Science and the Impossible: Influence of Science-fiction on Science

- Satyaki Goswami

Guided by Tafheem Masudi and Sukant Khurana

The greatest thing about scientific approach is its adaptability. Science tends to consider each and every possibility in order to test their validity and consequently rule out the one which don’t work. If one backtracks through the details of various scientific marvels we have today, they will eventually stumble upon a period when these very concepts were supposed to be impossible. Now, every “consequence” needs a “trigger” and the amalgamation of curiosity, need, and imagination has acted the very same way for this beautiful era of “scientific consequence” we are living in. While ‘curiosity’ gets its fair-share of credit and ‘needs’ are needed to be sufficed, we tend to forget how important the part of ‘imagination’; its limitlessness and how it has demolished the gap between possible and impossible through a bridge called ‘Science-Fiction’.

The term ‘Science-fiction’(or sci-fi) usually denotes the genre of fiction heavily influenced by scientific ideas. But if one thinks about it deeply, they might find that the above statement is correct the other way around as well. While sci-fi exhibits fictionalized scientific technology, one can’t deny the fact that a hundred years ago, scientists would have scoffed at the idea of lasers, television etc. If one could go back to the seventeenth century and tell the people that we have flying vehicles and vessels which can take us to outer-space, they’d refuse to believe as for them, such things would be fictitious. While being hypothetical or unreal in their era, they’d be as normal as daylight to us. Thus, one can conclude that science-fiction does influence scientific progress. In its broad sense, sci-fi is not only the literature about scientific discovery or technological revolution, but often, it portrays how we change subjectively, as well as collectively, due to some external stimulus. Although pinpointing is difficult in general, the first sci-fi literature is supposed to be a second century AD book- ‘True Stories’. Written by Lucias of Samosata, the protagonist in this book ventures to distant realms like the moon, sun, and other planets. While this book was as satire on the works of mythology and superstition, the emphasis on the concept of space-exploration was obvious. The realization of our space venture would have been nothing more than fictitious or impossible in those ancient periods. But what does “impossible” stands for when it comes to scientific progress?

Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 AD — after 180 AD) was a Hellenized Syrian satirist and rhetorician. He is often credited to be the first science-fiction author (Source: www.npg.org.uk)

We’re often told that nothing is impossible. Interestingly, in the realm of science, “impossible” is a relative term; this suggests the possibilities are immense, albeit tricky and often hidden. Throughout the history of mankind, there have been instances when things, previously deemed to be impossible in terms of existence or achievability, were proven to be realistic and practical. 1)French philosopher Auguste Comte in his 1842 book ‘The positive philosophy’ stated that we could never learn the internal constitution and mineralogical structure of distant stars and planets. According to him, we could calculate their distance from us, their motion and probably their masses, but there was no way to chemically analyze them. As an epitome of irony, in the beginning of 19th century, two independent discoveries by William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph Von Fraunhofer independently discovered that the spectrum of the sun contained a great many dark lines which were actually atomic absorption lines. By analyzing this pattern of lines, one can learn about each chemical present in the sun and find out what the star is made of. Similarly, the idea that we might be able to send an object into space, let alone manned mission, was considered to be something off the pages of sci-fi. The idea was considered preposterous as the right technology was not available at that time. To travel in space, a ship or craft needs to leave the earth at a speed of 11.186 km/s (the escape velocity from earth).

A spectrogram of the Sun (Source: www.noao.edu )

Jules Verne, in his novel ‘From the Earth to the moon’ suggested the use of a giant canon to escape earth, but from a realistic point of view, such a sudden burst of acceleration would kill any passenger. Although calculations have shown no canon, as of yet, to be powerful enough for this task, Verne’s idea did pave a path for different approaches towards this problem. Eventually, the 1st artificial satellite, sputnik, was launched in 1957, dismantling all the skepticism regarding travelling in space. First manual mission followed four year later.

Interestingly, the concept of black holes, which is considered to be one of the most futuristic or modern idea, was once considered to be fiction! Einstein himself wrote a paper in 1934 which questioned the formation and existence of black holes. Yet, today we have accumulated evidence that black holes are a common phenomenon and there might be one at the center of our galaxy.

Although time and again, we see that the study of the “Impossible” or the “fictious” has opened up entirely new realms to explore, the reason many such technological and scientific pursuits were deemed “impossible” is the lack of grasp over scientific concepts compared to today’s era. Of course, we had brilliant scientists in the 19thas well as early 20th century but there is a huge gap in understanding of science in between the present and the past. For example: — the field of science that deals with the atomic level. No wonder nuclear reactor would have been an imaginary concept in the 19th century.

Science fiction, as a whole, has many a times influenced the serious study of the “impossible”. Many futurists scientists, and inventors have been inspired by the imagination and anticipation of the future deep-rooted to science fiction novels. Many extraordinary scientists became interested in science through exposure to science fiction. Considered to be the greatest astronomer in the twentieth century, Edwin Hubble was fascinated by the works of Jules Verne. Carl Sagan, the brilliant astronomer and educationist, dreamed of exploring the red surface of mars just as he read in Edger-Rice Burroughs’s ‘John carter of mars’ novels.

