Science Fiction and Space Travel: When Media Boldly Goes Where No Science Has Gone Before

In this class so far, we’ve talked about how to create media (like podcasts, movies, and blogs) that better communicate science to the world. For us Science Communicators, science begets media; someone has to discover new ideas before we can say or film or write anything. But what about when this process is reversed? What happens when the media brings up innovative concepts before science does?

Well, we usually call that “science fiction,” and often we cringe or rant at just how bad some sci fi can portray science. But some fiction has accurately predicted, inspired, or effected real science.

Jules Verne Wasn’t All Bad

Okay, so Journey to The Center of the Earth hurts me in my physics (and geology!) too, but Jules Verne also wrote a novel called From the Earth to the Moon in 1865. In it, three men build a giant canon to shoot a small vessel (with themselves inside) into space and land on the moon. Now, “shooting” people into space turns out to not be feasible, but Verne did some actual calculations and got some other pretty important things right.  The dimensions and material of the vessel, the best location from which to launch, and even the cost of the venture were shockingly close the reality of the Apollo missions, especially considering he was writing a hundred years before science finally achieved space travel.

Star Trek: The First Frontier

If you’re as much of a nerd as I am, you’re already familiar with the 1960s original Star Trek series. Like all the best science fiction, Star Trek was set in a future chockablock with sweet gadgets, but think for just a moment about all the things this television show “invented” that you own today: data pads (iPad), portable computer memory (USB sticks), remote location devices (GPS), huge flat screens (plasma screens), tricorders (PDAs), even automatic sliding doors were all unheard of at the time! Martin Cooper directly credits the classic Star Trek communication device for motivating him to build the world’s first cellphone. By sharing concepts for useful, really cool devices, Star Trek inspired people to bring to real life the next generation of consumer technology.

Everyone Knows Astronauts Wear Silver

John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in space, and he did it in a shiny silver suit. The Mercury mission suits were just slightly upgraded versions of high altitude pressure suits designed by the U.S. Navy –which originally came in military olive green. Why the change in color from green to silver?

The common-sense “concerns about reflecting heat” don’t quite cut it; the green color worked perfectly fine in all the near-orbit flights, and, according to the historian quoted at the end of this discussion thread, the silver color was just that: a silver “spray” on top of the nylon material.

But the silver color made sense on a cultural level: everything from the gleam of metallic ship hulls to shiny aliens-are-reading-my-brain-waves tin foil hats were used by writers to convey a sense of the futuristic. And it worked. Science fiction taught even the scientists at NASA to associate the color silver with space.

The color silver was so important, you can see that the two astronauts in the center -John Glenn and Deke Slayton- are actually wearing military boots that were spray painted for this infamous photo because the real boots weren't finished being made yet!

Telling Stories

So, fellow Science Communicators, we’ve already talked some about whether we count movie makers and their ilk among those of us trying to effectively communicate scientific ideas to the public. Is there an important difference between telling a story with science and telling a story about science?

If there is an important difference, what about when the fiction gets it right, like in the examples above? And how do we work with fiction creators like Isaac Asimov or George Lucas who have universally impacted the way people (including scientists) view science and technology?

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10 comments on “Science Fiction and Space Travel: When Media Boldly Goes Where No Science Has Gone Before

  1. What a great post! I loved reading this!

    I have to admit I wasn’t much of a sci-fi nut when I was younger. Always been the ‘Save the Planet’ type, but its amazing that people could have predicted these advances in science & technology so long before their time.

    I think that telling a story with science is telling a story about science. Whether or not that science is right is a bit of a sensitive topic amongst this blog! I suppose it is possible that we’ll all have egg on our face in the future when some new discoveries are made.

  2. WOW. This post is amazing!

    After reading this, I actually flicked over to Star Trek and saw it in a whole new light! My Granddad always says that whatever technologies and advancements you see in movies will one day be in real life; that basically whatever we imagine we can create. Your post really proves this point!

    Thanks for writing such an intriguing post (and sticking up for the ‘science’ on TV!).

