Fact and Fiction in Science Stories

By Marina Poole

A first-person account of correspondent Marina Poole’s reaction to one of The Measure of Everyday Life radio show’s newest episodes, “Uncertainty in Science and Society.”

When it comes to understanding science, it can be really important to get the details straight. But sometimes, for some people, trying to understand all those challenging facts can become, well, pretty boring. Our mission here at TMEL is to make research relevant through story and discussion — something this week’s guest, novelist Chrissy Kolaya, knows a lot about.

Imagine living in a small Midwestern town. It’s a tight-knit community in the 70’s, so you don’t have too much going on in the way of global communication. Fake news sure isn’t a thing. But rumors and misinformation are still prevalent and really powerful.

Now imagine that you just found out that some federal agency is about to begin construction on what they’re calling a “Superconducting Super Collider”. You’re hearing crazy words like hadron, proton synchrotron, phototube detectors, and neutrino beams. People are saying it could pollute the river with radiation. Oh, and by they way, it’s going to run under your house.

Science fiction? Nope, this is real life. Deeply troubled by the news of this strange machine, you’re committed to doing everything in your power to keep this from happening. That is, unless you find out more…

That’s one side of the story in Kolaya’s novel, Charmed Particles. But, there’s multiple sides to every story. The laboratory they’re planning to build might help humanity understand more about the conditions that led to the Big Bang. Yep, I’m talking about the conditions that made the very existence of us and our universe possible.

Given that information, might you be able to envision an alternative situation in which the community in question rallies behind laboratory construction instead of against it? Especially if there was enough clearly-communicated, factual information circulated to dispel the fears?

This is one of the hardest things pertaining to laboratory research that people might forget about: This work probably took decades to build up to where it is, not to mention the years of education each of the researchers went through in order to really understand what they’re doing. But these things inevitably cross paths with political and social considerations too, and it’s not only fair, but necessary, that the communities impacted understand what’s going on before a project of this magnitude can move forward.

That’s where the cross-section of humanities and science becomes so powerful. When characters, rather than facts, are the primary drivers of a story, we can relate to their experiences instead of having to imagine complicated scientific procedures — which we may be capable of, but less willing to put in the effort for.

Change is scary if you aren’t able to understand what the consequences will be, but it’s also really hard to bring facts to life in a digestible way.  Perhaps, if the real community Kolaya’s story fictionalizes had had her novel to turn to, the introduction to unfamiliar technology might not have been such an uncomfortable one .

To hear more about Kolaya and her book, you’ll just have to listen to the episode: https://t.co/rn2uLAb0rF

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