Science fiction & science

Recently, I was approached by a university student developing a thesis on the inventions featured in sci-fi films and the likelihood of their actualization. He had some great questions I thought would make for an interesting blog post.

Do you think people feel let down by the lack of real world inventions inspired by modern or even classic works of science fiction?


Oh, no. The prescience of science fiction and the pace of innovation we’re seeing in science is astonishing. If anything, we have unrealistic expectations. We’ve come to see spectacular advances as commonplace, failing to appreciate the astonishing scientific advances required to make them possible.


In 1865, Jules Verne captured the imagination of the public with his novel From Earth to the Moon. Invariably, his solution to the seemingly insurmountable technical problems of traveling to the Moon were wide of the mark, but the concept was brilliant. Verne understood there was a need to reach escape velocity, but the only means he knew of potentially accomplishing this was with cannons. He knew such a launch would be fatal, so he cleverly introduced the idea of wooden baffles separated by water, which would sequentially break to reduce the trauma of sudden acceleration. For its time, it was an ingenious (but impractical) idea, but science fiction isn’t about posing actual engineering solutions, rather it’s to inspire out-of-the-box thinking.


Form Earth

Water filled baffles below the floor were to make the launch survivable

In 1903, less than 40 years later, the Wright Brothers flew a mere 120 feet down a sandy beach. Just 12 seconds of flight time, and yet, by the 1960s, planes were crisscrossing the planet, and both the Russians and the Americans were sending probes to the Moon. Barely a century after Verne published his story, Neil Armstrong took one small step on the lunar surface. Cannons played no part in the Apollo program, and yet Verne’s vision inspired lunar exploration.


In the same way, Star Trek used handheld communicators and tricorders for making non-invasive medical diagnosis. Half a century later, we think nothing of cell phones, PET and MRI scans. Our devices may not be as small, but miniaturization is just a matter of time.



Uh, oh… unknown actor in red shirt. Thankfully, Spock’s got a tricorder

Science is far more radical than science fiction dares imagine. Take the PET scanner as an example. Few people realize what a PET scan actually does—positron emission tomography. Ever heard of a positron before? Not an electron, a positron? Positrons are antimatter (another buzz word bandied about by Star Trek). Low doses of radioactive material allow us to see inside organs and observe the chemical functions taking place within cells, detecting tumor growth, or abnormal organ activity. It’s astonishing technology. In Star Trek, it was an idea. Today, it’s reality.



electron/positron pair in a cloud chamber


Don’t look to science fiction for scientific accuracy—look for ideas that might become reality.


Our best chance of detecting intelligent extraterrestrials comes from the possibility they may use Dyson Spheres, massive structures designed to harness solar energy. Indeed, there’s conjecture the star KIC-8462852 may harbor such a structure.


Although this concept was popularize by physicist Freeman Dyson, the concept has its roots in the speculative science fiction of the early 20th century, and authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Olaf Stapledon‘s Star Maker.


Science fiction shouldn’t be confused with science. The two are entirely different fields, and yet the speculation of one can lead to advances in the other.


Do you think that we as a species are making scientific progress at a rate we can collectively be pleased by?


Our lives are so astonishingly short it’s easy to lose sight of how rapidly we are advancing as a species. Barely a century ago, the Wright Brothers flew 20ft above the ground, today, tens of thousands of people are in the air at any one point in time, soaring 30,000ft above the planet. The Wright Brother’s accomplishment wasn’t that spectacular, but it heralded a technological breakthrough that would change the world.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is seen as a horror story, but it was a progressive look at the prospect of organ and limb transplants a hundred and fifty years before medical science made the concept possible. In the novel, Dr. Frankenstein is repulsed by the monster he created, but the central conceit of the story is that the “monster” wants to be understood—to be human. Far from the Hollywood depictions of villagers with pitchforks, Shelley’s Frankenstein raises ethical concerns rather than mindless violence. Now days, we’ve answered those concerns, and the transplant of lungs, hearts, kidneys, livers, etc is commonplace.


