February 16, 2014
In Regards To Science Fiction, Truth Is Often Stranger
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Science fiction borrows from, and sometimes anticipates, the state of the art in scientific progress. This can be seen from warp drives to hyperspace, and has resulted in the perception that science and science fiction have a causal relationship. People assume that science finds direction from and fulfills the science fantasy laid out before it.
According to Lawrence Krauss, a Foundation professor in the School of Space and Earth Exploration and the Department of Physics at Arizona State University, this is rarely the case. Krauss admits that science fiction has taken inspiration from the cutting edge science of its day. It is also true, as Stephen Hawking wrote in the preface to Krauss's bestselling book, 'The Physics of Star Trek,' science fiction helps inspire our imaginations. Despite this, Krauss believes that science fiction is not a match for reality.
"Truth is stranger than fiction," Krauss, a renowned theoretical physicist and science popularizer, said at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. His talk, "Physics of the future," was part of a session entitled "Where's my flying car? Science, science fiction and a changing vision of the future."
"The imagination of nature far exceeds the human imagination, which is why we constantly need to probe the universe via experimentation to make progress," he said. "In fact, I tend to think that what makes science fiction most interesting is what they missed, not what they got right."
Krauss cited such examples as the World Wide Web, developed at the CERN scientific laboratory, and which governs the world in ways we could never have anticipated. Another example given was H. G. Wells' "The World Set Free," which is often quoted as a prophetic book. The novel was published in 1914 and anticipated the development of atomic weapons that would be used in war. Decades before they became a harsh reality in the modern world — and perhaps influencing some of the scientists who created the real weapons — the novel coined the term "atomic bombs."
"Nevertheless not only did Wells' continually burning atomic weapons bear no resemblance to the engines of destruction in the real world," Krauss emphasized, "he thought it would unite the world into one society whereas we are painfully aware that it hasn't changed human thinking, except to divide the world into nuclear haves and have-nots."
"Nevertheless it is instructive, and fun, to compare the 'science' of science fiction with that of the real world," said Krauss, who also is the director of the Origins Project at ASU. "Rather than dwelling on things that don't work, it is fun to explore closely related things in the real world that might work."
A variety of classical science fiction standbys were the focus of Krauss's talk — including space exploration, faster than light travel, time travel and teleportation. In science fiction, space travelers move freely about the universe, fulfilling their manifest destiny in space, while in reality, we remain stuck on Earth. According to Krauss, the reality of the situation is vastly different. The cost of space travel is exorbitantly high, in both money and energy. It is a very risky endeavor and humans, as "hundred-pound bags of water," are not built for space.
Krauss did have positive news for science fiction lovers. He described how exotica live warp drive and time travel are not ruled out by our current knowledge of the laws of nature. From a practical perspective, however, even if they are possible in principle, they are likely to be impossible in practice. While he doubts that people will ever be "beamed" from one place to another, quantum teleportation may revolutionize computing in ways that science fiction has just begun to come to grips with.
Krauss has authored more than 300 scientific publications and nine books, including the international bestseller 'The Physics of Star Trek,' a tour of the Star Trek universe and our universe, and 'Beyond Star Trek,' which addressed recent exciting discoveries in physics and astronomy and takes a look at how the laws of physics relate to notions from popular culture.
Krauss concluded his talk with the prediction that the future of science fiction is fraught with problems.
"The best part of physics of the future is that we have no idea what the exciting discoveries of the future will be," he said. "If I knew what the next big thing would be, I would be working on it now!"
Image 2 (below): Lawrence Krauss, Foundation professor at Arizona State University, says science fact is stranger than science fiction. Credit: Tom Story, Arizona State University