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Engineering grad's science fiction featured in new book

Zach Berkson science fiction
November 08, 2013

Zachariah Berkson thinks much can be learned about science and engineering – and their societal implications – by exploring them through a creative lens.

That was his goal in writing two science fiction stories that were selected for “Cautions, Dreams & Curiosities,” an anthology of fiction and essays recently published by the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and the Intel Tomorrow Project.

Berkson graduated from ASU earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in the field at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

While at ASU he got involved with the Center for Science and the Imagination and helped the center start a student group, The Imagination Project, that organized discussions about “the humanities and science and how we could use them to build a better future,” Berkson says.

His published sci-fi stories are fashioned around a similar theme, more specifically involving “how the technology we are developing today will change the world,” and the ramifications of our increasing ability to manipulate our environment, he explains.

“Rainmakers” takes place in the future, when technologies have been developed that are capable of controlling the weather. It offers a cautionary message about “how we tend to abuse the natural systems we can control,” he says.

In the preface to “Rainmakers,” Brian Walsh, a TIME magazine reporter on environmental issues, writes that the story provides “a lesson to keep in mind as the debate over geoengineering drifts from the theoretical to the practical,” and possibly sets the stage for unintended consequences resulting from endeavors to “fine-tune the planet.”

His other story in the anthology, “Making a Home,” is about houses that can be grown organically instead of built in the traditional fashion. It examines “what living inside a living thing might be like, and how it might change how people interact with each other in the house, and interact with the house itself,” he says.

Berkson’s story ideas sprung in part from his interest in sustainability and the technology we might use to achieve it. The interest emerged during his time at ASU while conducting research through the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI) under the direction of Jean Andino, an associate professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Berkson worked with Andino’s research group on methods to efficiently convert carbon dioxide into fuel, with the longer-term goal of adapting the process on an industrial scale to provide a viable source of sustainable energy.

The research entailed a highly concentrated focus on technical details. Writing fiction provided Berkson a mental respite from the laboratory. It gave him an outlet to conjure possible future scenarios that might result from our technological advances and how they are used.

“We can get a different perspective on what we are doing by exploring it imaginatively through a creative process like writing,” Berkson says. “I think it’s something that could make us better engineers.”

Berkson is busy with graduate school work, continuing research on technologies for sustainable fuel production and pursuing interests in urban agriculture, crowdsourcing science and do-it-yourself electronics.

But he’s still trying to carve out time for writing. He plans to submit a piece for the next CSI and Intel anthology, “The Future – Powered by Fiction.”

• Read more about the book “Cautions, Dreams & Curiosities.”

• Download the book as a PDF.

• Submit your own creative work for the next Intel-CSI collaboration.