Today at Berkeley Lab

Where Science and Fiction Meet: Researchers Use Lab Inspiration in Their Writing

Corie Ralston and Joe Silber talk about connections between their Berkeley Lab careers and their science fiction writing

— By Keri Troutman

Corie Ralston, a biochemist and head of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology, has been writing science fiction since the third grade, when she penned a play about a giant, time-traveling potato. These days, she’s still writing science fiction, but it’s informed by a degree in physics, a doctorate in biophysics, and 15 years of protein crystallography research at Berkeley Lab. Ralston has published more than a dozen short stories and completed a draft of her first novel, set in a post-apocalyptic Bay Area.

Ralston was recently invited to speak about science fiction at a conference held by the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that creates reading and discussion programs. Crafting her talk about the intersection between science and science fiction gave Ralston a chance to reflect on the emergence of science fiction as a genre, and how it has paralleled the acceleration of scientific discovery over the past century.

“A hundred years ago we didn’t know how genetic information was passed from one organism to another,” says Ralston. “Now we know the structure of DNA, we’ve mapped the human genome, we can construct human organs, store unbelievable amounts of information in tiny spaces, and send semi-intelligent robots to Mars.”

“As we explore, understand, and manipulate more and more of the world around us, and as more of that knowledge becomes accessible to a wider population, fiction wanders into these realms to pick up where science leaves off — asking “What if?” She adds that some of the most notable science fiction novels in history have followed a key scientific discovery, and taken it a step or two further to ask the “What If?” question — right before Mary Shelly wrote “Frankenstein,” the first experiments with galvanism had taken place, and when submarines were being developed, Jules Verne wrote “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

Ralston points out that because science fiction employs the extrapolation of science, it can explore themes of mainstream fiction in different ways. “If fiction shines light on an object, then science fiction illuminates it with light from a different sun,” she says.

What Are Ralston’s Favorite Science Fiction Novels?
“Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood and “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

 

 

 

As for her science informing her own science fiction writing, Ralston says she does get some ideas from her research, and she often works her favorite scientific concepts into her writing. “I love the idea of science as a metaphor,” she says. “One of my short stories made use of the physics concept of quantum entanglement—the idea that once two particles have interacted, even if they’re far apart they continue to influence one another.”

“The idea that things can be physically distant and still influence one another intrigues me, and I think that influence is present between people too,” says Ralston. “A lot of my writing also incorporates references from the daily life of a scientist, which I think gives stories a certain sense of verisimilitude, since I’m so familiar with even the more banal aspects of science.”

Joe Silber, a Berkeley Lab engineer who works on the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), also uses experiences from his daily life in the scientific world to inform his science fiction. Silber has published three novels (“The Ecstasies of Willaert,” “Bum,” and “Gudhal”) and is just finishing up his fourth, which features a genetics researcher whose experiments have gotten a bit out of hand.

“Working at Berkeley Lab, I have daily interactions with scientists and access to all of these lab spaces where science actually happens,” says Silber. “I experience the visual, sensorial aspects firsthand, and I see and understand how long it takes to set up experiments and what’s really involved — all of that adds a lot of texture to my stories.”

“There’s a long sequence in my book where the main character is trying to get these gene sequencing machines she’s set up to work properly — there’s a lot of trial and error,” says Silber. “I think it holds together dramatically, and I think it would be hard to accomplish that without some sense of the real problems the character might face.”

What Are Silber’s Favorite Science Fiction Novels?
“Existence” by David Brinand and “The Plague” by Albert Camus

 

 

 

Working as an engineer also inspires his attention to the craft of writing, Silber says. “I’m engaged in all these projects where things have to work, things have to be right, and I think that’s helpful in writing fiction as well—to have those habits and always be thinking about the details and whether things really work.”