Wednesday, September 14, 2016

H.G. Wells: His Science (Fiction) Is Relevant & Hopeful

Public Education

“The past is but the beginning of a beginning,
and all that is or has been is but the twilight of the dawn.”
H.G. Wells, The Discovery of the Future (1901)

Fiction & Fantasy: An illustration for The War of the Worlds drawn by Henrique Alvim Corrêa (top) and a still from the 1936 film adaptation of The Shape of Things to Come.
Image Credit & Source: Nature
An article, by Simon J. James, in Nature, looks at how H.G. Wells [1866–1946; born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, Kent County, England], one of the most noted science-fiction writers, made science accessible to the masses—something that today's scientists might wish to emulate. Moreover, it was not only a matter of educating the public, but also of giving us a vision of what technology can do, both in the sense of engendering (in the hands of humans) both good and evil.

Wells, a prolific writer (having published more than 100 books), had a burning desire to use his writing to make the world a better place. In many ways, Wells was what today would be referred to as a public intellectual, although he liked to refer to himself as “a journalist.” In “The Worlds of H.G. Wells,” (September 7, 2016), James writes:
Behind Wells’s enormous output was a desire to use writing to make the world better — by projecting either a utopian vision of a perfected future, or dystopias revealing how the lessons of his work went unheeded.
Among his extraordinary achievements, Wells was one of the earliest major English writers to be a trained scientist. The word ‘scientist’ had been coined by historian William Whewell just 33 years before Wells’s birth. Wells — the child of servants-turned-shopkeepers — escaped apprenticeships in drapers’ shops to become a pupil-teacher at Midhurst Grammar School in the south of England. A scholarship propelled him to what is now Imperial College London, where he studied biology under champion of Darwinism T. H. Huxley, graduating in 1890. He never practised as a scientist; nor did he see himself as an ‘artist’, preferring ‘journalist’, particularly later in his career, when politics became more important in his writing.
Wells’s brilliance as a communicator of science drew him to many friendships with scientists — not least Richard Gregory. The astronomer, who was at university with Wells, was Nature‘s second editor. Wells was to publish 25 pieces in the journal over 50 years, inspiring and provoking scores of contemporary thinkers into contributing a rolling tide of correspondence, book reviews, notices and other commentary on his output.
Wells was also publishing inspired books at a furious pace. His first were the scientific textbooks Honours Physiography and Text-book of Biology (both 1893); the latter went into many editions. The topics rapidly ramified. The year 1895 alone saw a short-story collection (The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents), a fantastic romance in which an angel falls to Earth (The Wonderful Visit) and a volume of essays, as well as his first full-length work of fiction, The Time Machine. That book, with Wells’s other late-1890s ‘scientific romances’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, would set the bar for science fiction. They are also among a number of books by Wells that had an impact on science itself.
So much so that Wells’ name is synonymous with the best science fiction, the kind where science informs the fiction, where readers can imagine this taking place in some foreseeable future. Wells wrote his most-popular fiction at a time when there was great faith both in science and in human potential. Even so, Wells was prescient about the dangers that both presented to humanity, if used unwisely.

It would take another few decades for another popular series to take hold of the human imagination: “Star Trek,” which this year celebrates its 50th year, also has a universal moral message steeped in hope that man can survive its mistakes and its bad, sometimes, immoral decisions. The best writers understand that humans like to believe that a positive future is possible while also sensing that this is only possible if we humans make the best-possible moral choices—not an easy task by any means, but worth investigating.

For more, go to [Nature]

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