Homo sapiens have existed as a distinct species for at least 200,000 years, probably longer. The Homo genus from which we descend is at least 2,000,000 years old. For 99.9% of our existence, we have been plagued by disease. Bacteria and viruses have devastated our population with ruthless efficiency, but no more. The advances of just the past few centuries have seen the introduction of hygiene, vaccines and antibiotics that have allowed us to defy the cruelty of nature.


With all that has been discovered in the past hundred years, from relativity to quantum mechanics, from a detailed understanding of evolution to the exploration of the planets, we as a species are on the cusp of a new age. The only impediment is us ourselves. Can we tackle climate change? Can we protect the astonishing biodiversity we’ve inherited? Can we resolve the cultural and religious differences that drive us to war?


Do you think we are progressing? And in which field would you like to see more development (e.g. travel or medicine)?


A cure for cancer would be nice, but I’d settle for treatments that make malignant cancer a chronic rather than a terminal illness so we don’t lose brilliant minds like Carl Sagan so soon.



Carl Sagan with the Mars Viking probe


As much as I’d love to see footprints on Mars, I think we need to be judicious in how we use our limited resources. Lots of people lament that we’ve never been back to the Moon, but they lose sight of what we have done instead, with the astonishing insights provided by Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, Hubble, Cassini, the rovers on Mars, and dozens of other scientific satellites.


I’ll happily pass on Buck Rogers for good science being done in space. We, as a species, stand to gain much more from scientific advancement than joyrides to satisfy patriotic fever.



Saturn as viewed by Cassini


What do you think is the biggest hindrance when it comes to our development (both scientific and social)?


We have progressed so fast in the past century, there’s been an inevitable backlash, particularly in recent years with the rise of anti-intellectualism. Vaccines have become the target of suspicion. People still cling to the creation myths of old.  Conspiracy theories often hold more credence than reality.  Few people realize how science pervades every aspect of our lives, from the way food is packaged and stored, to being able to watch live sports on television. Vast sections of society repudiate the notion of climate change, but they fail to see that the same scientific method that gave them iPhones and laptops is warning them about our impact on the environment.


We need to stop seeing science as magic performed on stage, and realize it’s the foundation upon which modern society is built. If we don’t understand it, we should make an effort to learn more. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a scientist, but everyone should understand the scientific method as, without it, most of us would be dead, having been killed off by some hideous disease in childhood.


As a science fiction writer, I make science the hero, and try to get readers to see science in a positive light.


The best advice I can give anyone in life is: stay curious, always be willing to learn.

5 thoughts on “Science fiction & science

  1. There is actually a brilliant book, I think it was called ‘The Science of Star Trek’? or something like that, and it was one of the technical guys that worked on the show. I think there was a couple of them that put the book together, they certainly did the tech stuff for Star Trek (this was Next Gen).

    They actually discuss in the book that a lot of the tech in the show is actually based around stuff that is being studied, or theorised, and how it actually works.

    Some of it is not that far off from being developed, some of it requires a bit more technological work.

    Things like the laser, which leads to a phaser – and can lead to a stun weapon. We have a light weight laser already (and the US have actually developed a high powered laser weapon, but it has a large power requirement).

    Star Trek is actually fascinating as far as its technology goes, and its link to reality – one of the things I love most about the show – it’s hard being such a ‘nerd’ at times 🙂

    Hope you are well Peter!

    • Hey, that’s pretty cool. Yes, a lot of good science fiction is based on forward thinking. I left it out of this post, but William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) accurately predicted what the Internet would look like in our day (actually we’re probably only halfway there as it all ends up very Matrix-like). The thing I find interesting about this is books like Neuromancer (and Orwell’s 1984) give us an idea of where we are heading in the future AND how to avoid a disaster. Very cool.

  2. I apologize in advance if this offends you. Your use of an apostrophe in “it’s” is distracting to those of us who write and edit for a living. Not one, not a single one of those books you cited has this mistake between its covers. For the sake of your readers, and especially for the sake of your own reputation, please, please look up the usage of it’s, its, and its’. This might seem trivial, especially as seen against the backdrop of your enlightening post, but its not. It is important to many of us, far, far more of us than would ever comment on it. Thank you.

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