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What are good SF stories for teaching science?
February 29, 2012 2:20 PM   Subscribe

What books and short stories would you use for a class trying to teach about science by reading science fiction?

I've got a friend developing a science class that will read science fiction stories and use them for teaching about various scientific topics. I'm trying to help him come up with a reading list of books and short stories. I think he's more interested in stories with good science rather than teaching good science by correcting stories with bad science. He's most interested in physics, but any scientific topic will do, as well as stories about how real science is done. Here's a few examples I've thought of:

"A Walk In The Sun" by Geoffrey A. Landis

"Bow Shock" by Gregory Benford

"Exhalation" by Ted Chiang
posted by straight to Education (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Cold Equations
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:26 PM on February 29, 2012


The Forever War.
posted by pompomtom at 2:28 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


"A Fall of Moondust" by Asimov has some interesting bits about physics in a vacuum.

Demons by Matt McIrvin is an SF twist on Maxwell's Demon.

And I'm currently reading a novel called Perigee, by Patrick Chiles, which is for aerospace nerds what Tom Clancy is for military tech nerds.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:40 PM on February 29, 2012


Cantor's Dilemma?

I also enjoyed Mark Alpert's first book, but the disclaimer here is that I know him on a friendly/social/coworkerly basis. So I can't vouch for it being "classic", but I can vouch that it's written by someone with a solid science writing background.

Would you consider plays, too?
posted by NikitaNikita at 2:42 PM on February 29, 2012


"Neutron Star" by Larry Niven comes to mind
posted by thelonius at 2:43 PM on February 29, 2012


Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward. Famously described by the author as "a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel."
posted by RichardP at 2:45 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every year, one of my high school math teachers would read Heinlein's -And He Built a Crooked House to his honors classes.

We had to learn about the 4th dimension somewhere!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:05 PM on February 29, 2012


Flatland is pretty fun.
posted by susanvance at 3:39 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Try anything by Hal Clement. He was a high school science teacher who wrote several books with aliens and humans exploring high gravity planets and other places with interesting physics and chemistry. They are all short by modern standards, which is an advantage for classroom use.
posted by monotreme at 3:51 PM on February 29, 2012


Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:40 PM on February 29, 2012


I suppose it's fair that I should disclaim my relationship to Matt McIrvin, who is an old acquaintance. He also earned a PhD in Physics from an Ivy League university.

It's not SF, but something close: Dr. Olivers Sacks' "Uncle Tungsten" was part autobiography (he grew up in London before and during the Blitz), part history of the elements, and part geology/chemistry popscience book. The story of his own discoveries sets the stage for the story of elemental discoveries by others. I found it far more fascinating than any prior education I'd had on the same topics.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:16 PM on February 29, 2012


Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy & Physics: A Topical Index
posted by dgeiser13 at 6:34 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Seconding Mission of Gravity. It is like 500 pages of science class for centipedes buccaneers living on a super-terrestrial world. Highly readable with solid science.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:49 PM on February 29, 2012


I've now forgotten the names of most of the specific stories, but there are plenty of Arthur C Clark and Isaac Asimiov short-stories that have an interesting science element.

For example one I *can* name is Summertime on Icarus. That one would make a basis for thinking about what it's like on Mercury, and understanding things about gravity, heat, and Newton's laws.

You probably don't want to use a whole novel because the ratio of reading to science won't be very high. But if you do want to look at novels, Fountains of Paradise is about the concept of a space elevator and what that entails. And Alistair Reynolds is a former astronomer whose novels feature accurate science, including space travel that doesn't violate relativity and takes in neutron stars and the like.
posted by philipy at 8:24 AM on March 1, 2012


stories about how real science is done

The Gods Themselves is a good one.

The science being done is not real, but it's quite nice on the social process of science, wherein reputations are made, ideas are prematurely dismissed and later revived, there's politics to what gets funded etc.

And it very good on the thought experiment of "What if the laws of the universe were a little different?"
posted by philipy at 8:32 AM on March 1, 2012


Thanks for all the suggestions. I had "Neutron Star" and Mission of Gravity in mind, but I'm not sure how well they hold up as stories. The Gods Themselves seems even more of a stretch, unfortunately. I've actually never read any Robert Forward, which I've been meaning to fix for a while now...

I also considered recommending Greg Egan's new book Clockwork Rocket, which follows alien scientists as they discover the laws of thermodynamics, the properties of light, and relativity. Except it's in a universe with different physical laws -- the speed of light varys in proportion to it's wavelength. I enjoyed the story, but it seems like tough going for someone who doesn't already have lots of physics.

I'd also be interested in finding some good stories about biology (esp. genetics and evolution) and/or chemistry. Also, some stuff that's more recent and set on near-modern day Earth might be a good idea.
posted by straight at 8:46 AM on March 2, 2012


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