The monolith discovered on the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Do the laws of science fiction apply to reality?

You wouldn’t think so at first, but some rules for writing fiction apply perfectly to reality. It does make sense considering that most forms of fiction try their best to capture reality in the written word. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the case of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and his genius three laws.

Here are Clarke’s three laws, from the 1962 essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination,” which was published in the book Profiles of the Future:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

If any of those sound familiar, it’s because you’ve seen them play out hundreds of times in popular culture –books, movies, videogames, you name it. It’s almost pointless to bother with examples, but I’ll soon add a follow-up post here that does nothing but highlight how Clarke’s laws are everywhere. What’s more important about these three sentences isn’t their relevance to writing, but their relevance to reality.

The first is the quickest to understand, but the whole thing about a “distinguished but elderly scientist” is just a confining restriction when taken out of the context of fiction. In the real world, anyone can end up vindicated for their outlandish beliefs and anyone can be proven wrong in the face of progress. For scientists, both things happen all the time.

Of course, the other caveat to consider is that this rule has to be taken with a grain of salt. While there’s no denying many scientists have been called fools or ignored over some of their beliefs (Galileo, Mendel, even Einstein) and eventually been proven right, not every scientist gets to be correct. What’s more, ideas with little to no scientific basis don’t automatically end up being proven right just because someone with a PhD “calls it.” But the important thing to remember is that a prediction isn’t necessarily incorrect out just because it’s currently unpopular or impossible to prove. In the future, there’s a chance someone will figure out the truth behind what was once thought to be the crazy.

Moving onto the second law, things are a little different because of how fundamental it is to continue to explore, pushing beyond the existing limits of scientific knowledge. I mean, duh, that’s a basic principle of science. And while many areas of science do push those boundaries on a regular basis, it often seems like many of those avenues go unnoticed by the public unless the resulting technology becomes a household object (how much would you really know about GPS positioning if it wasn’t for Google Maps, Google Earth and their ilk?). For me, the lesson isn’t necessarily that scientist aren’t taking enough risks; it’s about our need as citizens and learners to push past the limits of our scientific literacy and meet researchers halfway.

For example, take a look at the work of ASU’s own Lawrence Krauss and his work on dark matter and dark energy. It represents great progress in a field that is crucial to understanding the universe, but it’s also something most people know nothing about. And while it would be absurd to expect people to understand a form of theoretical physics that still gives top scientists headaches, it’s not crazy to expect basic knowledge. I mean, when 95% of the universe is made up of stuff we don’t entirely understand, it seems like something we should learn a bit about.

In a less esoteric sense, people could also take a more active look at the work companies like Planetary Resources (an asteroid mining company) and Space X (a private space transport company) are doing. Not only are both companies working toward something humanity sorely needs, but they’re far easier subjects to grasp on a basic level. And it’s even easier to follow the innovations of massive companies like Google – innovations like driverless cars and augmented reality devices. And yet plenty of people aren’t interested in learning anything about these advances.

You might ask: why should I spend my valuable time learning about this? I’m not a scientist. It’s simple: more scientific awareness will result in more scientific appreciation, and more of that can only help humanity move forward. What’s more, when science becomes important, electing politicians who care about science policy and research funding does, too. So next time someone drops a piece of previously unknown science on you, try looking into it instead of looking past it. You might be surprised at what you can wrap your head around and what might blow your mind.

It’s the third law that gets really weird, though. Not only is it the most outlandish idea, it’s the most important. It seems hard to think of a technology so advanced that the only explanation our brains can come up with is “magic,” but it’s more doable than you’d think. Just take a second to think about how the Internet and computers actually work, or how quarks bond to become atomic nuclei, which bond to become molecules, which bond to become all of the complex things we interact with on a daily basis. Everyone confronts forms of technology or aspects of science that are just baffling to them – at some point you just throw your hands up in defeat and say “a wizard did it!” While people can certainly overcome these mental blocks, they also might respond by giving up on trying to understand, because it’s just too complicated.

Despite the brain-melting elusiveness of some scientific phenomena, that’s not my actual point – just an example to start you thinking. What makes this final law truly important is the idea that scientists shouldn’t rule out even the most ridiculous idea completely. And no, I don’t mean long shots like colonies on Mars or high-functioning robots – I mean almost crazy-sounding things like faster-than-light travel and superpowers (yes, I said it: superpowers).

In light of Clarke’s law, if these impossible-seeming technologies seem like magic, there’s a chance that some sufficiently advanced (seemingly “magical”) technology could come along and make it possible. So even though scientists currently have no idea how to directly translate brain waves to break down language barriers, it might be possible one day. And it may be some kind of external apparatus that gets the job done instead of something biological like Douglas Adams’ babel fish, but if the end result is the same: the magic still becomes technology.

Whether or not scientists ever manage to make our wildest dreams a reality, it’s still important to never say never, as my favorite theorist, Justin Bieber, teaches us. After all, many of us get are motivated to be scientists so we can achieve what was once thought to be impossible. It follows that many people probably don’t get involved in science because they think their dreams are unachievable. In a society that thrives on the continual advancement of science and technology, we need to foster an ambitious, risk-taking ecosystem for discovery (what Jack Hidary calls a “moon shot ecosystem”) instead of shutting out people who want to solve problems like faster-than-light travel. Because, seriously, that could be really useful someday.

Image courtesy of Bill Lile, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.