When science “fiction” becomes science “fact”

„What if?“ Both scientific research and science fiction start with the same two words. Science is trying to explain and enhance reality. SciFi stories produce a discourse of what is and what may be, they reflect the fears and aspirations of humankind for the future. Innovations we once saw in movies have become commonplace technology. So is there any wonder that people ask whether SciFi actually predicts our future?

How Science Fiction shapes reality

Science Fiction as an innovative genre has influenced mankind throughout history in various different ways. Famous SciFi series such as Star Trek, are believed to have had a crucial impact on what technological achievements used by us today look like. Do you recognize those items in the picture below?

And by the way, it impacted not only science. Did you know that the first interracial kiss aired on American tv took place on board of Star Trek? TV stations in the south refused to broadcast the episode and Nichelle Nichols who played Captain Uhura even received death threats. As she considered to leave the series, civil rights activist Martin Luther King personally reached out to her and convinced her to keep going.


Science Fiction and innovative technologies

Dan Novy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology notes: “Science fiction is often derided as too fanciful or not rigorous in thought. There is still a stigma … and yet if you look at the great advances in science and technology during most of the 20th and 21st centuries, they are often preceded by descriptions in works of science fiction written decades before”.

SciFi definitely helps building a culture of innovation. This is why Novy and Sophia Brueckner are offering a class called Pulp to Prototyp where students are expected to read SciFi literature in order to enhance their creative thinking and thus consider the consequences of initiating new technologies.

Vivian Sobchack, an American cinema and media theorist points out that technology has always inspired SciFi which in return broadened scientific imagination. At the same time it’s a place where scientific development of great potential and new ideas can be discussed in a safe environment even if they are out of the ordinary. It’s an invaluable fact that going beyond our imagination of what IS possible is crucial if we want to proceed as species.

Among the first scientists to research how SciFi influences technological innovation are Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller and George Voss from the University of Sussex, England. NESTA, a UK-based organization that helps people to communicate their ideas by providing them with grands, published their results as part of “Nesta Working Paper Series” which can be read online:

“We find multi-directional and on-going pathways connecting SF and science and we suggest that this has important implications for those considering Foresight, horizon scanning, questions of acculturation, the relations between humanities and science and technology, and the broader public understanding of science and participation in the governance of science and technology.”

What’s next to come

Have you ever wished to sneak out of your parents house as Harry Potter did under his “invisibility cloak”? Such capes are definiftely Sci-Fi cliché, but they could eventually pass into the realm of the possible. American quantum physicist Michio Kaku received a lot of attention for his book Physics of the Impossible in which he writes about “metamaterials”, the materials that could make the vision come true.

Kaku takes the reader on a journey, naming each chapter by a possible or improbable technology of the future. He classifies these SciFi future technologies in three different classes according to how certain it appears to realize them by the current state of scientific knowledge.

The fact that he categorizes stealth technologies – also called low observation technologies – under class I (“technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate the known laws of physics”) serves to intensify hopes that the idea of an “invisibility coat” could turn into reality anytime soon. Those metamaterials allow light to wrap around the body and reform at the other end, as if you were absent.

Another dream of humankind is time travel which falls into class II: “technologies that sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world”. These are still modest aspirations as it will need centuries or even millennia to develop such technologies from now. Until then, check out what we already DO know about the physics of time travel in this very insightful TED-Ed lesson by Colin Stuart below.

Not convinced with the importance of SciFi yet? Still not feeling the “nerd” gene? Why not let your own imagination flow with this epic selection of the 10 Best Time-Travel Movies by Esquire Magazine, maybe YOU could be the one to speed things up ?!

Image credits: Royalty free

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