Podcast with Vandana Singh: Science Fiction and the Future of Science: Data, Narrative, and Transdisciplinarity

Vandana Singh, transdisciplinary scholar and science fiction author, shares her view on the potential of science fiction to shape the future of science in the Centre for Science Futures' new podcast series, in partnership with Nature.

Podcast with Vandana Singh: Science Fiction and the Future of Science: Data, Narrative, and Transdisciplinarity

Scientists and researchers increasingly value science fiction for its contributions to anticipating future scenarios. As part of its mission to explore the directions in which changes in science and science systems are leading us, the Centre for Science Futures sat down with six leading science fiction authors to gather their perspectives on how science can meet the many societal challenges we will face in the next decades. The podcast is in partnership with Nature.

In our third episode, we have the pleasure of hosting Vandana Singh, who shares her perspectives on the intersection of science and fiction. Our conversation delves into the boundaries of data, the influence of narrative, and explores the question of whether our perception of time can guide us in contemplating responsibility in science.

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Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh is a science fiction writer, a transdisciplinary scholar of climate change at the intersection of science, society and justice, and a professor of physics and environment at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, USA. She was born and raised in New Delhi, India and now resides near Boston, Massachusetts.


Paul Shrivastava 00:04:

Welcome to this podcast on science fiction and the future of science. I’m Paul Shrivastava from the Pennsylvania State University. In this series, I’m speaking to award-winning science fiction authors from around the world. I want to harness the power of their imagination to discuss how science can help us deal with the biggest challenges of this century.

Vandana Singh 00:27:

You can see the climate as a problem of changing and broken relationships.

Paul Shrivastava 00:33:

Today, I’m talking to Vandana Singh who teaches physics full-time at Framingham State University, but also has produced many science fiction stories, including The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Delhi. Their themes span from Earth renewal to time travel. We discussed the limits of data, the power of narrative, and whether our conceptions of time could help us think about responsibility in science. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome Vandana, and thank you for joining this podcast. Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship with science?

Vandana Singh 01:15:

I’m very glad to be here. Thank you for the warm welcome. One of the things I realized when I was quite young is that I couldn’t do without science, but I also couldn’t do without literature and the arts. I realized that I think about science kind of similar to the way I think about stories, because science to me is one way of eavesdropping on the conversations that nature is having. That matter has with matter, for example. And so the storyteller part of me is a way of conversing with Mother Nature, too, because in the imaginative realm of speculative fiction, you can push back a little bit and say, well, Mother Nature, what if it wasn’t this way?

Paul Shrivastava 02:02:

So tell us a little bit more about how in your own work you depict scientific endeavours or science systems broadly.

Vandana Singh 02:11:

In many stories, I write about scientists who are working on their own because they are in some sense renegades. They have perhaps a more holistic view of what science is or what science should be. And it’s kind of ironic because you know, of course, science is a collective enterprise. In many of my stories, I am thinking about what the process of discovery is like, and I’m also trying to push against this notion that there is a subject–object separation, with the excuse of objectivity we have in science that you’re separate from what you observe. And to me, isn’t it more honest to simply, you know, say who we are before we start looking at something and trying to understand it because we are part of what we are studying.

Paul Shrivastava 03:04:

I have railed against this separation of subjectivity and objectivity in a lot of my own writings. And I want to push this a little bit further because I want to explore with you some of the tropes in science that are problematic that you have used in your work. And how does one attempt to overcome them and get what you refer to as a more holistic view of what is happening in the world?

Vandana Singh 03:30:

Well, I think it begins with the history of my own field of physics. If you look at Newtonian physics, it’s based on this shattered mirror view of nature, that you can understand the world if you understand its parts. And that has taken us really far, and it is a powerful way of thinking. But unfortunately for us, the world is not actually like that. But if you look at this Newtonian vision, everything is machine-like whether you’re talking about physics or whether you’re talking about the human body or even social organization. And the thing about machines is that machines are controllable, right?

