Gaming Science Lecture by Colin Milburn, in Conjunction with the Northern California Science Writers Association

[Article by Suzanne Birrell]

Who is Colin Milburn?

Down deep he is appears happy kid-at-heart who gets paid for playing video games.   How exactly does one get a job playing video games? First go to school and get lots and lots of education.  Colin’s education (for example) includes a Ph.D. /Ph.D. from Harvard University, 2005; M.A. from Stanford University, 1999; B.S. from Stanford University, 1999; and B.A. from Stanford University, 1998.

Sounds like the penultimate nerd?  Let’s add: Colin Milburn joined the UC Davis faculty in 2005 as an Associate Professor of English.  His research focuses on the cultural relations between literature, science, and technology. His interests include science fiction; gothic horror; the history of biology; the history of physics; nanotechnology; video games; and post humanism.

Wow, what a guy.   And I was lucky enough to be able to catch his lecture on Tuesday, October 4, 2011, before the NCSWA.  (That’s Northern California Science Writers Association–I didn’t know before now either).

The subject of the lecture promised to be fascinating:  Does science fiction feed on the outer edges of scientific discovery, or does it actually lead the way – pointing the direction for researchers to follow?

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With that in mind, Colin took us on a journey backwards through time and literature on the subject of Nano Technology–ask your kids or grandkids; no one nearby?  (Nanotechnology -sometimes shortened to “nanotech”-is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale.)

As promised, Colin’s lecture was fascinating.  After getting us all on board about what it was we were talking about, Colin spent substantial time talking about one Richard Feynman, who is credited as the person who discovered Nano technology in 1959.  But did he really?  Colin then took us back in time.  Feynman, Colin reported, referenced a story called “Waldo” penned in 1942 by Robert Heinlein, which was about a synchronous reduplicating pantograph.  This story borrowed an idea (purposely or not?  Who’s to say) from a story penned in 1919 by one Ray Cummings called “The Girl in the Golden Atom.” That story was pretty much plagiarized from a story called “The Diamond Lens” penned in 1858 by Fitz-James O’Brian. (Available online) Was that the first description of Nano technology in literature?

Colin Milburn leaves no stone unturned.  He found an article in a 1858 New York magazine which spoke of a man who had committed suicide claiming that Fitz-James O’Brian had plagiarized the story.

Nano technology was thought of and written about in the middle of the nineteenth century!  First conclusion: Science is in a strong relationship with narrative fiction.

Then we moved forward into video games.  Nano technology is used in games and the video game culture has become the common language of Nano technology.  Not only that, you can buy everything you need to create a Nano manipulator by buying the supplies at a video game store.  There is purposeful collaboration between physicists and video software creators.  Furthermore, the gaming world is now assisting the scientific world with a pattern recognition program-game which is available through Play Station 3 called Folding@home.   Recently, a scientific paper listed the thousands of gamers who had participated in identifying a pattern of proteins which identified a disease as co-authors in the research.

Colin Milburn, was an engaging, entertaining, and thoroughly prepared speaker.  I highly recommend an evening spent listening to him lecture as one well spent. I learned a lot in the two hours which zipped by.  I left enthusiastic about what I had learned.