When Science Fiction Becomes Scientific Innovation

innovation, reinvention, imagination

“Logic will get you from A to B.
Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Albert Einstein

Works of speculative fiction have rarely been part of the educational curriculum, despite their popularity and influence.  What literary snobs tend to forget is that science fiction is a place for scientists to play with ideas even when they do not have sufficient resources of time or money to carry out formal experiments.

One may consider science fiction the design thinking phase of the scientific method, a place to explore the consequences, including social ones, of scientific innovations.  In many cases, the “what if” is much less complicated than the “how”, but in some cases real life scientists have managed to make a reality some technological innovations first described in works of fiction.  While time travel will not exist in our world any time soon, some innovations, such as space travel, cloning, and video chat have become realities, after fiction writers imagined them.

Many great ideas have humble beginnings.  They begin as casual conversations; they begin as fictional ideas  in the mind of a young person, before the trial and error process of making them a reality happens.  From the earliest stages of his education, Albert Einstein read works of speculative fiction with great interest; two of his favorite writers were Aaron Bernstein and Felix Eberty.  Their works and those of other science fiction writers may have influenced Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Time travel was a popular theme for science fiction stories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  A story by Eberty, “The Stars and World History,” published in 1846, explores the idea of humans being able to travel faster than the speed of light and thus being able to travel so far away that they could only observe events on earth many centuries after these events had taken place.  Not everyone saw the link between science fiction and mainstream scientific theories as a good thing though.

Henri Bergson, a philosopher, disparagingly likened Einstein’s treatment of time as a fourth dimension in the theory of relativity to H.G. Wells’ treatment of the same subject in his novel The Time Machine, implying that the statements made by Einstein were no less fictional than those made by Wells.

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