2)H.G well’s brilliant classic ‘War of the worlds’ played a major role in triggering Robert H. Goddard’s, the American scientist who built the first liquid fueled rocket which was successfully launched on 16thMarch 1926, interest towards space flight. Fascinated by the concept of interplanetary ships, Goddard later recalled how it “gripped my imagination tremendously”. As a case of an upsetting sci-fi prediction, H.G Wells’ “The world set Free” continuously ponders upon the potential benefits and dangers of harnessing atomic power. In the story, Wells predicted a new type of bomb fueled by nuclear reactions. He believed that such power would either obliterate society or force the mankind to put aside their differences and accept their unity as a specie. Physicist LeoSzilard was apparently inspired by this book, and later on patented the idea. Szilard became one of the key members of the Manhattan project- No one could ever forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

3)Star Trek is probably the most recognized science fiction television series which later on sprouted spin-offs, comic books, and film franchise. Portraying a future where the human race lives and interacts with various intelligent- in some cases superior to human intellect- alien beings in an immensely technologically advanced time period. One of the most famous gadget from this show was the “communicator”, a device which worked like a wireless phone. Martin Cooper, the director of research and development at Motorola, has credited this device as his inspiration behind the design of the first mobile phone in the early 1970s. This is a case of fantasy turning into objective. The futuristic epic ‘2001 A space odyssey’ seduced many to fall in love with the limitless possibilities of space exploration. The movie was released in a time when living and working full time in space was a concept of science fiction but today, astronauts are living in the international space station 365 days. Such a station was portrayed in the movie, making it ahead of its time. The epic also depicted flat screen computer monitors, which are commonly used in the space station but were unheard of in 1968. The instances and examples are not limited to the aforementioned and even though many such things in science fiction are not yet realities, a reasonable chunk is in progress.

A dummy of the original Star Trek communicator (Left) with a real-life flip phone. Similarities are obvious. (Source: scifi2real.wordpress.com )

4)The impact of science fiction on science can’t be quantified easily, scholars and researchers at the University of Hawaii have found a method, based on human-computer interaction and human factors in computer system, to study the way fiction influences the development of new technologies. They’ve found that researchers use science fiction in more than one way. From theoretical modelling and designs to new forms of human computer interactions, a vast area is being shaped by the genre of science fiction. The study of human body modification is rampant as well, based on the aforementioned genre. The steps are small but the role of science fiction towards a better understanding of the complex relationship between human imagination and its impact on science and technology seems to be stronger than ever.

The state of science has changed and developed, in more than one way, in the past years; as Arthur C. Carke famously stated:

“…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Already more than one magical technology are now proving to be possible: the notion of teleportation (at least at the level of atoms). Researchers from Delft University of Technology were able to teleport information across the room and prove the quantum entanglement theory in practice. They isolated a pair of electrons in two diamonds at a distance from each other. According to theoretical entanglement, changes to the spin in one should have resulted in the second one changing its spin accordingly. That is exactly what happened — the change in one diamond affected the other over a distance of 10 meters (32 ft). The experiment worked 100 percent of the time. The researchers are now working on increasing the distance, which should still work if the theory is correct. If experiments over larger distances are successful, we will very soon be able to securely teleport information through quantum particles without any vulnerable pathways in between. In the field of space exploration, NASA is working to extend humanity’s presence beyond low-earth orbit, embarking on an ambitious journey to Mars that should see humans on the Red Planet in the 2030s. Other ventures in space, such as hotels in orbit and routine tourist space travel are being planned by commercial spaceflight companies. Extensive research is going on in the field of artificial-intelligence and we have successfully been able to create robots who are able to converse, play chess (and beat grandmasters), and help in space and deep-sea explorations.

Twenty years ago IBM’s Deep Blue computer stunned the world by becoming the first machine to beat a reigning world chess champion in a six-game match. (Source: Wikipedia)

But, is it impossible to think we might one day be able to teleport ourselves from one place to another, or build a spaceship that will one day take us light-years away to the stars? Is it impossible to perceive a future where we exchange knowledge with extra-terrestrial organism? Would it be possible for us to co-exist with equally intelligent artificial beings someday? Would we ever learn about the conditions which were present before the universe started to expand? Would we get to know if p=np?

Normally some of these feats would be considered impossible today. Might they become possible within a few centuries? Or in ten thousand years, when our technology is more advanced? Or in a million years? To put it another way, if we were to somehow encounter a civilization a million years more advanced than ours, would their everyday technology appear to be “magic” to us? Just because something is “impossible” today, will it remain impossible centuries or millions of years into the future? Our race needs to be optimistic as we have defeated the “impossible” more than once in the past. We must strive forward with all the crazy ideas which are our scientific brainchild; as William Osler said:

The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next; the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow

Bibliographical Reference

1) ‘Auguste Comte’s blunder: an account of the first century of stellar spectroscopy and how it took one hundred years to prove that Comte was wrong!’ by John Hearnshaw; Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (ISSN 1440–2807), Vol. 13, №2, p. 90–104 (2010)

2) Ten Inventions Inspired by Science Fiction; www.smithsonian.com

3) ‘The Physics of Star Trek’ by Lawrence M. Krauss

4) ‘Exploring the Referral and Usage of Science Fiction in HCI Literature’ by Philipp Jordan, Omar Mubin, Mohammad Obaid, Paula Alexandra Silva