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The Sword of Achilles

Does early interest in science fiction predicts future scientific careers or accomplishments?

This copy of “The Sword of Achilles” is derived from the version on pages 17-18 in the November 1963 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists hosted on Google Books. I typed it up for use in my “Culture is not about Esthetics” essay; all Wikipedia links are my own insertion. Further reading:

The Sword of Achilles

Around 1200 B.C. (the story goes) the Greek forces were gathering in preparation for their assault on the city of Troy. An oracle had foretold that the assault would be in vain unless the young Achilles joined the Greek army. But Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, had dressed her son in women’s clothes and had hidden him among the court ladies on the Aegean island of Scyros. She knew that if he went to Troy he would be killed there, and, mother-like, she found the prospect displeasing.

To Scyros came a delegation of Greeks under the leadership of the wily Odysseus. It would not have been politic to search the ladies in order to detect the man among them, but Odysseus specialized in the indirect method anyway. He laid out an assortment of fine clothing and jewels and asked the ladies to help themselves, which they did with much delight.

Among the luxuries, half hidden, was a sword. And one of the taller maidens strode forward, seized it, and flourished it with a shout. The “maiden” was, of course, Achilles, who thereupon went to Troy and his death.

Wars are different these days. Both in wars against human enemies and in wars against the forces of nature, the crucial warriors now are our creative scientists.

Creative scientists are both born and made. The spark is there, presumably, to begin with, but it can all too easily be extinguished. A serious task facing educators today, therefore, is to devise methods of teaching that will foster creativity in youngsters.

“Now and then, Pierce maintains that he might have chosen another career for himself–as a historian, perhaps, or even a poet–but the fact is that there was never any real doubt about the direction of his main interest…he devoured scientific literature of all kinds, good and bad. ‘There were fewer good books on science then’, he said recently, :and fewer teachers who knew anything about it. I read all the popular-science magazines, and I was fascinated by science fiction, which probably did me no harm. It casts a rosy glow over the whole field of science, but I don’t think that kind of enthusiasm is bad for people.’”

–from a profile of John R. Pierce (director of communications research, Bell Laboratories) in the September 21 [1963] New Yorker

But teaching for creativity is itself a wholesale consumer of creativity. It requires superlatively good teachers and highly imaginative techniques. To spread such education broadcast, even if we could, would be wasteful. Although all normal human beings possess a measure of creativity (when one thinks of the many discoveries that a child must make in the course of growing up, who can doubt that?), the gift is certainly greater in some than in others, and it may not always incline in the direction of the sciences. Clearly, then, if our society is to develop creativity in science with maximum efficiency, we must seek out the richest ore; we must find the children with the greatest potential and focus our best efforts upon them. But how does one detect a potential creative scientist?

There are infant prodigies, of course. There could be no doubt that the young Arrhenius [Svante Arrhenius?] and the young Gauss were destined for great things if they lived, even if they were miseducated. On the other hand, Isaac Newton showed no great promise until he was about sixteen. At a superficial glance it is even possible sometimes to confuse budding creativity with retarded mentality or with juvenile delinquency, both of which were suspected in Edison’s case.

Men have tried to devise tests for creativity, and they have sought to arrive at empirically selective criteria by listing the qualities that individuals known to be creative have in common. But all such tests and all such sets of criteria are alike in being fuzzy, uncertain, and extremely controversial.

What we need is a simple test, something as simple as the sword of Achilles. We want a measure that will serve, quickly and without ambiguity, to select the potentially creative from the general rank and file. We would not ask that such a test single out all youngsters with the spark we seek. I think most of us would be satisfied if it served to cull out a subgroup in which the incidence of potential creativity in science was substantially increased over that in the general population.

I would like to suggest such a sword of Achilles. It is simply this: an interest in good science fiction.

Today’s Achilles Test

This suggestion is not a mere guess on my part. It is based upon estimates of (I believe) reasonable validity. Let me spell them out.

I am myself, among other things, a science fiction writer of some reputation, and I know just how well my books sell. One of them has sold, in all American editions including the paperback, some 400,000 copies. A number of these have been bought by libraries, where perhaps dozens of people have read each copy. On the other hand, many people may have bought a paperback copy and then merely leafed through it casually, without interest. Let us suppose, reasonably enough, that these two sources of error largely cancel each other; we can then place the total number of individuals interested in science fiction in the United States at 400,000.

