Colliding Worlds 4: Science fiction

28 July 2014

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our fourth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich finds out how Martin feels about science fiction and the visual arts.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I was kind of wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to science fiction, if you’ve had dialogues or friendships or collaborations with science fiction writers over the years or your interest in it.

Martin Rees

I certainly encourage people to read science fiction. Indeed I tell my students it’s better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science. It’s much more interesting and no more likely to be wrong!

I think imagination can be nourished by the best science fiction. I hugely admire the classics like HG Wells. But a special favourite is Olaf Stapledon who wrote in the 1930s two classic books, one called Star Maker which was a pioneer’s speculation about how universes might be created, and another, Last and First Men, which was one of the first books to actually explore the very very distant future.

These works exemplify how science fiction writers offer an imaginative vision that can inspire all readers, even those who are professional scientists. As regards more recent science fiction, I am not an avid reader of it but I would strongly recommend a wonderful book called Aliens by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart where they in fact condense the plots of a lot of science fiction books. I wish there were more books like this one, because science fiction books are rarely fine works of literature, but are interesting for their ideas. So if you can actually absorb the ideas in a condensed form you don’t lose as much as you would lose in getting a condensed version of a serious work of literature. So I am excited by the concept of science fiction even though I’m not a voracious reader of science fiction.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Wonderful, and what about the visual arts?

Martin Rees

My colleague in Cambridge, John Barrow, has collaborated with Martin Kemp on quite a few activities linking science and arts. I am interested in the visual arts, and particularly admire the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (a friend who seems to me to get far too little critical acclamation compared to others with far less talent and persistence), but I wouldn’t say that art has as much impact on my thoughts in the way that literature and music do.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.