Science Fiction and the Scientifically Inclined Hero

October 10th, 2011

When I was about six or so, I realized that what separated humans from other animals was our intelligence rather than our physical capabilities.  Sure, there are other differences, such as the degree of tool use, or the social aspects of our species and how we employ culture and altruism to lead to ever increasing success, but ultimately we’re smart critters.  We figure out how to do really complicated things both as individuals and as groups working together.

So, I logically decided to focus on intellectual achievement.  Silly me, at least until later in life.

Little did I know that being tall leads to advantages in society, or that athletic scholarships are much bigger than academic scholarships.  In some meta context, it really does seem crazy to reward freaks of physical achievement when there are animals faster, stronger, and much more physically capable than humans.  A guy I knew once put it this way: you can measure someone’s athleticism by how many seconds they last before a tiger could kill them.

Despite this, our popular stories often feature heroes who are stronger, faster, and braver than other normal people.  Even though they would last only a few seconds longer than a tiger, or less for the bravely stupid ones.  The tiger doesn’t care how determined you are.

As a 1980s supercomputer might learn, the only way to win is not to play.  The smart person doesn’t get into the arena with the tiger.

So where are the smart heroes?  The ones who think first, fight second, or not at all?

Science fiction has them.  At least more than other genres.

I remember being impressed with Star Trek’s Captain Kirk as a kid.  Not because he could karate chop unsuspecting alien guards into unconsciousness with one blow, but because he could think his way to victory as often as not.  To wit, Kirk vs. the Gorn.


It wasn’t a very good fight scene, I grant. And if the Gorn was a tenth the speed of a tiger, Kirk would have been toast. What I loved, however, was that physical prowess could not defeat the alien, but intelligence could. Kirk recognized the components of a weapon in his environment and used his smarts to triumph. That was a message that made sense to me then, and still does.

When dealing with other humans in contemporary settings, sometimes being stronger or faster is plenty to carry the day. When your rivals are enhanced humans, robots, aliens, or other beings with physical capabilities beyond those of normal people, only superior scientific knowledge, technology, or cleverness can prevail.

So let’s celebrate our smart heroes, from science fiction and any other field. Let’s hear it for Kirk, Spock, Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter, the Professor, Walter Bishop, Sherlock Holmes, Dana Scully, House, McGuyver, the Antonio Banderas character in the 13th Warrior, Reed Richards, Jadzia Dax, Tony Stark, Willow, and others who show that scientists are not only mad villains, but heroes and role models to anyone who wants to avoid fighting the tiger, or to kill it if you have to.


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