  3. Thanks Brogan! Star Trek was definitely the inspiration for this post, but then I talked with a friend who worked at the Space Academy, and he told me the NASA stories… I knew I just HAD to share those with you guys! It blows me away to know that not only are sci fi writers doing pretty decent science, but that scientists sometimes make decisions based on sci fi. Can you find any other Star Trek inventions that I missed? I’ll give you a candybar if you do! 🙂

    Ashfonty, thanks for answering my question and taking a stance on the telling stories issue; I haven’t quite decided myself, but I want to hear more people’s arguments. I’d love to hear more about why you feel they are the same thing!

    Mike, George Lucas definitely defined a generation and changed culture forever. I’m curious what do you think of James Cameron and Avatar? Is he a “modern” George Lucas?

  4. Great post Brogan!
    As one of SciFi “otaku”, I really enjoyed your post!
    And sorry guys, long long reply again…

    Well, let me tell about a bit about SciFi literature, I want to share some example of Science fiction has already reached to a good point.

    Jules Verne, in his work “the mysterious island”, one engineer mentioned about future energy, like “Maybe, Hydrogen would be the main energy source”, in 1874!
    Arthur C. Clark showed a quite detailed plan about “Orbital space elevator” in his novel “the fountain of paradise” in 1979. he also stated the idea of telecommunication satellite in detail.
    They had great vision.

    The genre I love in SciFi is called “Hard SF”, which means strictly stick to scientific principals, but builds huge imagination upon that, like “How can we built a lift to the moon with our current technology?”. Works of Arthur C Clark was one of the great examples.

    Telling a story with science or about science, thats excellent theme!

    I think you already had a great example in your post.
    Isaac Asimov, was also a professor of chemistry, and he wrote amount of non-fiction article for popular magazine. I love those as equal as his fiction novel, because he keep telling a scientific topic with great wit, humour and attractive episodes, I gain amount of knowledge from his essay! He was the author who did quite well in both, and he used almost same technique in both works, like using attractive characters, story synopsys, clear explanation, etc. The one thing he did carefully in his non-fiction works is, he always cautious about telling uncertain things or topics, or we may call it “not-really science”. And maybe when he was bored about that restriction, he wrote a novel I think.

    Well, I think there are bit difference between these two, as telling story “with” science allows you to give bit of “imagination”or uncertainty, and telling story “about science” does not allow, because main aim of story “with” science is story, in this case, science is just one of plops, but in case of story “about” science, it should be stick to exact science as it is main topic.

  5. I found this post really interesting – as both an assessment of sci-fi “predictions” and in terms of story telling.
    I think I’ll have to go back to my favourite sci-fi series and see how many things from the “old” series have made it into the modern day.

    [I know – boring comment this week – forgive me, I’m sleep deprived]

  6. Just a minority report: Science Fiction is a highly variable genre, and as such it makes sense that if you fire 1000 shots you’ll get a hit or two.

    I do believe that scientists are often inspired by science fiction, but its hardly an accurate predictor of the future.

    • Good point lodoubt; though I hadn’t really meant to use science fiction as a *predictor* of future technology, it’s very true that the vast majority of sci fi has no bearing whatsoever on real science.

      I think we’ve talked a lot in class and this blog about how terrible the bad science media can be, so I was interested specifically in those few “hit or two” cases where the fiction gets it SO right (either factually or culturally), it changes the entire stage.

      Also, I’d wager there are plenty of examples where science fiction inspires people to become scientists (regardless of the accuracy); it’s this *relationship* between sci fi creating scientists creating science media that I wanted to explore more.

      What inspired you to study science and science communication? Did you read science fiction as a kid? Do you read science fiction now?

  7. Hello! Would you mind if I share your article with my myspace group? There’s a lot of people that I think would really devour your content because this matter is exactly what they are interested in. Please let me know if you have any reservations. Thanks

    • Hello,

      Thanks for your interest and for asking!
      Since this post is on a class blog for my university, I would like to view your myspace group before I consent.
      Could you please send me a link to the website where you would like to share this blog?

      Thanks!

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