From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

By Starfleet Ensign First Class Jodie Brandt


Even before the gleaming futuristic technology of Star Trek ruled the airways, science fiction led the way in scientific discovery and experimentation. Books like 2001: A Space Odyssey  made us wary of relying too strongly on technology and artificial intelligence even before that kind of reliance was feasible, while Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? posed the dilemma of what it means to be human. Modern fiction is no different. 


There's a two-fold process to scientific innovation, a partnership between the dreamers and the doers. It has been a common theme throughout history that writers, looking forward to the future, come up with fantastic ideas of what the world could or may become. They are followed closely behind by those who take up those ideas and begin to tinker with the possibilities of how to make them become reality.

The crew of the original series of Star Trek, sporting their "futuristic" wireless communicators.

A classic example would be the wireless two-way communicators of Star Trek fame. A few decades after these impossible devices hit the small screen, the scientific community brought us cellular phones and Bluetooth headsets. Today's sci-fi authors are still looking forward toward what the future holds.  Many have theories for fabulous new technologies and inventions, but their predictions also hold dire warnings for us all.

Cixin Liu, author of The Three Body Problem, asks what if all the "laws" of physics that we have created were fundamentally wrong? What if the natural order of the cosmos was chaos, and what we call the norm is in fact just a stable period of time? While these are grand-scale concepts, and likely won't affect our lives directly (or at least, not for generations), these are genuine questions that astrophysicists tackle everyday. Liu also poses more societal questions, asking readers to consider whether it is a good idea or not to broadcast to the galaxy that we are here. If there is life out there with the technology to traverse the stars, what would their intentions be with us? Good or ill? 


Closer to home, we are presented with even more familiar conflicts, like climate change, war, and government corruption, all of which serve as inspiration for science fiction authors. The Windup Girl, by Pablo Bacigalupi, probes what might happen in a world where bio-manipulation of food is necessary, and what sort of economy grows up alongside it.  It also poses questions about the other, darker uses to which that technology can be put.  Kim Stanley Robinson, writer of the recently released New York 2140, shows us a world overcome by global warming, because of which the oceans have risen some 50 feet, flooding many cities and erasing others. While these tales are fiction and do stray from the accepted scientific theories, they still capture the underlying sense of both hope and worry that we face addressing these problems in real life. 


While much of the "hard science" that shapes our technology and understanding of the world comes from the sometimes impenetrable world of academia and industrial research, today science has the benefit of high-profile scientific minds like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Stephen Hawking.  They help bridge the gap between the dreamers and the doers, uniting the complexities of science with the infinite power of imagination. It's that combination that reminds us that even when the future seems bleak, there is indeed hope for humanity. Together we can, and will, create a brighter future for our species. As the great Carl Sagan, both sci-fi author and astronomer, once said, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."