By Claire Roth (MA 2017), WIC GTA

Scientist and best-selling science fiction author David Brin visited Oregon State’s campus in the beginning of October, an event made possible by the collaborative project “SPARK: Arts + Science @ OSU.” Brin gave a well-attended lecture open to the Corvallis community, visited classes and labs on campus, and conducted a small workshop and interdisciplinary conversation about sci-fi prototyping, all in the short time he spent with us. Brin talked enthusiastically about the potential for writing collaboration between the sciences and the humanities. His ideas could have an exciting impact on Oregon State’s writing culture.

To understand the potential for Brin’s ideas to create more collaborative writing projects on campus, I asked two of our faculty, Dr. Raymond Malewitz and Dr. Bill Smart, to comment on Brin’s lecture and workshop.

Raymond Malewitz is an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film and is the director of the MA program in English. His research and writing projects primarily focus on the intersections between literature, science, environmental concerns, and material culture. Dr. Malewitz introduced David Brin before his lecture titled “Adaptations: Storytelling in Novels and Film.”

Bill Smart is an associate professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering. His research in robotics aims primarily at the intersection between humans and robots. He also does work in machine learning with an emphasis on strategies for training long-term robot actions. Dr. Smart was one of the coordinators and facilitators of David Brin’s workshop on sci-fi prototyping.

Question 1: David Brin made the comment that if a person can prove their chops, then they can invade other fields. Do you ever find yourself “invading” other fields during your research? If so, which fields did you find most surprising or unexpected?

Malewitz: “As a scholar of science and lit, I invade fields all the time, which has led to some fascinating conversations with people far removed from English lit.  Last year, I met with a veterinary scientist at OSU to discuss the surveillance of zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread between animals and humans).  During the conversation, we both reflected on the significance of the fact that reverse zoonoses (humans infecting animals) are poorly represented in lit and culture, which may reflect upon our own biases regarding our status within the animal kingdom.”

Smart: “All the time.  Since I work in robotics, I’m forced to dabble in a lot of other fields to get things working.  I’m a computer scientist by training, but I dip into mechanical engineering, mathematics, psychology, art, and a number of other fields in the course of my research.  None of this is particularly deep, but I do get the chance to talk to and collaborate with domain experts in all of these areas.  I find psychology the most unexpected, since it’s the field that I know least about.  It’s also the one where I think that I learn the most, probably because of the excellent set of collaborators that I work with.”

Question 2: Brin described science fiction writing as “speculative history,” then connected the idea to the workshop by calling it an exercise in “speculative technology.” To what extent does speculation appear in your field? What kinds of speculative work do you find yourself doing?

Malewitz: “Speculative fiction is near and dear to me.  In recent articles, I’ve written about how emerging and future technologies affect human behavior and our sense of orientation within the world—something that fiction can do quite well.  For example, I’ve become interested in the ways that enormous clean energy projects—wind and solar farms, etc.—affect our understanding of regionalism, which in American literature tends to be preoccupied with natural rather than artificial elements of the landscape.  I’ve also written about a great recent novel by Gary Shteyngart called Super Sad True Love Story, which speculates on the future (or current) effects of social media on politics.”

Smart: “I think that, in robotics, you [speculate] all the time.  You have to imagine how these new things will change our lives, and how they will integrate with the way we do things now.  Part of that is doing what-if experiments with technology, and then trying to close the gap between what we can do now and the scenario the what-if creates.  My hunch is that a lot of research proceeds in this way.”

Question 3: One of the results of our time with David Brin is a possibility for collaborative projects between writers, scientists, and engineers here at Oregon State. What do you think your field could gain from this collaborative relationship? What kinds of projects would you hope to see evolve?

Malewitz: “Some great collaborative possibilities are starting to emerge at OSU under the umbrella category of “Environmental Humanities,” which attempts to represent the dynamic features of our environment in ways similar to the manner by which historians, literary scholars, and philosophers represent human activity.  This fusion works quite nicely when applied to things that fall between the categories of the social and natural worlds, including anthropogenic climate change, stem cell research, and artificial modes of human and nonhuman reproduction.”

Smart: “I’d really like to see a science fiction prototyping group emerge here on campus.  A group of people familiar with the technologies we use (particularly in robotics, which is my thing), who write short, near-future speculative fiction to frame the sorts of technological and ethical questions that we should be thinking about today.  Ideally this group would comprise both writers and technologists, since getting us to think critically about our technology is an important part of the process.”

Most of our WIC Program focuses on writing as it appears in our separate disciplines. David Brin’s visit and the enthusiasm of both Dr. Malewitz and Dr. Smart prove there is something to be said for writing across disciplines as well. We work hard to prepare students to write well during their professional lives. It’s also worthwhile to remind students while they are here that they have an opportunity for collaboration unique to college life. Where else but a college campus is it so convenient to explore writing with someone outside your discipline? My hope for our campus is to see the collaborative projects described above come to life as our writing culture at Oregon State continues to grow.

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