So it gives you a delusion of control, and it’s not a coincidence that this view arises at the time at the height of colonialism. And colonialism has two aspects. Of course, one aspect is the mastery of one group of people over another, and that exploitation of that second group, but it’s also the mastery of humans over nature. If, like indigenous peoples around the world, if we recognize that the world is a priori complex, that the world is a priori relational, then it’s the simple Newtonian systems that become the small subsystem of the whole. And instead, we have it the other way around and that’s a problem.

Paul Shrivastava 04:58:

So going into the future, is there an alternative way of viewing knowledge and doing knowledge acquisition, of knowledge creation, that would be superior to science? Is narrative a more holistic approach?

Vandana Singh 05:16:

Wow, that’s a big question, and I wish I was wise enough to have a good answer to it. I really think that the power of narrative is crucial. Now, I know that some fellow scientists will push back and assume that I’m saying that, you know, data doesn’t matter. That’s not what I’m saying, actually. Data also tells stories. But sometimes the stories that data tells us are insufficient because that doesn’t open our minds to the questions we haven’t asked yet. Part of the problem is we are getting seduced by data, data, data. Let’s recognize, let’s contextualize, the role of data and numbers within a larger, more generous and more holistic framework. That does put narrative in front as a starting point. The thing about stories is, and especially carefully curated good stories, is that they’re rich and they transcend disciplines because that’s, that’s what the world is. Nature doesn’t make distinctions between physics, chemistry, biology and art. You can’t just teach the science. You have to teach how science relates to the world. You have to teach what’s happening in the world as well.

Paul Shrivastava 06:35:

Amazing. This is such a rich answer here. I want to move on to talking about something that I know you’re very interested in and you have explored in your works — the concept of time. Do you think alternative perceptions of time can help us think about our responsibilities in science?

Vandana Singh 06:56:

Well, you know, the linear notion of time is the one that dominates in science. So we think about the time axis that is stretching from the past, through the present into the future, into infinity, and that’s of course a useful thing. But we know from physics that time is not that simple. That, for instance, time depends on speed, and time also depends on gravity. So time is a very slippery concept, and yet we seem to have embraced this one very oversimplified view of time. When I try to expand my temporal imagination, I thought of time as a kind of braid rather than as a infinitesimally thin line. And then I read an essay by the Native American Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte, which is called Time as Kinship, about time in the context of the climate crisis. But what Kyle Whyte points out is that when you see this looming catastrophe, which is already happening in so many parts of the world to so many communities, your reaction is naturally one of fear that, or terror that this horrible thing is happening.

And what do we do when we are afraid? We tend to stop thinking creatively for one thing. Not just that, but politically we see that people give up their agency when they’re afraid. They want strongmen or they want, you know, the technocrats to take over. Technology is going to solve it, and someone else is going to solve the problem. The alternative, and what Kyle Whyte points out in his essay, is that if you see the climate as a problem of changing and broken relationships… So if we think about people working together to remake ourselves and the world, it’s not just that when people work together, things get done faster. It’s that the subjective experience of time changes; more things get done, there’s more creativity, you are less susceptible to fear. And if we can build that, then maybe there’s hope.

Paul Shrivastava 09:08:

Thank you for listening to this podcast from the International Science Council’s Center for Science Futures, done in partnership with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego. Visit futures.council.science for the extended versions of these conversations, which will be released in January 2024. They delve deeper into science, its organization and where it could take us in the future.

Join us next week when I’ll be having a conversation with deeply thoughtful Fernanda Trías, author of Pink Slime.

Paul Shrivastava, Professor of Management and Organizations at Pennsylvania State University, hosted the podcast series. He specialises in the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals. The podcast is also done in collaboration with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego.

The project was overseen by Mathieu Denis and carried by Dong Liu, from the Centre for Science Futures, the ISC’s think tank.

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The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.


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