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Letting Science Stimulate The Imagination


Last year, the movie The Martian hit theaters nationwide, becoming an instant hit.  The movie follows the adventures of space castaway Mark Watney, accidentally left behind on Mars after an aborted mission to Mars. It follows his subsequent challenges as he uses his knowledge of science to survive in a place where no life has been known to survive.The story, and the book version in particular, goes into quite a bit of detail on how Mark does this. It makes the story plausible and all the more interesting.

Reading The Martian and then watching the movie made me think about the connection between science and science fiction in my own writing and reading. Science has always been a fascination of mine. I can remember making attempts in high school at writing grand stories of a decaying earth with all of humanity executing a massive exodus on giant space ships. The story never got very far but the ideas were there. Just a few years later, my graduation project was a 20 page single space paper on the role of antimatter in the universe (I still have it). It was one of my most interesting research papers ever. Since then,  science and science fiction has continued to be an ever present influence on my imagination, fed during my college years by the works of Isaac Asimov (the Foundation trilogy in particular) and the like and in more recent years by Orson Scott Card and others.

This year, scientific breakthroughs have been in the news on several occasions. Although many of the discoveries are not new in themselves, for one reason or another they have emerged once again to rekindle the imagination of thousands, including mine. For me, when I hear about breakthroughs in science, my mind immediately tends to start imagining what may be possible. What might be possible in one hundred years, a thousand? What will it be like? How will our society be different?

First, it was announced back in early February that the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity have finally been observed and measured. Gravitational waves are kind of like the waves you see when you drop a rock in a puddle. Ripples are created on the surface that radiates out from the source into space itself. For me, when I think of gravitational waves, I think of time travel, warp drives and worm holes, since these in one way or another seem associated with bending space time to do our bidding in one way or another. I don’t have to tell you that there are plenty of stories out there that use these mechanisms as story components in one way or another.

Second, it was announced that travel to Mars and other places in space can be cut significantly using laser sails instead of solar sails. The idea behind this is relatively simple. Solar sails, which I am more familiar with, are basically large “sails” attached to a spacecraft. The photons from the sun continuously hit the sail, very slowly propelling it forward. This takes a long time, obviously, and would not be very practical for travel within the solar system (basics about solar sails, including current projects, can be found here). That’s where lasers could be beneficial. A laser beam from a laser stationed on earth is much more focused and can be pointed directly at the sail, focusing all of the energy of the laser on the sail compared to the sun’s rays that are dispersed all over the place. So, more photons, more power, more speed (or, as Jeremy Clarkson would say, SPEEEEEED). Getting to Mars would go from taking many months to mere days.

Third, a Swedish scientist announced a model of the universe that predicts that there can only be one Earth in the whole universe. This is fascinating from a variety of different perspectives. First, from a scientific perspective, if there are no alien worlds out there, why are we wasting millions, if not billions, on large radio telescopes, SETI programs and such, if the possibility of actually finding something is (close to) zero? This doesn’t even take into account that if we actually did find some intelligence out there, it’s likely that they’re already gone by the time we figure out someone is (was) out there. Second, from a religious perspective, leaders from a number of religions will jump up and down telling the scientists “I told you so” and waving proof that we are uniquely created by God and this proves it. I’ll leave the discussion as to who’s right on this topic for some other time. Finally, from a science fiction perspective, if there’s little to no chance of other life out there, much of science fiction that takes place on other worlds that reach other civilizations is just…fantasy.

Now, for the most part, these ideas are not new. Gravitational waves are not new. Solar sails are not new. Yet, new or not, various new discoveries associated with these technologies have been made and many more will without a doubt be made in the future. They catch my attention, my imagination and they make me ponder the possibilities of space exploration from a scientific perspective but also from a fictional perspective. In other words, for me these discoveries are food for my imagination in much the same way hopping in a space ship in a fictional universe can be or the way a beautiful sunny day can be an inspiration to an artist. Science is the fuel that feeds my science fiction.

What about you, especially if you’re into sci-fi? How does science affect you and how you see the world and the universe.



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