GeekOut

Where data meet diction: Science and sci-fi's dialogue

When the U.S.S. Enterprise or Millennium Falcon glides by the camera, we take an odd comfort in the signature “whoosh” sound that follows.

Our friend, the stickler for scientific fact, usually points out that sound can never be possible in space. But don’t let the same be said for warp drive and tricorders, or even Starfleet Academy and the “Force.” Science and science fiction follow an intricate dance that toes the line between fantasy and fact. It is, in fact, a love story – a partnership full of symbiosis and reciprocity.

“They’re partners - science is the foundation of imagination,” said Bernadette McDaid, executive producer of the “Prophets of Science Fiction” series on Science Channel. “Science gives sci-fi credible underpinnings, and sci-fi imbues science with imagination.” Scientists and sci-fi authors weigh in on “Prophets of Science Fiction with Ridley Scott.” The series, which returns Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT, takes a question posed by a well-known science fiction author, and investigates the angles, innovations and possibilities through current research.

“Sci-fi is fiction. It’s about entertainment and telling stories, but it has always been trying hard, not necessarily to predict the future accurately, but to explore the implications of what the future might bring,” said astrophysicist and theoretical physicist Sean Caroll. “Science and sci-fi, they have very different toolboxes. Scientists use experiments, theories and data. Sci-fi uses the imagination, spurred by the physical world in which we live.”

The first half of the season focused on Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Mary Shelley, who is credited with creating the genre of science fiction. The second half premieres with Isaac Asimov, followed by Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein and George Lucas. A break was inserted in the schedule to include exciting new research conducted on the possibility of “the Force as a projection of the mind’s ability to shape reality beyond the walls of our bodies,” according to McDaid.

The episode on Asimov begins with the question: “Will robots take over the world?” There is no “can” in that question, mind you, but a “will.”  The episode also questions if robots will be the key to our future or the tool of our destruction.

“I like the fact that sci-fi is boldly willing to accept that things change,” futurist and author David Brin said. “Sci-fi is the genre that considers that children will learn from the mistakes of their parents. Its tragedies are saying to us, ‘This didn’t have to happen.’”

While science fiction may present apocalyptic futures, it is largely an optimistic genre that encourages taking what we have and making it better, Carroll said.

“The reason why people are interested in science is because they are inspired by the grand vistas that have been presented to us by science fiction,” Carroll said. “It’s part of what makes us human beings – we want to understand the world, to explore it and discover new things. That’s the common thread that runs through sci-fi and science.”

At times, scientists and sci-fi authors become one and the same, driven to explore both sides of the street.

In the 1980s when scientist Carl Sagan began writing “Contact,” a sci-fi novel, he called a friend, physicist Kip Thorne, for advice. Sagan wanted to use a black hole in the story for transporting characters quickly across the galaxy. Thorne said Sagan should use a wormhole – a black hole would kill them instantly.

It was Thorne who walked away from the conversation wondering about the possibility of moving across time and space, and whether or not time travel could be possible in the context of general relativity, Carroll said. Today, Thorne is one of the leading experts on astrophysical implications of the theory of relativity.

Researchers are also striving to develop tricorders - the hand-held scanning-recording-analysis devices so well-known in “Star Trek” - to improve rural health care and measure people’s vital signs. For years, NASA has worked with teams to develop an advanced propulsion technology it calls “warp drive,” and half the battle is looking at whether it’s truly possible, or violates physics, said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.

A fan of science fiction movies from an early age, Shostak wrote Gene Roddenberry a letter while he was in grad school, asking if Roddenberry would like to have Shostak redline the “Star Trek: The Original Series” scripts “to make the science better.” Roddenberry politely declined. Now, in addition to his work with SETI, Shostak is also a science adviser for sci-fi films. At times, he helps producers “weigh the story value of that ‘whoosh’ versus science.”

Science and science fiction motivate one another to explore possibilities, but it has been argued that sci-fi writers are prophets who foretell the technology of the future, especially when their fictional ideas come true.

While the writings of Dick, Wells and Clarke may have captivated readers with deeply rich stories of rogue androids and invading Martians, Wells said it best in the epitaph he wrote for himself: “I told you so."

That grimly knowing statement is deceptively simple, like the questions these pillars of the science fiction genre posed in their works. Dick questioned the definition of reality, while Wells imagined that our own inventions might lead to the end of our civilization. Wells also accurately predicted nuclear weapons and genetic engineering.

Clarke, whose ideas helped lead to the invention of the satellite, regarded himself as a prophet. He also penned the three “laws of prediction” in his 1962 essay, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” His second law boldly proclaims that “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

“We’re living in a science fiction world today!” Michael Laine, president of LiftPort, said. “Science fiction leads science, in my experience, but it does it in really unexpected ways.”

Laine’s company has worked in the past on projects like the space elevator, and currently, an elevator on the moon. And while most people immediately point to Clarke’s “Fountains of Paradise” novel that presents the idea of a space elevator, Laine himself is largely influenced by Heinlein, and 20 years ago, didn’t think a space elevator was even possible.

A former U.S. Marine, Laine is also an alum of the International Space University, “literally the closest thing to Starfleet Academy that exists,” he said. But one of his greatest goals for LiftPort, and bridging the best of science and sci-fi, is adding artistry to the science, technology, engineering and math education coalition, known as STEM. Push artists into the conversation, and it’s a full dialogue, he believes. “Not everyone is going to be an engineer. The stories need to be told and interpreted. Artists are a critical but missing component to this.”

The graphic artist for LiftPort creates everything from incredibly futuristic and imaginative sketches to strictly accurate engineering plans. All of the sketches are kept and considered in LiftPort’s designs.

“It’s the romance,” Shostak said. “It isn’t so much the technical details of the ion drive, it’s what you might use it for.”