This article was originally published in the winter 2004 issue of Spectrum (online at http://web.mit.edu/giving/spectrum) and is reprinted here with permission.
"Science fiction has to make sense, but reality doesn't," said Ed Keyes, adding that reading science fiction has blasted open his mind to all that could be possible.
"We don't know how many aliens are out there, or what they're like, or if there are any at all, but science fiction teaches you it's plausible. In reality, weird things and bizarre coincidences actually do happen."
Science fiction stars aliens, cyborgs and clones. It's a world of time travel, telepathy and supercities where people don't die. Sometimes pee-pol-tok-like-ro-bots. Sometimes the setting is Mars. Often there is a Lost City. Frequently there's a takeover. But always, said Keyes, president of MIT's 52-year-old Science Fiction Society, there is a message and a rollicking sense of adventure and fun.
MIT has the largest open-shelf science fiction library in the world--50,000 volumes. The Library of Congress actually has more volumes, but it doesn't let you browse the shelves.
MIT has more than 90 percent of all science fiction published in English, including fantasy, high-tech and horror. And there is a huge collection of magazines and several thousand volumes of foreign language books and magazines. The Science Fiction Society also produces the Twilight Zine (as in magazine), which accepts science fiction submissions or science-fiction related stories, art and book reviews.
Students say they read science fiction as an escape, to relieve the stress of student life. They read it to spark new ideas in science. And they read it for sheer fun.
"I love science fiction," said Keyes, who has read 400 novels. "It helped me to develop an imagination."
Keyes graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in physics and math. At MIT he's earning a Ph.D. in plasma astrophysics. The son of a physicist and a chemist, he was raised on science.
"My parents were the kinds of people who would pull out the telescope on Saturday night and stargaze, rather than going to a movie," said Keyes, who quickly developed a love of science as a child, playing often with chemistry sets, Legos and his own computer.
At age eight, his interest in science led him to science fiction, and he zoomed through one book after another. Recently, Keyes began writing his own science fantasy novel. "As a physicist, I'm unable to work with magic without definite laws to follow. I hope the result will be a tightly plotted mini-epic exploring the drive for immortality, the relation between science and magic, quantum mechanics, and true love," he said.
Keyes said science fiction has been invaluable to his work as a scientist. "Reading science fiction is a great way to move beyond life as we know it, without actually having to go to Mars," he said.
One of the values of reading this literature is that often stories probe probable futures, Keyes said. As a result, it's made him think deeply about the moral and ethical implications of science.
"A good amount of science fiction is a cautionary tale," said Keyes. "When it comes to artificial intelligence or genetic engineering, the consequences of what we do could be terrible and terrifying. It's made me think about the effects that science can have on others in the long term and made me think more responsibly.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but I know the future is not set. Science fiction is a way to try on various possibilities, and to think through what might happen if you follow a particular course," Keyes said. "By getting people to think ahead, we can plot a future that we want, rather than one we don't. Some authors have worked out logical, plausible ways that humans could either become gods or become extinct. I realize now we have a choice.
"The more you read, the more you realize you know nearly nothing at all. When your world view is fixed, you're confident that all you know is true. But after reading science fiction, it expands your thinking. Imagining the impossible realigns your view," Keyes said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 7, 2004.