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Science fiction author and engineer speaks at MU

Saturday, March 8, 2008 | 7:10 p.m. CST; updated 7:58 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Arlan Andrews

COLUMBIA — Science fiction writers and fans are often seen as crazy or “out there,” but that image is starting to change thanks to Arlan Andrews.

Andrews, an engineer and the author of dozens of science fiction short stories, is using his imagination to help the government solve problems. In a lecture at MU’s Memorial Union on Friday, Andrews focused on how science fiction authors and government officials can work together to solve issues in the fields of engineering and technology.

Andrews worked as a White House fellow in the Office of Science and Technology and said he often got frustrated when his ideas weren’t taken seriously.

Because of that, he started Sigma, a think tank made up of science fiction writers with technical and medical degrees, to advise government officials.

“I wanted science fiction writers who are also inventors, technologists, scientists and engineers to get some of their opinions into the government,” Andrews said.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security contacted Sigma to consult with the company on national issues. The department wanted ideas on topics including technology in maritime shipping, geophysical events, infrastructure protection, explosives and chemical and biological attacks, Andrews said.

Andrews said one of his favorite ideas was a brain-scanning skull cap for the government’s drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs. Andrews imagined that a voice synthesizer could be hooked up to the skull cap, which would let the dog tell agents what type of explosive material or drug it had picked up.

Another idea Sigma had was “Sigma World,” a virtual world based on existent virtual worlds such as massive multi-player online video games. It would feature realistic physics and renderings of cities such as Baghdad and New York City and would allow the government to test new weapons, technologies, strategies and tactics.

“So if we set off an IED with so many pounds of C-4 in it, it would have the same damage in the Sigma world that it does in the real world,” Andrews said.

Andrews, who has a doctorate in engineering, has worked at Sandia National Laboratories, AT&T Bell Laboratories and the White Sands Missile Range. He also started a virtual reality software company. He is currently an environment program manager for the Navy in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Andrews said he’s an engineer by trade, but science fiction is his passion.

“I make most of my money in engineering, but my heart has always been in the writing,” he said.

Charles Nemmers, director of the Transportation Infrastructure Center at MU, said Andrews was chosen for the lecture after his colleagues saw an article featuring Andrews.

“We want to bring in speakers that challenge us to do things,” he said.

Andrews said some people think of science fiction as trash literature or pop culture, but he likes to think of it as literature of the future and of the imagination.

Although some people find Sigma’s ideas absurd, it doesn’t faze Andrews, who said jokingly that science fiction has always been ahead of the curve at inventing items that seem crazy at the time but eventually become a reality, such as cell phones, the Internet, space travel, atomic energy, cloning and artificial intelligence.


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