There’s a very interesting dialectic between science and science fiction. If you take a look at, for example, Edwin Hubble, the greatest astronomer of the 20th century, he was destined to be a Missouri country lawyer. He remembered reading Jules Verne as a child. As a consequence, he dropped his law career, went to the University of Chicago, got a PhD and discovered the expanding universe. Take a look at Carl Sagan. When he was a kid, he read “John Carter of Mars”. He dreamed about chasing the beautiful Dejah Thoris across the sands of the red planet. There’s always been this tight relationship between science fiction and science. Dr. Michio Kaku Theoretical Physicist and Author
In, Will Sci-Fi Save Us? Studio 360 this week examined the integral relationship between science fiction and technological reality, that vital intersection between imagination and innovation that has brought the inventions of the literary mind to life in some form or other, in our everyday world. If there is still any doubt of the value of creative thought exercises and imaginative exploration to inspire curiosity driven learning, discovery and social progress, put on your cardboard VR Headset and consider the history of science fiction’s influence on our daily lives.
“It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says: ‘Civilization is garbage. Our institutions never will be helpful. Your neighbors are all useless sheep,’” science fiction writer and astrophysicist David Brin, told Studio 360. “’Now enjoy a couple of characters running around shooting things and having adventures in the middle of a dystopia.’” While dystopia may sell books and movies, Brin said, the real value of good science fiction is that it builds the future.
Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash (which itself helped inspire the creation of Second Life) came to agree with that sentiment after sitting on a panel discussion with Arizona State University President Michael Crow. Stephenson had complained about the lack of inspiration from science discovery and innovation in recent years, but Crow told him the science fiction writers were the slackers. He said, recalled Stephenson, that “the engineers were ready to go, they had the tools, they had the willingness but the science fiction writers were no longer pulling their weight by supplying compelling visions of things for the engineers to build.”
From this epiphany arose the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, which” brings writers, artists and other creative thinkers into collaboration with scientists, engineers and technologists to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for innovation and discovery”. Besides functioning as a network hub “for audacious moonshot ideas and a cultural engine for thoughtful optimism,” CSI is also home to the Imaginary College, a group of “creative thinkers, researchers, practitioners, mad geniuses and global disruptors that represents one of the core missions of the Center for Science and Imagination: to seek out intelligent life wherever it resides in the universe, and to get it on our side. “
And from this came Project Hieroglyph, a space for writers, scientists, artists and engineers to collaborate on creative, ambitious visions of our near future.
These aren’t just sci-fi-in-the sky ideas. The influence of science fiction on science fact is well established. A 2010 History of Science Society Journal article titled Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench, takes a serious academic look at the measurable impact of science fiction on science invention, citing, among other things, the research of David R. Smith and his colleagues in the fields of transformation optics and electromagnetic cloaking of matter at microwave frequencies, aka “invisibility” shields or “cloaking devices.” In his work, Smith referenced the imaginary technologies of the Fantastic Four, Star Trek and even the Harry Potter books.
“There is undeniably a link between science fact and the ideas that emerge in science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction authors are inspired by actual scientific and technological discoveries, but allow themselves the freedom to project the possible future course of these discoveries and their potential impact on society, perhaps remaining only weakly tethered to the facts. … Scientists, in turn, often derive inspiration from the imaginative possibilities that exist in fictional worlds, but are constrained to follow the laws of nature that apply in this world. The inventions in fictional worlds seldom transition to the real world—at least not in the way they are first imagined,” wrote Smith.
“Science fiction does not simply drive science, any more than science simply drives science fiction. Rather, they have a relationship of ongoing and productive mutual modification,” noted the authors of Modifiable Futures.
Some common inventions fueled by science fiction include:
- The cell phone, which inventor Martin Cooper stated outright as having been inspired by the old Star Trek “communicator.”
- The helicopter and the submarine, both inspired by Jules Verne whose fantastic 19th century visions have lit imaginations since his works first hit shelves.
- The liquid-fueled rocket was developed by Robert H. Goddard,who became fascinated with spaceflight after reading a serialization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
- Taser is actually an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” , made a reality by Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, inspired by the Tom Swift novels.
Even the internet comes down to us from the pages of science fiction. Tim Berners-Lee, widely credited for the creation of the worldwide web, was fascinated, as a child by Arthur C. Clarke’s Dial F For Frankenstein, written in 1964, which drew on a scenario of networked computers that began to learn to think autonomously.
The power of curiosity driven exploration is in few places more evident than in our science fiction literature, which puts the A in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in clear, measurable and enduring ways. We need science AND imagination, now more than ever.