Guest Post: Science Fiction and
the Scientifically Inclined Hero

by Mike Brotherton

Mike BrothertonWhen 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. Silly me, I logically decided to focus on intellectual achievement.

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 kills them.

Despite this, our popular stories often feature heroes who are stronger or faster than average, even though they would last only a few seconds longer against a tiger. As for bravery? The tiger doesn’t care.

So what about the smart heroes? The ones who think first, fight second, or don’t fight 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 had possessed 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 they have to.


Spider StarOriginally from the St. Louis area, Mike Brotherton got his PhD in astronomy from the University of Texas in 1996, and held positions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Kitt Peak National Observatory before coming to Laramie. His specialty is studying the supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies and how they shine when in the active phase. He is also interested in the relationship between such active galactic nuclei (AGN) and their host galaxies, and their mutual evolution. His work is primarily observational, and he uses a wide assortment of telescopes/observatories operating across the electromagnetic spectrum including WIRO, McDonald, IRTF, KPNO, Lick, Keck, Gemini, the VLT, Hubble, Chandra, and the VLA. He also makes use of data archives such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. In addition to being a scientist, he is a science fiction writer, author of the well-received science fiction novels Star Dragon (2003) and Spider Star (2008) from Tor Books. He is also the founder of the NASA-funded Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers, which brings a dozen award-winning professional writers to Wyoming every summer. He blogs at and loves his fierce cat, Sita.