From the earliest ponderings of our most creative fictional writers, an idea to dream beyond our existing technologies was established to understand what could be from what was not yet realized. We know and love this genre known as science fiction. Today, many science fiction technologies and theories are no longer simply fiction. From airplanes to rockets to the Moon to extraterrestrial life, what was once considered fantastical is now part of our every day lives.
Although we owe much of the development of these existing technologies to applied scientists and engineers, the concepts behind the innovations would not have been possible if not for the creative storytellers who inspired said scientists and engineers to make the science fantasy into a science reality.
Scientists and engineers draw inspiration from a variety of science fiction sources including books, movies, and television shows. Prolific authors such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury and television shows such as Star Trek, have provided a foundation for a variety of technologies including the internet, cellphones, 3D printers, tablet computers, electric powered submarines, spaceships, and energy weapons that are still trying to bridge the gap between science fiction and science fact.
The earliest known mention of flying machines was in the Indian epic the Ramayana in approximately the 4th century BCE. These flying machines, known as Vimanas, were described as moving in trajectories similar to the accounts of UFOs in today’s pseudo-media. The Ramayana also references Gods using Vimanas equipped with deadly weapons to fight battles in the sky, a possible reference to today’s fighter jets.
True History (written in the 2nd century C.E. by Lucien) parodies space travel, extraterrestrial life, and interplanetary warfare. So far, human space travel has only gone as far as the Moon with plans to send humans to Mars in the near future. I think it is safe to say that for the time being, we are safe from interplanetary warfare.
Traveling to the Moon
In 1865, Jules Verne published the novel ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ that describes the concept of space travel with the aid of a flying machine being launched from Earth to explore the Moon using an enormous cannon.
Using Verne as an inspiration and expanding on his work, H.G. Wells wrote ‘The First Men to the Moon’ in that describes the trip that 3 astronauts took to land on the Moon. The silent movie, ‘A Trip to the Moon’ by George Méliès, was released shortly after Wells’ novel in 1902 and is based on both works. A Trip to the Moon follows a group of astronomers on their way to the Moon to explore the lunar surface and meet the inhabitants (as well as try to bring one home with them).
While the first real space explorers did not exactly get shot out of a cannon, astronauts did venture into space beginning with Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961 to the Apollo 11 mission to land on the Moon with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on July 20, 1969.
There are many similarities to the way H.G. Welles described his mission to the Moon with Apollo 11’s including three astronauts, but unlike The First Men in the Moon, the Apollo astronauts found no traces of life.
The first known recording of extraterrestrial life in science fiction is in Lucian’s ‘True History’ with countless more examples following. Today, many science fiction films and television shows depict several alien races either living together or fighting against one another, such as in Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Farscape, and H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.
We don’t yet have a hundred percent proof that humanoid extraterrestrials exist, despite many claims of aliens walking among us, Roswell in 1947, countless abduction stories, and the panic caused by the first radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
Astronomers use high-quality telescopes to search for Earth-like planets in orbit around other stars (the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992 and the current count is in the thousands) and using large radio telescopes to listen for alien signatures, just like in Carl Sagan’s Contact.
Light Speed and Beyond
With the top speed of 250,000 kilometers per hour, the Juno spacecraft has reached the fastest speed of any man-made object, and yet it is still only about 0.002 percent of the speed of light. At this rate, it would take about 13,580 years to get to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away.
Most science fiction stories that take place in outer space or on a spaceship will have vehicles that travel at or faster than the speed of light. The Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek has a maximum speed of warp 9.6, which translates to 1,909 times faster than the speed of light, and about 8.3 million times faster than Juno.
Other ships, such as the Heart of Gold from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and the TARDIS from Doctor Who seem to travel instantaneously. While there are many grand theories that NASA is building a warp drive, we will have to be patient to see if this piece of science fiction ever becomes science fact.
Time travel, like faster than light travel, is commonplace in the science fiction universe and not yet a reality. H.G. Wells popularized time travel in 1895 with his novel ‘The Time Machine’ when a man goes forwards in time more than 800,000 years and then returns back to his own time. The passengers of the TARDIS in Doctor Who travel all over time; from the beginnings of the universe to the end. Back to the Future (1985) used a DeLorean to travel both back to 1955 and forward to 2015.
In reality, we are all moving forward in time one day at a time. There also exist theories that it would actually be possible to move forwards in time utilizing Einstein’s theory of relativity, wormholes, and black holes. While these all may be possible one day, it is less likely that we may be able to travel backwards in time to see, for example, the pyramids being built or Mount Vesuvius erupting and covering Pompeii with ash.
In a way, however, telescopes are like time machines. The light from distant stars travels at a finite speed and will take time to reach us. When we are looking at Proxima Centauri, we are actually seeing what it looked like 4.2 years ago. Even when we look at our own Sun, we are seeing what it looked like about 8 minutes ago due to the distance that the light had traveled. So while we may never actually get to travel backwards in time, we can at least see what it is was like on other worlds.