Thought Experiments


Writing a Bold Future, Together

Can science fiction influence the course of real science?

By “science fiction,” I don’t mean fantasy—vampires, werewolves, elf princesses, that kind of thing. Science fiction may seem fantastical, but even its most fantastic elements are driven by real science.

The obvious predictions of science fiction are all around us, from iPads to cell phones and various other electronic wonders that we treat as disposable. My 2-year-old son entertains himself with toys that are more technologically sophisticated than the first computer I ever owned. The next phase in casually transforming us all into cyborgs may be fully-immersive augmented reality, at least if Google has anything to say about it.

Science fiction isn’t just a sneak preview of future gadgets, though. For scientists, it is an inspiration machine. The theoretical physicist and TV personality Michio Kaku recalls watching “Flash Gordon” in his youth and realizing that the real hero of the series wasn’t the handsome, athletic Flash: it was the brilliant scientist Dr. Zarkov. As Kaku recounts in his book “Physics of the Future,” “[Dr. Zarkov] invented the rocket ship, the invisibility shield, the power source for the city in the sky, etc. Without the scientist, there is no future.”

Dr. Wernher von Braun (center), then Chief of the Guided Missile Development Division at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, discusses a "bottle suit" model with Dr. Heinz Haber (left), an expert on aviation medicine, and Willy Ley, a science writer on rocketry and space exploration. Source: NASA, via the Wikimedia Commons

To Stephen Hawking, science fiction offers a kind of exercise for the imagination. As he wrote in the forward to Lawrence Krauss’ 1995 classic “The Physics of Star Trek”:

“Science fiction […] is not only good fun but it also serves a serious purpose, that of expanding the human imagination. We may not yet be able to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, but at least we can do it in the mind.[…] There is a two-way trade between science fiction and science. Science fiction suggests ideas that scientists incorporate into their theories, but sometimes science turns up notions that are stranger than any science fiction.”

Yet even some of those strange notions, like Einstein’s theory of general relativity, were anticipated by science fiction. As Krauss pointed out in “Hiding in the Mirror,” the very first page of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” published in 1895, included an explanation from the unnamed time traveler about how objects require existence in time as well as space. To modern ears, his description sounds a lot like Einstein’s vision of space and time.

Yet at the same time that Wells was presaging Einstein, some physicists believed that science was turning the final pages in the book of nature. In 1900, the scientist Lord Kelvin famously declared that physics was nearly complete—that we only needed to solve two minor lingering problems to know all there was to know about the universe. As it turned out, resolving those two problems did not usher in the end of physics—it led directly to the theory of relativity and quantum theory, as well as all of the scientific discoveries and technology that’s come about from them: television, nuclear energy, computers, transistors, cell phones…you get the idea. So while physicists thought that we were nearing the end of a journey, science fiction writers, with their fantastical stories of time travel and robots, showed that we were just at the beginning. And the science fiction writers were right.

In the aftermath of this quantum revolution, science fiction doubled down. This was the era of pulp adventures like the “Flash Gordon” serials that inspired Michio Kaku. Science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke were the vanguard of a generation of science fiction authors who also had strong scientific backgrounds.

And it wasn’t just science fiction authors writing about the future. Theoretical physicist S. James Gates, Jr. recounts how his father brought home four non-fiction books in the late 1950s, all written by the science writer Willy Ley. With titles like “Space Pilots,” “Man-Made Satellites,” “Space Stations,” and “Space Travel,” these books brought scientific credibility to dreams of mankind’s star-faring future and inspired Gates to pursue the sciences. (Lest we think the only benefits of science fiction are intellectual, in a recent interview for the radio program “On Being”, Gates also relates how Isaac Asimov’s “Lucky Starr” books helped him cope with his mother’s death.) Today Gates serves as director for the Center for String and Particle Theory at University of Maryland.

This isn’t to say that science fiction gets everything right, of course. For one thing, the golden age of sci-fi was full of laser pistols and flying cars that never quite made it into the mainstream. (At least, not yet.) In “The Amazing Story of Quantum Physics,” physicist James Kakalios explains that this pulp-era futurism went awry by over-estimating the amount of energy we’d have access to. Turns out it takes a lot of energy to build a laser pistol or a flying car!

But the deepest error in science fiction—and the one that most rankles physicists like Gates—is how easy it often makes scientific accomplishment look. “I know from a life in science that nothing could be farther from the truth. The effort to advance science is one of the most monumental struggles I have witnessed in my life. Progress is usually painfully slow.”

David Brin, a physicist who now has a successful career as a science fiction author, agrees:

“The most annoying thing is when sci-fi or fantasy stories get the process of science all wrong. When, for plot reasons and just to get the heroes in jeopardy, they show science and scientists behaving in ways that are paranoid, incurious, conniving, unscrupulous, and addicted to secrecy….But science is about doing things in the open. And that’s when horrible mistakes get pointed out, in advance.”

Science fiction has its fair share of mad scientists slinking about in gloomy dystopias. But more often, it is an optimistic genre. When science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer was recently asked about his top five science fiction predictions, for instance, his top pick was that there was a future. During the Cold War decades, it was science fiction that offered a hopeful vision of the future. Gates actually attributes much of the success of science fiction to the zeitgeist of this post-World War II era. “The challenge of Sputnik only turbo-charged these conditions and the kind of science fiction produced in this climate was almost guaranteed to have caught my attention.”

The finest science fiction is inspired by the same thing that has inspired the greatest science discoveries throughout the ages: optimism for the future. As I read today’s science fiction, I worry that many modern authors do not seek to inspire the way they once did. Brin points out that “images of a can-do, problem-solving humanity seem to be offered less and less,” despite his own best efforts to buck this trend.

Like Gates, I was strongly influenced by Isaac Asimov, who first inspired my interest in science, fiction, and the future. Which authors have inspired you with their hopeful visions of the future?

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: The Science Fiction Effect
In this essay, Laura Kahn explores the connection between science fiction and science fact.

Inside NOVA: Cinema Science: Time Travel
In this blog post, explore the real science behind time travel as seen in science fiction films.

Smithsonian’s Surprising Science: NASA Picks Best and Worst Sci-Fi Movies
Find out which films get the science right—and which ones get it very, very wrong.

Technology Review: The Best Hard Science Fiction Books of All Time

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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

    Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a known member of organizations such as American Mensa and the National Association of Science Writers. Having earned a degree in physics from Wabash College and a master's degree in Mathematics Education from Purdue University, he has gone on to such disreputable activities as becoming the Physics Expert at Physics and co-authoring String Theory For Dummies, and occasionally publishing works of philosophy, reviews of board games, and other leisurely activities. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.