Why do we need science fiction?

The Mutara Nebula and the starship Enterprise from Star Trek. Source: DeviantArt

Humans have a hard time contemplating large numbers and objects. And when it comes to really big things like the size of our Sun, our galaxy and the Universe, we simply lose a sense of scale. Sure, we can put a number to these beastly objects, but we can’t really contemplate the actual magnitude of their existence.

For example, we know that the Earth’s diameter is ~12500 km. But that doesn’t mean that we can contemplate such a giant ball of matter with all its topology and life forms in one go. That feeling is strictly reserved for the physical and mental senses of an astronaut. Another example is the temperature at the core of our Sun, which we know from science to be ~15 million degrees Celsius. But we can merely imagine the threatening thousands of degrees of lava heat, let alone millions of degrees required for nuclear fusion!

Size of the Earth compared to the Sun. Everyday life leaves us incapable of contemplating the sheer scale of this. Source: SDO

And we haven’t even ventured outside the solar system yet!

Enter science fiction

Reality is just too big for our puny minds to capture at once. Science is full of numbers (associated with facts) every text you look at. That somehow has been perceived as dull by a general audience who can’t relate those facts to their existence here on Earth. In fact, it even applies to many science students just the same. This is where science fiction chips in. By weaving the facts of nature in a story format, science fiction enables you to contemplate both the grandeur and the subtlety of reality.

Science fiction as a tool to contemplate reality

  1. Consider the following scene from movie Interstellar: The astronauts who landed on one of the planets around the black hole only spent 10 minutes there but when they returned to their spaceship, they were surprised to find that their friend had aged 23 years! That’s Einstein’s general relativity for you personified.
  2. Remember the orbital complexities involved in bringing Mark Whatney from The Martian back home? The story enables you to understand how going to Mars and coming back isn’t that easy. There are multiple factors out there in space that we can’t control, making planning things difficult.

If the facts of nature are expressed in a story format (that we all apes have a thing for), we get an understanding of why scientific facts are important and how they affect us all.

Science fiction as a part of media culture and an inspiration

History is filled with insightful science fiction writers such as H.G.Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and many more. In the last century alone, science fiction has gone from the fascination of the nerds to being a very part of our media culture. How many time travel movies can you list, eh?

The classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (considered by many as one of the greatest science fiction story of all time) is still more than relevant even after almost half a century of its first publication! It displays a mix of artificial intelligence, colonies on the moon, a manned mission to Saturn, aliens, wormholes, all in a single story. The year 2001 has come and gone though and none of the technological advances imagined have been accomplished sadly. Yet it still stands as an inspiration for our generation to make it happen.

A classic dialogue from the artificially intelligent HAL-9000 from the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Source: Wikipedia

Ion propulsion engines as seen in Star Trek are now a reality and is being utilized by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. The Laws of Robotics are well-known to have been derived from the science fiction author Isaac Asimov, who conceptualized the field of robotics. We are still looking forward to the day when something similar to I, Robot, a sentient artificial being, comes into existence.

Science fiction as a medium to reflect on our social structure

Science fiction is also well-known as a tool to reflect the in and outs of our social structure. From Ray Bradbury‘s The Martian Chronicles to the insightful Dune Series by Frank Herbert, people have tried to reflect light on the dark sides of our social economies. Even the hilarious mathematical fiction Flatland satirically questioned our way of unjustly treating women.

Diagram of a typical Flatland house. Source: Wikipedia

Scientists like Fred Hoyle have also resorted to the means of science fiction. He wrote The Black Cloud to popularize his ideas among other scientists, some of which then found its way into mainstream science.

This constant give and take of science fiction with science and our culture is what has enabled our species to judge our deeds, question our traditions & improve our understanding of mother Earth.

Science fiction enables us to march on our way as a space faring species, which we hope will carry less of our weaknesses and more of our strengths.

Read science fiction. It will open your eyes to not only worlds that can be, but the world that is. What are some of your favorite science fiction stories?