“Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.” – Jules Verne
Many scientists chose their profession after becoming hooked on science fiction at an early age. But sometimes, scientists are inspired to turn a specific fictional technology into reality. Here’s just a few.
1. The helicopter
Science fiction source: Jules Verne’s 1886 novel Robur The Conqueror (also known as The Clipper of the Clouds).
The Albatross of Jules Verne’s “Robur the Conqueror”, illustrated by Léon Benett.
The hero of Verne’s adventure novel invents the world’s first “heavier than air” flying machine – the Albatross – kept aloft by propellers atop tall masts.
At the turn of the century, a 12-year-old Russian boy called Igor Sikorsky read Verne’s novel and built his first helicopter, powered by a rubber band.
Sikorsky went on to become one of the pioneers of aviation, designing the first commercial airliner, the Ilya Muromets, in 1914.
After emigrating to the United States in 1919, following the Russian civil war, Sikorsky started a successful aviation company aided by the financial backing of composer Sergei Rachmaninov.
Sikorsky trialled several helicopter designs in his lifetime, before eventually succeeding in 1939 with his VS-300, regarded as the first modern helicopter, and the first to be mass-produced.
Simon Lake, who designed the first submarine to sail in open seas, was also directly inspired by another Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (though a handful of working submarines did predate the novel).
In 1898, after Lake sailed his invention more than 1,000 kilometres from Virginia to New Jersey, he received a congratulatory telegram from his boyhood hero: Verne.
Science fiction source: H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1897).
Robert H. Goddard, the American scientist who built the first liquid-fuelled rocket—became fascinated with spaceflight after reading H.G. Wells’ classic novel about a Martian invasion.
In the novel, the Martians fired capsules across to the Earth using giant cannons.
After studying physics, Goddard focused instead on improving the design of rockets, which at the time were fuelled by gunpowder and used as fireworks or artillery. Goddard’s theory and experiments showed liquid-fuelled rockets could be much more efficient.
He also developed gyroscopes and steerable thrust to control the rockets’ flight and foresaw the scientific uses of spaceflight, such as photographing the moon via a rocket fly-by.
Goddard’s genius was not appreciated in his own time, however, in part because the press of the day did not believe a rocket would work in a vacuum.
After the New York Times ridiculed his ideas in 1920, Goddard uttered prescient words: “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realised, it becomes commonplace.”
3. The atomic bomb
Science fiction source: H.G. Wells’ novel The World Set Free (1914).
In the early 20th Century Marie Curie and others realised that although radioactive elements, like radium, emitted energy at a tiny rate, the total amount released over thousands of years was enormous.
This idea led H.G. Wells to write his 1914 novel The World Set Free, in which he imagined scientists harnessing the immense power of atomic energy and how it could fuel a world war.
In Berlin in 1932 the Jewish Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard read Wells’ novel and was inspired by the vision.
When Hitler took power the following year, Szilard fled to England. In September 1933, while waiting for the traffic lights to change Russell Square in London, Szilard realised the key to tapping in to the power inside the atomic nucleus – the nuclear chain reaction.
In 1939 it was Szilard who drafted the letter, signed by his friend, Albert Einstein that warned US President Franklin Roosevelt of the potential for atomic weapons, and the Manhattan Project was born.
4. Warp Drive Research
Science fiction source: Star Trek TV series (1960s)
In Star Trek, spaceships use a fanciful sounding “warp drive” to travel faster than the speed of light. But in the 1990s one Mexican theoretical physicist, Miguel Alcubierre decided to take the notion of warp-speed seriously.
He used his understanding of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity to find a solution that could allow warp drive to work, and in a way amazingly faithful to that implied in the TV show.
Although the Universe has a so-called cosmic speed limit, which prevents matter from moving faster than light, this limit does not apply to spacetime itself.
Alcubierre’s idea is to use a very high density of energy to warp the spacetime around the ship. The warping would cause the spacetime itself to propel forward, carrying the ship with it — it’s a bit like how a moving walkway carries you speedily through an airport.
Theoretical physicists agree the idea makes sense (although it would require a goodly stock of “negative energy”, which may not exist.)
Physicists at NASA’s Eagleworks lab have even experimented with a miniature version in the lab.
Star Trek has also been the inspiration behind research into “cloaking devices”, which might render an object invisible by bending light around it.
In 2012, scientists at Duke University demonstrated a working device, though their design only worked for a narrow range of microwaves and would be no use for visible light.
5. Personal flying machines
Science fiction sources: Too many to list…
One of the tropes of science fiction has always been the personal flying machine – from jetpacks of the mass-market comics of the 1920s, to George Jetson’s flying car, and the hoverboard of Back to the Future II. Amazingly, serious endeavours to develop each of these are in progress.
Last year, an Australian aviator flew a jetpack around the Statue of Liberty in New York, though its limited flight duration means it probably won’t be a breakthrough technology any time soon.
A more practical, although slower, design may be the New Zealand designed Martin Jetpack, which is expected to go on sale this year at about $150,000.
In the US, the Terrafugia company is preparing to deliver its first orders of the Transition light aircraft, which can fold its wings in under a minute and operate as a road legal vehicle — it will even fit inside a standard garage.
Meanwhile, Lexus has taken on the hoverboard idea, using superconducting magnets to levitate the board in the same way that maglev trains float above their tracks.
The catch is, the hoverboard only works on a specially built skatepark. Other hoverboard designs using more conventional thrusters like jets and propellers, are less sexy, but probably more practical.
On 30 April 2016 Franky Zapata set a new world record by flying his jet-powered Flyboard more than two kilometres.
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