"A Place Where Science and Science Fiction Can Be of One Mind"
September 24th, 2012
The New York Times
As befits a meeting ground for scientists and science fiction writers, the new Center for Science and the Imagination grew out of happenstance: a chance meeting last year between the novelist Neal Stephenson and Arizona State University’s president, Michael M. Crow.
Onstage at a technology conference in Washington, Mr. Stephenson was bemoaning the rash of dystopian visions of the future being generated by science fiction writers. (Mr. Stephenson, of course, was a founding author of the dark sci-fi genre known as cyberpunk.)
He also complained that the ambitious science and technology endeavors of the 1960s had become a thing of the past, and argued that American society had lost the vision to make great leaps into the future.
Afterward, Dr. Crow pushed back, saying the fault lay at least in part with the makers and fans of science fiction — for not thinking more ambitiously and optimistically about the future.
Back at Arizona State, Dr. Crow took steps to establish the new center with funds from the president’s office. It was inaugurated on Monday in Tempe.
Its first projects include a collaboration with the chip maker Intel, which has created a Tomorrow Project to generate “science-based” conversations about the future. The center will collaborate with Mr. Stephenson’s online science fiction journal, Hieroglyph, also based at Arizona State, whose mission is to help foster a “moon shot” culture to promote ambitious ideas for scientific and technological projects.
The novelist has been working with an Arizona State structural engineer, Keith Hjelmstad, on an idea that sounds like science fiction: a 12-mile tower to launch vehicles into space. Another author, Cory Doctorow, is working with Kip Hodges, the university’s director of earth and space exploration, on a story idea about sending 3-D printers to the moon to begin manufacturing things from moon dust.
The center’s director, Ed Finn, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, says an even more eclectic group is planned. “I’m really interested in making sure that we include artists and designers and other kinds of creative thinkers as well, people who might define themselves as builders and makers,” he said.
Next spring the center plans to sponsor Emerge, a conference bringing together engineers, scientists, writers and designers to explore the future.
It also plans to invite the science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster to organize a series of campus dinners around sci-fi TV shows, on the theory that “Star Trek” and its ilk have had a powerful effect on the broader culture, helping to shape the way society views science and technology.
“Something that is dismissed as mere entertainment,” Mr. Finn said, “is a frame that we end up using, intentionally or not, to think about the future.”