by Filip Wiltgren
For a long time, I believed I couldn’t write science fiction because I Wasn’t A Scientist. A Scientist was an awe-inspiring, white-lab-coat-wearing, hyper-intelligent, man-god. I knew exactly zero such beings, which explained my view of Scientists.
Once I made it to university, and started meeting researchers on a regular basis, I was loathe to give up my view of the capital-S Scientist. Of course these somewhat tired, slightly overweight, old-ish lecturers I kept meeting were scientists, they just weren’t Scientists. Somewhere on campus, there would be a building, guarded by a discrete yet surprisingly competent group of demi-gods (Xena meets X-Files style), where the Real Scientists lived. Where they were doing Real Science. The kind with chemicals and x-rays, and things. Not the common, sit-in-front-of-a-computer-and-think science.
That kind of science anyone could do. Even me. By deduction, it couldn’t be Real Science, if I could do it, because I wasn’t a Scientist.
I wasn’t a writer, either, and I wanted to be. But, of course, I had to become a Scientist first. I had to Know Things. Not mundane things, like creating a recursive Lisp loop, or solving a second-degree equation, but important things, like being able to recite the periodic table.
Thankfully, my drive to write was stronger than my fear of being an impostor. It took me years, but I did start writing, and, on a lark, submitted to Analog.
. . . wherever your interests lie, if you create something, discover something, think something up, you’re making the world an incrementally better place.
Lo and behold, I got published. In Analog. That was three years ago, and I’ve repeated the trick since (“It’s Cold on Europa” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!] is my third story in Analog), and somehow, the feeling that I needed to be a real scientist to write science fiction has mostly blown away from my mind.
But the roots are still there, the view of science and researchers as some kind of super-human minds.
Nowadays, I look to my children, and see the same kind of tendencies in them as I found in myself. That they are somehow lacking, and won’t make it in academia, or even in school. That the people who Know Things, Important Things, are somehow different from them.
That’s a very dangerous idea. It’s an idea that blocks the path of progress, and together with the Nerd Scientist archetype, locks the doors to kids who can’t see themselves as fitting it.
But we need those kids, the next generation of researchers who will take on everything from germs to gerunds, with no differentiation of importance, because wherever your interests lie, if you create something, discover something, think something up, you’re making the world an incrementally better place.
That’s what I’d like to tell my kids. You can make the world a better place. Not by protesting and hoping that someone will listen, although that is important too, but by doing, and opening up those paths that can take humanity into a bright and brilliant future.
I seem to remember having written a similar blog post the last time I was published in Analog, and I still stand by it. We need the enthusiasm of science fiction to move humanity forward. But we also need the down-to-Earth kind of dreams, the ones that start and end with a question and a conundrum, an idea and a flash of inspiration, the ones that give us the professional egg-beater, the non-stick frying pan, the molten metal battery (google Donald Sadoway if you haven’t heard of them).
Not everyone needs to be Einstein, and not everyone should. Because brilliance isn’t always conceptual. Sometimes it’s strange, like Richard Feynman. Sometimes it’s practical, like Bill Gates, or simply patient like Warren Buffett (no matter what you might think of the individual persons).
Everyone can be brilliant in their own ways, and if we only show the Superior Scientist or the Brilliant Nerd, we teach the next generation that we don’t need the generalist, the dilettante, the technician. And then we lose a big chunk of potential brilliance before it even has the chance to develop.
So perhaps we should show that writers don’t know squat and make everything up with handwavium (google that term if you’re unfamiliar), that scientists make a million mistakes, that it isn’t brilliance that you need but interest and persistence.
Because brilliance is always out of reach, even to those who are brilliant, fighting impostor syndrome and sometimes losing. But interest, fun, and a bit of work—that is something everyone can do.
And as for me, I’m still trying to clobber my impostor with the periodic table.