Science Fancy

By: Matthew Battles
October 8, 2010

Earlier this week, science journalist Christopher Mims shared on Twitter the following video, a segment from Disney’s animated documentary Mars and Beyond, which explores the possibilities of life for the red planet from the vantage point of 1957.

It’s wild, isn’t it? I keep expecting Donald Duck to wander into the frame wearing a fishbowl helmet and, you know, wig out.

As we’ve discovered, though, through our mechanical avatars, the surface of Mars itself is both more interesting and more resistant to speculation than we imagined.

But you don’t have to look far to find the same sort of peri-scientific speculation in our own time; as the probes reach further, they’re only pushing the speculation horizon to the outer outer planets.

There’s nothing at all wrong with this sort of thing — as long as we understand that it isn’t science. There ought to be a name for it — and “science fiction” is already taken. I want to call it “science fancy,” recalling the root of the word “fancy” in fantasy. And it easily leaks into science proper, as Lee Billings’s SEED piece on the announcement of the discovery of an near-Earth-mass planet, Gliese 581g, shows. The newly-described planet, one of several found orbiting a red dwarf some 20 light years from Earth, went viral when one of its discoverers, UC-Santa Cruz planetary scientist Steven Vogt, opined that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” As Billings discusses in SEED, Vogt’s enthusiasm is a clear case of science fancy leaking into science.

It’s fun to speculate — it’s essential! But it isn’t science — although the impact it can have on the science that gets done is probably not trivial. Science fancy drives mindshare, after all — and with mindshare, at some professional and bureaucratic remove, comes funding.

When theories are pushed into this kind of speculative territory, it isn’t about science; it’s about filling holes left by the death of God. And the holes aren’t really there.


Codebreaking, Sci-Fi