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Chariots Chariots!: Science and Science Fiction

June 10, 2012

The last time I talked about science fiction, and it’s role in helping people grapple with the human condition, a friend of mine felt the need to point out that science fiction has another role. That role, he argued, was to inspire the future generations of scientists.

It is not that I disagree with that statement, but it is one that has always intrigued me. It’s a question that is not unlike the Chicken and the Egg. What comes first, the scientific theory or the science fiction? Man had long yearned to travel to the moon, and certainly Victorian era scientists were dreaming of space travel at the same time that Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon. How familiar Verne was with the scientific theories is debatable, perhaps he was just a very competent dreamer and futurist.

I think though, it is hard to argue that science is not on some level influenced by the works of fantastical futurist authors. As my friend pointed out, the whole notion that we have people who specialize in robotics is derived from a 1920 science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Capek. Capek wrote the first work on robots and humanity, a play titled R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, his brother having derived the word after the Latin version sounded too artificial. It was a successful play across Europe and the United States when it was first written and it no doubt inspired not only future scientists but future scientific authors.

Still, was it this play that really caused the first man to build a working robot?

Or, is there something special about science fiction authors and scientists?

I’m reminded of how Richard Matheson came to have the idea for his book The Shrinking Man. He was supposedly sitting in his house or hotel room, and had been given someone else’s hat by mistake. He placed the hat on his head, and it was too large, falling down to his ears. Matheson was amused by this, and was suddenly struck by the thought, “Well, what would happen if this really was my hat?”

Questions that start with, “What would happen,” or end with, “Could we do that,” are the questions of curiosity. These are the questions that drive both science fiction and scientific inquiry. One doesn’t truly influence the other, but it is that they share a symbiotic relationship driven by the fact that the people who flock to these fields are cut from similar cloth. They all want to know.

Many people don’t really care about knowing what’s beyond the next bend, or what will happen if man becomes augmented by cybernetic implants. Most people are happy to go on with their lives, and if something happens to make their lives easier than that’s that. If it makes their lives worse, well, they don’t like that. A few people though, for some reason, want to know the answers to questions that can be entirely theoretical.

To me, at least, the difference between science fiction authors and scientists are that science fiction authors can often get more wrapped up in the human element whereas scientists can sometimes disregard it. As has been suggested many times by some ethicists, scientists rarely ask the question, “Should?” because they are too busy trying to solve the question, “Could?” A science fiction author goes beyond the could, in a sense bypassing the next bend and jumping to the one beyond it, and asks well what is this world like once we solve all this could business. Once more, there’s not always consideration of the should, but once more of the “what if?”

Richard Matheson never asked, “Well, how could a man shrink down to a few inches tall?” Instead, he merely asked, “What if a man shrunk down to a few inches tall?”

Leave it to the scientists of the future to figure out if miniaturization is possible.

Science fiction doesn’t necessarily strive to inspire new scientists, this inspiration is just a natural byproduct of leaving questions unanswered. For there are people in the world that want to know, and if you don’t tell them how you created artificial gravity on your faster-than-light starship, they’re going to want to know, and they’re going to figure out if it is possible.

So go forth, Astronauts, Olympians, and War Heroes, and discover the world that is, and the world that may be.

Chariots! Chariots!


From → Opinions

One Comment
  1. Pat permalink

    Mark Thomas,
    Your insight and intelligence with detail for the little things others miss, never ceases to surprise me. And I know for a fact that you are the PRETTIEST one at the prom.

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