Science and Science Fiction

William Evans

Ever since humans first looked at the stars we have dreamt of what lied in the depths of space. Ever since we discovered electricity we have imagined the limits of its uses. Ever since theorising relativity we have fantasized about hidden universes and time travel.  In the age of space stations, smart phones and synthetic biology we are now closer than ever to the realms of science fiction. Butthe relationship between the scientific community and the sci-fi genre is perhaps more complex than it may seem.

Primarily we should consider the responsibility that sci-fi has within its role between the worlds of science and popular culture.  Bridging this gap is no easy task but we should be able to expect sci-fi writers to have a level of integrity when presenting scientific theory. Most recently Interstellar has bravely taken on the subjects of relativity and multi-dimensional universes. Christopher Nolan hired former Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech Dr Kip Thorne as a scientific consultant and the film expertly dealt with the challenging issues of relativity and time dilation. This saw the film gain praise from prominent scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tweeted ‘In #Interstellar: Experience Einstein’s Relativity of Time as no other feature film has shown.’ However for the end of the film, as is simply too common, we see the writers’ integrity crumble in a bid to complete the story rather than respect scientific theory. Without spoiling the film, the ending sees a character survive passing through a black hole.  Indeed when asked ‘Is there any science that could make the stuff at the end possible?Thorne’s colleague at Caltech, Dr Sean Carroll, repliedI think that it was mostly magic.’ Nolan weakly dismisses this as cheating ‘I know where we cheated in the way you have to cheat in movies. ’Obviously sci-fi writers attempt to present science effectively but it appears there is a balance between the story and the science, and the latter often loses out.

Furthermore, consider how pop culture reflects the hopes and fears of society. A common theme in sci-fi is how science facilitates dystopian futures.  From The War of the Worlds to Brave New World, from 12 Monkeys to The Planet of the Apes, endless sci-fi stories have depicted science as the downfall of humankind. Both in novel and in film we have created perils including  alien invasion, eugenics, epidemic diseases, rogue cyborgs, experimental disasters and even a 50 foot woman. There is an obvious parallel between pop culture and societal beliefs and fears about contemporary research. In 1895, astronomer and mathematician, Percival Lowell published a book, Mars, speculating about the possibility of life on the red planet, prompting fears of aliens. Two years later and H G Wells’ War of the Worlds was being serialised in Pearson’s Magazine, his story describing a devastating Martian invasion of Earth. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, 1932, had two brothers in the field of biology. His book expresses fears over advances in eugenics during the early 1900s after Gregor Mendel’s work had resurfaced. In the turn of the millennium The Matrix film franchise humans lost a war against the machines and are in a desperate rebellion to win back Earth. This reflected the widespread fears of the Millennium Bug and a growing dependence on technology during the late 90s. There are countless examples of this within the annals of sci-fi and these stories echo the population’s fears of scientific developments. Hopefully science fiction does not control public opinion

On the other hand, science fiction also lets us imagine incredible things. Sci-fi, and sci-fi alone, allows you to go back to that time in your childhood when you dreamt of distant planets, amazing technologies and the future. And what an imagination we had! Star Wars has its forest moons, light sabres and warp speed. Star Trek gave us photon torpedoes, tractor beams and communicators. Let me take the Back to the Future series for an example. With Marty McFly’s future nearly our present hover boards, self-tying shoes and flying cars are all closer to being a reality. Nike is releasing a limited edition set of 2015 self-tying MAG sneakers based on the pair Marty wore. Start-up tech company Hendo have released a hover board using electromagnetism that was recently used by Tony Hawks in a promo video.US Company Terrafugia has produced a prototype for a car that is also licensed to fly. The TF-X is described as the flying car for all of us. Granted the sneakers might be a publicity stunt, the hover board is very much in a developmental phase and the flying car is not in widespread use but we are not far from harnessing this technology. There is still a year until we can expect to see the DeLorean appear from the sky at the Twin Pines Mall (21/10/15 for all those unsure), so relax, tie up your shoes and donate to Hendo’s kick-starter campaign.

Finally let’s turn this on its head. After studying the science found in science fiction now we may address the science of science fiction. With sci-fi having such a strong cult following it may not be surprising that science fiction study is a growing academic discipline. Since the 1970s the field of cultural and media studies has developed significantly, perhaps to the annoyance of many scientists. In 1982 the Centre for the Study of Science Fiction opened and  in the 90s we saw the first degree programme offered at the University of Kansas. The University of Glamorgan even ran a BSc in Science and Science Fiction from 1999 (however there is now no sign of it outside of old news reports). The study of science fiction has a sister discipline in the somewhat obscure world of futurology. Due to the strong themes of prediction contained in many sci-fi stories many prevalent authors consider themselves to be futurologists too. H G Wells is considered to be the founder of the ‘Future Sciences’, lecturing on the subject at the Royal Institute in 1902. After being founded in Paris in 1973, the World Futures Studies Federation is now even a UN consultative partner. There is no doubt that science fiction is a noteworthy part of our literature and should be studied in the correct context. Whether or not that context is that of a science degree is certainly debatable.  The speculative nature of futurology also raises doubt over its place as a viable field of study and again many scientists would contest the amount of esteem it is held in. It is important to acknowledge these disciplines but with a certain level of scepticism.

All things considered there is obviously an intrinsic link between science and science fiction however the relationship may not be as simple as originally thought. Firstly we considered the responsibility of science fiction to accurately present the science involved. Although sometimes steps are taken to safeguard the science far too often it takes a back seat in stories. Secondly, as with all literature, sci-fi is a demonstration of societal fears and beliefs of science. Therefore it is useful tool to understand the public’s opinion on current research but it should not control view over progress in research. We have also seen that sci-fi can be an innovative tool, sometimes predicting advances in technology and sometimes the catalyst for them. Finally the emergence of the study of science fiction and disciplines such as futurology can be attributed to the overall growth of science fiction during the 20th century. We see that there are many interesting topics for discussion over sci-fi as for now science fiction will continue to live long and prosper.

Science and Science Fiction

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