One of the projects we’re working on at the Center for Science and the Imagination is an effort to trace the lines of communication between science and science fiction. We know the two disciplines talk to each other, that they influence one another, and that both inspire new generations of authors and scientists. So what we are trying to do is map their interactions, and perhaps shed some light on the subsequent sequence of causes and effects.
One of the ways we’re investigating this is by compiling a database of inventions or innovations described in works of science fiction and their corresponding real world technologies, the most worn-out example of which is the Star Trek communicator inspiring the invention of the mobile phone. But did you know that Ray Bradbury predicted earbuds, or that the TASER was inspired by a story about an adventurer on safari with an electric rifle? However, we are not the only ones interested in this question of uncovering the science in science fiction.
Barry B. Luokkala’s Exploring Science through Science Fiction (Springer, 2014) is a new style of textbook, meant to bring science fiction enthusiasts some of the basic physics behind their favorite films and television series. While clearly aimed at the undergraduate level, the book touches on some bleeding edge avenues of research, such as the possibility of faster-than-light travel, stable wormholes, and teleportation through groundbreaking particle physics.
The chapters are organized not according to a linear progression of science content, but rather according to major themes in science fiction, and the examples and exercises given at the end of each chapter test the reader’s understanding of the material while putting them in a familiar science fiction context. Perhaps one of the most useful features of the book is a thorough set of appendices of films cited, with information about the science concepts illustrated therein.
While certainly not rigorous enough to replace any introductory physics texts, Exploring Science through Science Fiction would surely be a welcome, entertaining, and thought-provoking addition to any discussion on the science behind science fiction—and it will serve as a great resource in our efforts at CSI to map the structure of science fiction and its scientific roots.