My first literary heroes were Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury. I discovered them both at roughly the same time (Sagan through the PBS series "Cosmos" and Bradbury by dint of scouring every bookstore in town for interesting reading material). I devoured everything both had written, and found a satisfying complementarity between them.
Sagan offered a panoramic view of history, science, and literature; his vision was wide and deep, but he also sidestepped any trace of fuzziness in his thinking. Sagan’s lines of reasoning were always precise, rigorous, and concerned with factuality rather than comfort. Sagan was the one who brought fundamental precepts of science to popular culture. If it’s possible, Sagan told us, then it must, by necessity, exist; but, he cautioned, very little (out of everything we might imagine) is possible, given the physical laws under which the universe and everything it contains must function.
Moreover, Sagan observed, while grand and astonishing things really do exist, any time we think we have found something extraordinary we must be prepared to hold off throwing ourselves into new beliefs (or creating new and elaborate systems of belief) until we have sufficient evidence at hand to warrant those beliefs: "Extraordinary claims," he once wrote (and I may be misquoting here) "require extraordinary evidence."
But while the scientific method, when applied correctly and with exacting, uncompromising standards, offers us the possibility of true enlightenment, science can also provide us with powerful tools that we simply don’t know how to use: The atomic bomb, for instance, or genetic engineering, or technically complex and highly advanced means of placing people under surveillance. Science tells us what is possible, and how to achieve those possibilities, but not what to do with those achievements once we’ve made them.
Indeed, it’s part and parcel of the scientific method that "morality" is left out of the process and not addressed as part of the conclusions of any purely scientific investigation. Science is about facts, and about inquiry; science will give us the chemistry and metallurgy required to create a gun, but doesn’t tell us under what conditions it is ethically or legally permissible to fire that gun.
But human beings are characterized by more than big brains. We’re set apart from other animals not only by an ability to make complicated tools, but by an ability to assess situations using an ethical sensibility. (Acting ethically is, of course, another matter entirely.) Science by itself cannot be our guide; we need a strong ethical sense, and fair, rational standards by which to apply those ethics.
Bradbury balanced the equation of my reading life back in the day. It’s not just that Bradbury was a writer of science fiction, though that’s certainly part of it. Science fiction is, as speculative writer George Zebrowski has said, a way of rehearsing for the future. The genre asks questions about science and technology that the scientific method avoids: What will a given innovation mean for us? How can we use technology for our betterment, but avoid allowing it to empower the darker side of our still too-savage human nature? What risks attend the rewards yielded by careful, methodical study and systematic application of basic principles of scientific inquiry?