Writing Excuses 9.34: Science Fiction as Science Education

When Writing Excuses was invited to be guests of honor at Westercon 67, we had the opportunity to interview numerous guests of the convention, each of whom were luminaries in their respective fields.

We met Brad Voytek, who is a doctor of neuroscience and a professor of computational neuroscience at UC San Diego, for the first time right there at the show, and immediately knew that we wanted our listeners to have the chance to hear from him. One of his passions is treating science fiction as a gateway to (and in some cases an actual example of) science education.

He starts by talking about Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep, which teaches the reader about the brain by telling the story of what would happen if a zombie walked in to the emergency room. Mary talks about Launch Pad, the NASA workshop for writers. And then Brandon tells us about blending vegetables into junk food…

We grill Brad mercilessly, and have great fun with the whole show as we talk about some of our favorite science fiction, and a few of our favorite starting points for learning actual science.



A sapient sheep desperately needs a delaying tactic. If it gets shorn, bad things will happen.

The City & The City, by China Mieville, narrated by John Lee.

5 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.34: Science Fiction as Science Education”

  1. Thank you for airing the Westercon67 recordings. I was able to meet Dr. Voytek, but unable to attend the recordings and it rocks!

  2. Asimov is a great model for how to do this both in fiction and in nonfiction. He was a professor of biochemistry until the writing took off. Interestingly, one of his few writing failures was a textbook he did. Another role model is Arthur C. Clark. He did classified research on automated landing systems during WWII and wrote one of the very first technical papers on geosynchronous satellites. He is also credited with the first general introduction to space elevators. I would recommend his earlier fiction over the later. (The dividing line is the sentinel / 2001 a space odyssey.) For those interested in a technical analysis of ‘space opera’ technology, both the real and the fictional stuff I recommend the following link: http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/index.php. The guy who runs the site is actually an illustrator by trade.

  3. This episode reminded of me of Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps, where vampirism is caused by a parasite and every other chapter talks about a real world parasite in a way that was interesting. I now look forward to reading about neuroscience through zombies.

  4. This was an excellent podcast – reminded me of Duke University’s project: http://sites.duke.edu/sciencefactfictionjournal/
    I think academic teaching can take a lot of cues from SF (or sometimes even fantasy) literature to make their fields more exiting to students.

    The City and the City (which I greatly enjoyed) would be a great book for courses in nationalism or political geography, though that’s not my field. I have actually also used SF podcasts for teaching business and economics, which you can read up on here: http://www.diabolicalplots.com/?p=6779 (the site seems to be down right now)

  5. Hey, kid, you wanna learn some science? No. Hey, wanna read a story? Here you go…

    And the kid thought he was just reading about some zombies… he, he, he!

    For those who want to know what zombies, neuroscience, and science fiction are doing stomping around in science education, here’s a transcript!


    Also available in the archives, naturally.

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