a scientist, but I know that I was lucky and privileged to get exposure to them, both at home and through libraries in Islamabad in the 1980s. I am worried that children in our society today are missing out on a fundamental sense of curiosity.

The libraries have disappeared and the books have become more expensive — but the question is why aren’t any of our authors, in English or in Urdu, able to create that sense of imagination in a young boy or girl who wants to escape to the world of science fiction. While there is nothing wrong in focusing on social issues, the predominant theme of our literature, there is a problem if we are unable to spark the imagination of the young and old. So why is our literature devoid of science fiction?

Khurshid Iqbal, a literature scholar from India, in his thesis titled ‘Urdu mein science fiction ki riwayat (the tradition of science fiction in Urdu)’, explores this question. He argues that Urdu lags behind its Western counterparts for several reasons. To begin with, poetry and not prose is the dominant and more valued form of expression in Urdu literature. The tradition in prose has also focused on short stories and novels that revolve around love, family and the social order, and science has never been a genre of interest for writers. There has also been push back by religious circles on science fiction. Khurshid Iqbal also argues that while there has been some effort to write fantasy (Amir Hamza stories, for example) or occasionally bring science fiction in mystery stories (for example, Ibn Safi) serious attempts at science fiction have been largely absent from Urdu. A similar case could be made about the stories and the themes tackled by English authors from Pakistan.

More recently, others have argued that there is a more fundamental problem, and that revolves around imagination and creativity beyond a strong story and a compelling plot. The argument is about how we teach people and what is rewarded. Our teaching approaches, in general, do not reward curiosity beyond a certain limit. Scientists are told that literature is a waste of time and those interested in humanities are told that science is well above their intellect. More importantly, a fundamental sense of freedom to write and express, imagine and create, is hard to find in the curriculum or the classroom. Those who want to imagine a world beyond the present are unable to channel their creativity.

Science is just as much about imagination as it is about rigour. Scientists need inspiration, and for many it comes from science fiction literature. We cannot expect Herge, Verne or Wells to appear by changing our classrooms, but we can certainly do better by not stopping those who have the potential to become one.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2018.

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