Reading Sci-Fi as a Scientist

This is a guest post from Linh Anh Cat. Linh Anh Cat is a scientist who loves reading so much she does it for work and fun. She likes to read while solo traveling, on hikes, and in between serious board games. She is passionate about diversity and representation in science and when recommending books. You can find her on Twitter at @LinhAnhCat.


I’m a scientist, and science fiction is my favorite genre. Reading an awe-inspiring sci-fi chapter and then returning to my real-life job in the lab occasionally feels like a “reality vs. expectation” meme, but overall my love for one increases my love for the other.

I started reading sci-fi at the end of middle school, which is around the time that girls start to lose their natural interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) because of outside pressures. Sci-fi was one of my favorite genres because I liked thinking about the implications of scientific developments (surprise, surprise, I read a ton of Michael Crichton). Reading about futuristic worlds made going to my science classes a whole lot more interesting as a teenager. Loving sci-fi probably buffered me against the challenges and obstacles plenty of people face growing up.

Now that science is a full-time gig for me, I love sci-fi even more. It’s hard to decide which is cooler—the technologies and worlds born in the mind of sci-fi authors, or discoveries I get to learn about or study almost everyday. I’m a microbial ecologist—I get to work with the best of macro and micro worlds. I look for big picture patterns in a world teeming with tiny microbes.

In many ways, the micro world is like sci-fi because of the crazy and unexpected processes and challenges microbes face. Air is as thick as molasses and your shape no longer matters aerodynamically. What we perceive as color may actually be texture and resources that seem pretty evenly spread out to us humans are actually separated islands for microbes. Both science and sci-fi constantly remind me that things aren’t always as they seem, and it’s always good to question your assumptions.

Speaking of assumptions, combating stereotypes and increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM is a huge passion of mine. Science has traditionally been a place that is heavily male and very white. Everyone in society benefits when scientists are diverse (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and beyond). With diversity, you get a variety of viewpoints and unique methods of troubleshooting which is critical to science. And I feel the same about reading sci-fi—diversity is better! I make an effort to read authors that have a different perspective than the status quo or my own upbringing as a first-generation Asian American. Recent examples in my reading list include N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Cixin Liu, whose books have “non-traditional” characters with depth and who write with a layer of their own culture, which allows you to get a taste how the other half of the world lives.

The best thing about sci-fi is that it’s not just for scientists. The feeling of wonder I get while reading an incredibly awesome yet believable passage on dramatic interstellar events is actually pretty similar to what I feel when I listen to new research discoveries. As a scientist who reads sci-fi, I’m happy that the world gets to experience the same feeling of discovery and awe through sci-fi novels.

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