What do scientists think about seeing their fields of research pulverized by science fiction? We asked researchers from diverse fields to tell us whether any science fiction gets it right.
Several of the scientists we contacted were simply at a loss when I asked whether they could think of any science fiction that was accurate when it came to their field of study. UC Santa Barbara geochemist David Valentine, who recently published a paper on the natural gas plumes from the Deepwater spill, asked us to let him know if we found any accurate geochemistry in SF. And Steven Pinker, Harvard's evolutionary psychology superstar, confessed that he doesn't read science fiction.
We did get some in-depth, and surprising, answers from other scientists, whose fields range from robotics to biology. Here they are.
Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robotics Lab, Georgia Tech:
Realistic depictions of robots are pretty boring, so there's not much to say on what is accurate or not. No positronic brains, no running amok killing everyone and everything. I guess that's the fiction in science fiction. You watch enough videos of robots at real research conferences and it's hard to stay awake...
Anyway, two that come to mind that are a bit more accurate than most:
1) Hal 9000, in 2001, apart from his apparent psychotic episode, is a robotic system that people live inside. Current research agendas, in human-robot interaction, task planning, command and control, etc., could conceivably lead to such an intelligent system.
2) EDI, in the critically panned movie Stealth, an AI wingman Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, which could eventually be the product of DOD research in many years, also seems plausible and fits in with the Air Force UAV agenda as I see it - again sans the psychotic episode so common in Western writing and cinema for robots.
Less plausible but great reading on dystopian robotics include Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson's Dune prequel trilogy on the Butlerian Jihad, and the evil (just trying to survive) Klikiss robots from Anderson's Saga of the Seven Suns series.
Julia R. Greer, Materials Scientist, CalTech:
Nanotechnology is such a broad field that it is hard to pinpoint what it really is, let lone which sci fi works depict it properly. Almost none of the [media] you mentioned do justice to materials science, most likely because it is something whose scope most people do not understand. For nanotechnology, however, the situation is much better since, for example, nearly everyone uses cell phones on TV, as well as in movies and books (the micro-processors in those cell phones are most certainly nanotechnological devices), as are computers, biomedical devices (often used in medical shows on TV), and telecommunication devices.
John Hawks, Paleoanthropologist, University of Wisconsin, Madison:
You know, it seems to me that the best science fiction gets one science concept really right, even if it leads to results that seem unrealistic.
My favorite along these lines is a classic, Cyril Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons." It's the original version of "Idiocracy" — the basic idea is that selection now favors the stupid, and so if we go forward in time, that's what we'll see. The concept is simple and well-drawn; the consequences unexpected.
David Barash, Evolutionary Psychologist, University of Washington:
I am hard-pressed to identify any sci-fi works that make use of evolutionary psychology directly, or even that fit neatly into its scientific world-view. Some possibilities include those books that have made use of the concept of selective breeding for particular behavioral inclinations: Dune comes to mind, and of course, before that, Brave New World.
Although evo-psych presumes genetic influence on behavior, it definitely doesn't imply anything like the genetic determinism found in either of these. In that sense, these books are more like a mis-use of evo-psych, likely to confirm the worst fears of readers who don't understand the science itself. Another case of this would be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which derived from the author's mis-reading of what was then called sociobiology - specifically, her assumption that a science that examined male-female differences (among other things) was also prescribing and exaggerating these differences.
Terry Johnson, Bionengineer, UC Berkeley:
I thought that Peter Watts' Blindsight did a great job of reinventing vampires as an extinct subspecies of humanity. Humanity pieces together what the vampire genome must have been and then resurrects them using genetic engineering. Hilarity ensues.
For synthetic biology, I'll go with David Brin and Gregory Benford's "cyanutes" from Heart of the Comet. These engineered microbes protect the crew from the dangerous levels of hydrogen cyanide found on Halley's Comet. According to the book, they must possess "...self-limiting reproduction, benign acceptance by the human immune system, pH sensitivity..." - all reasonable goals for potential medical applications of synthetic biology.
Dave Goldberg, Physicist, Drexel University:
If we count things like time travel, I've long said that (the actual device and the whole traveling nude thing aside) the original Terminator handles time travel better than any other movie I've ever seen. The entire thing is a completely self-consistent time loop, from John Conner's parentage and survivalist training, to the picture of Sarah Conner that finds its way to Kyle Reese. No grandfather paradoxes at all, but there are information paradoxes.
2001 does a great job dealing with things like how long it would really take to get to another planet, and especially with the artificial gravity aspects of things. For that matter, I was kind of surprised to note that if you pay attention to the details, the trip to Pandora in Avatar seems well thought out. They mention (in an off-handed sort of way) how long the trip takes and why the soldiers need to be kept in cryo. It sounds like they're taking a trip to Alpha Centauri. The whole thing about magical trees and unobtanium, not so much.
TV shows tend to do well in one area or another. Firefly, for example, is good because there aren't any warp engines. Everything is done with (more or less) ordinary rockets. But they do fall into the familiar trap (or filming necessity, if you like) of introducing artificial gravity. I also like that all of the worlds seem to be terraformed planets in the same solar system. It explains why travel between them is feasible in days rather than in years or longer. What's not clear is why the sun is so big and bright in the outer worlds. Whedon et al. also seem not to realize how big space is, even within our solar system. You can't make a blockade in space. To give you an idea, the "asteroid belt" in our own solar system is supposed to be this incredibly dangerous region with rocks everywhere. In reality, the distance between big asteroids is more like a million miles. And that's not hyperbole.
As for books, I've always been partial to Asimov's Robot series. "Positronic Brain" is just gobbleygook, of course and the idea that the 3 laws MUST be imprinted (for stability reasons) makes zero sense, but the rest is quite good.
This io9 Flashback originally appeared on io9 in 2010.