Academic Spotlight: Katherine Buse

April 19, 2022

Katherine Buse is a postdoctoral researcher at the rank of instructor at the University of Chicago's Institute on the Formation of Knowledge (IFK), where she uses methods from science and technology studies (STS), science fiction studies, and the environmental humanities to study how science shapes and is shaped by its cultural milieu. A graphic and game designer, she has also contributed to an Academy Award-nominated film. Buse will join the University's Department of Cinema and Media Studies as an assistant professor in Autumn Quarter 2023.

Q. Your work spans across multiple disciplines. How do these fields intersect in your research?

A. One great example of the intersection between STS, science fiction studies, media studies, and the environment came up when I was reading the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society and found a citation to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This was a major find for me, as a scholar curious about the relationship between climate change and speculative fiction. The connection turned out to be as much technical as plot-related—a new technique for computer generated imagery (CGI) called the particle system that had first been developed for The Wrath of Khan. Meteorologists were excited about the potential of this special effect to represent something about natural systems. To me this raised fascinating questions about the relationship between modeling and fiction—for example, if you digitally model a thunderstorm but then add weightless, physically inert, but visible balls for the wind to toss around, is that science fiction? It certainly helps you see the wind patterns better and makes the animation look super cool. I like to follow threads like these across disciplines in my research. This is part of the power of media studies, STS, and the environmental humanities—each of which has a well-developed toolkit for tracing such interdisciplinary interactions.

Q. Tell us a bit about your current book project, Speculative Planetology: Science, Culture, and the Building of Model Worlds. 

A. One of the turning points in framing my book project was when I read some opinion pieces by concerned climate scientists about the ways that emissions scenarios used in climate modeling rely on untested technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. This negative emissions technology promises to be a fuel source that will suck CO2 from the atmosphere while it powers lights, air conditioners, and computational infrastructure. 

I was struck by how science fictional this vision of the future was. It could not exist without a future technology. This is one example of the way that planetary and climate science engage with science fictional ways of thinking. I write about how climate scientists refer to science fiction in textbook problem sets and personal blogs, as well as how planetary science journal articles are repurposed by YouTube world-builders to create habitable exoplanets for science fiction media. Unlike computational models of planets, science fiction texts are deeply concerned with the lives of individual characters as well as societal structures that influence those lives. The relationship between science fiction and planetary epistemology is a place where questions about planet-scale dynamics bleed into questions about justice, social organization, and lived experience. My book is about this mutual exchange between science and science fiction, which I call speculative planetology

Q. Speaking of planetology, you’re teaching a course this summer as part of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies’ new Novel Knowledge Series. What is this series all about, and how does your course, Planets in Science and Culture, fit into the mix?

A. The Novel Knowledge Series is a collaboration between the Graham School and the IFK. I’m excited about this series because it will let the IFK reach a wider public with its signature brand of interdisciplinary scholarship. Novel Knowledge courses come directly from this cutting-edge research by my fellow postdocs. They’re asking fascinating questions like, "Where did the medical standards for astronauts come from and who do they exclude? How do we measure what it means to be neurotypical? How does fiction help us anticipate new technologies like artificial intelligence?" My course will focus on the questions that get raised when we try to understand whole worlds, both scientifically and culturally. Planets in Science and Culture will explore how influential scientific theories like the Gaia Hypothesis get picked up by popular culture as well as how real-world problems like colonialism reemerge in new ways through speculative scientific research.

Q. Your planetology work resulted in you consulting on an Oscar-nominated film. What was that experience like?

A. In a word, it was cool. I worked with screenwriter Eric Roth to figure out how to do justice to the complexity of Frank Herbert’s desert planet, Dune, while also creating a work of art that could hold its own in a visual medium. The novel has been around for half a century, and it was exciting to watch a master screenwriter make the adaptation feel fresh and communicate the novel’s baroque descriptions of inner monologues through abstract, dream-like imagery and dialogue. It was also exciting to see how useful my background as a science fiction scholar was in the consulting process, especially when thinking through world-building. I loved the glimpse into Hollywood production processes, especially the extremely demanding but somewhat thrilling deadlines. 

Q. You are also a graphic and game designer. Tell us a bit about Foldit: First Contact, which will be released in beta format later this year. 

Foldit is a protein biochemistry citizen science video game. For more than a decade it has offered a chance for citizen-scientist players to solve puzzles that correspond to active research problems about how proteins fold into three-dimensional shapes. Foldit players’ efforts have resulted in a number of important publications in biochemistry. Even in an era of machine learning, approaches like AlphaFold, human-computer interaction, still seem to be the best way to find creative solutions to protein configurations that have never existed in nature but could be synthesized. As to my role, I’m part of a UC Davis-based team that has designed a storyline for Foldit’s tutorial levels, adding a graphic novel makeover that we hope will appeal to new players. This project has given me a chance to reflect on the relationship between computational modeling and science fiction, a huge part of my other academic work. Working as a designer helps me to see these issues from a completely different angle, as we produce a science fiction storyline that we are literally wrapping around a preexisting computational model.

Q. This quarter you are co-teaching a new course in the College, Gaming History. What will students focus on and learn about in this course?

A. This course focuses on practice-based research in digital media for humanities scholars. My co-instructor, Dr. Brad Bolman, and I designed the syllabus to explore the ways that historical knowledge and historical epistemologies are represented in video games. This is an interesting problem because player interaction is always supposed to influence the outcome in a game—games thus act like models of history at different scales. Students will learn not only to critically analyze video games but also to render their humanistic insights in non-traditional formats, including video essays, live stream commentary, and critical game design. 

Q. What are your plans post-postdoc?

I’m going to keep researching, publish my book, and teach. I also have some plans for collaborative digital media projects about video games and climate futures. Joining UChicago's Department of Cinema and Media Studies as an assistant professor in Autumn 2023 will be a dream come true.