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August 6, 2009

Writing and Science

This Extra Ink was written by Teen Ink's SciFi/Fantasy blogger.

Some people believe writing and science are like oil and water; they rarely mix. Science fiction and fantasy writers know better, but sometimes even we need to be reminded of how similar the study of life through words is to the more formal process of the scientific method. As I type this post, I am sitting in a dorm room at MIT as a participant in an engineering camp. MIT is world-renowned for its research, but it is also home to a number of respected authors, including Junot Diaz, whose novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Where better to explore the crossover between science and the humanities?

This week, I was fascinated by the magnitude of research being done at MIT and nearby companies (many of which were spun off from the university) that seemed to have jumped straight out of a science fiction novel. Everywhere you look, someone is working on something that makes you want to shout "wow - that's really cool!" Investigations in robotics and artificial intelligence, focused in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), are especially intriguing. There you can find teams working on a car that can drive autonomously around the city, computer programs that understand spoken commands and respond in kind, plants that detect when they need water and robots programed to automatically tend to them, models for unmanned aircraft patterned on bird flight, wheelchairs that drive themselves, and synthetic brains (designed to mirror those of flatworms, but still). A short T-ride from MIT is a small company called Vecna, whose humanoid BEAR robot will one day rescue injured solders on the battlefield and clean up hazardous materials (and is currently controlled with a Playstation joystick). Even less "cutting edge" machines in MIT labs, like a 3D printer that can create physical objects out of plaster and adhesive from a computer-modeled image, hint at a future transformed by technology. After learning about these types of inventions, it is difficult to imagine not wanting to speculate and write about what might come next.

I hope learning about the science at MIT has given you some ideas for stories. Next week, I will talk about the rewards and challenges of pursuing both writing and science in college through a double major or other methods.

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