Carnegie Mellon University
July 30, 2020

Science Fiction During a Science-Fictional Moment

By Jason Maderer

Jason Maderer
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A deadly virus rages around the world, emptying workplaces, restaurants and movie theaters. After weeks and months in isolation, civilization begins to emerge. Many of those venturing outdoors continue to wear masks, hoping to slow the spread of the pandemic.

This is real life. And the stuff of science fiction. The similarities are clear for those who embrace the genre.

Peter Freeman and Tom Werner, teaching professors in Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, are featured in a university-wide story highlighting courses tied to science fiction. The duo taught “Grand Challenge Freshman Seminar: Beyond Earth” during the spring 2020 semester. Students contemplated journeys to other planets and life on them, with the requirement of contemplating and adhering to scientific realities. A final project was writing a 15-page sci-fi story.

“When we switched to remote teaching midway through the term, I thought about Peter’s lectures early in the semester about space travel,” said Werner, who studies linguistics in the Department of Philosophy. “If we’re ever going to get anywhere outside our solar system, it will be on inter-generational starships, stuck with the same people. That sounded a lot like being stuck at home during the pandemic.”

“We know virtually nothing about life on other planets, and when you don’t have the facts, you fill it in with imagination,” said Freeman, an astrostatistician in the Department of Statistics who develops and applies data analysis methods for astronomical datasets. “We challenged our students to consider what’s known scientifically and fill in the gaps with creativity, while respecting the realities of science.”

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