This is a deliberately generous estimate, because I am told that my science fiction sells better than average and I have chosen the one of my books that has sold best. By this generous estimate, then, with the population of the United States totaling 180,000,000, we can say that one out of every 450 Americans is interested in science fiction.

Consider next that for a quarter of a century I have also lived and worked in the academic world and have moved in circles where I met many creative scientists. Half of these, I should say (and I do not refer to all the scientists I have known but only to those I judged creative), have read science fiction at some time in their lives.

At a recent conference on methods of teaching creativity in science which I attended, I suggested this estimate in private conversation, and the person to whom I was speaking maintained vehemently that not 50 per cent but 95 per cent of those present had some interest in science fiction. But let us put his higher percentage down to enthusiasm and stick to my 50 per cent: one in two.

It could be argued that a scientist’s interest in science fiction is merely a reflection of his professional preoccupation. I do not believe this is often the case, since one rarely begins reading science fiction in adulthood. The habit starts in adolescence as a rule, and interest in science is stimulated by the reading rather than the reverse.

Compare, then, the conservative estimate of a one-in-two incidence of interest in science fiction among creative scientists with the generous estimate of one-in-450 incidence in the general population. One can only conclude that by the single, simple process of choosing all science fiction readers among, let us say, ten- to fifteen-year-olds, one can concentrate the incidence of potential scientific creativity by a larger factor.

The Test of Science Fiction

It is important for our purpose, of course, to understand precisely what we mean by “science fiction”. Unfortunately, in mass usage the term is most often applied to the monster productions of Hollywood. These are no more science fiction than the advertising spiels for pain-relievers on television are medical science. Nor are the maunderings of the comic books much, if at all, better.

The science fiction that could serve as a sword of Achilles is an adult literature, interested (sometimes seriously, sometimes satirically) in the type of world and society that will develop as a result of changes in science and technology.

The quickest way to detect good science fiction is by its authors. It is a difficult medium to handle, and a skilled author in the field will always turn out an interesting work, whereas an unskilled author, however good a writer he may be in the general sense, will almost always produce a trite, dull tale. Robert A. Heinlein is usually considered the leading light among good science fiction writers. Others with a fine grasp of science and a fascinatingly imaginative view of its future possibilities are Arthur C. Clarke, Frederick Pohl, Damon Knight, James Blish, Clifford D. Simak, Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Walter Miller, A.J. Budrys… These are by no means all.

Good science fiction can also be identified by the place in which it appears. Of the magazines devoted to it, three are universally acknowledged to be of highest quality: Analog Science Fact and Science Fiction (until recently known as Astounding Science Fiction), The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy.

It is youngsters who are interested in these authors and these magazines, then, that we seek for.

The Test of Teachers

If there is any validity in all this, and I am sure there is, it seems a shame that forces sometimes operate to inhibit a youngster’s enjoyment of science fiction. These forces often have their source in the English departments of our junior high schools and high schools. English teachers are not usually interest in either science or science fiction. Uncomfortable with tales of a world that is alien and seems fantastic to them, they take the easy way out and lump all science fiction with the absurdities found in comic books and monster movies. The easy way, but an unfortunate one.

I have received a great many letters from youngsters who are unhappy and puzzled because their English teachers not only denounce science fiction but penalize the student who makes use of a science fiction theme in writing a composition.

This tendency is diminishing, I think, but I would like to see it disappear. It would seem only fair that science fiction be integrated with literature as a whole and be judged, like other forms of writing, on its merits. If English teachers, through lack of experience, have trouble distinguishing good science fiction from bad, they have only to ask the help (and I say this in all seriousness) of any bright twelve-year-old in their classes.

If science fiction were freely available in school libraries, and if students were not browbeat out of reading it, I dare say our sword of Achilles would suit us very well. It would not, of course, pick up every potentially creative scientist. And the percentage of such promising persons in the population is probably so low that even after a many-fold concentration we would still be left with a subgroup containing a non-creative majority. Nevertheless, we would have rich pickings indeed in the selected group, compared with those in an unselected lot.

And I defy anyone to suggest another method equally simple and quick which would concentrate potential scientific creativity to so great an extent.

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