Putting the science in fiction


Cosmologist Paul Davies contributes to Project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire real science with sci-fi. Drew Turney talked to him about his quest. 


Back to the future II threw down the gauntlet to scientists with the hoverboard. – Brian Babineau / NHLI / Getty Images

Science and science fiction have always inspired each other but never more than today when initiatives to formalise the cross-pollination are growing.

Science fiction authors and film directors are – almost by necessity – science and technology geeks, with many of them taking great pains to adhere to scientific accuracy. Look at James Cameron, who has pushed movie science so far he has actually done important scientific work in the process.

By the same token, many people in the science technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries have made careers out of their formative years’ fascination with futuristic gadgets, vehicles, concepts and worlds depicted in pop culture.

The handheld communicators from the original series of Star Trek are said to have directly inspired the invention of the mobile phone in the early 1970s.

Back in 1989 Back to the Future II promised us that by 2015 we would have flying cars and the hoverboard. There is no sign of the former but aversion of the latter actually made it to the lab, if not becoming a regular sight on the streets. Plenty of institutions and even companies have invested heavily in the idea of bringing thinkers together to see what emerges.

A couple of years back Intel held a forum series called The Tomorrow Project that brought authors, engineers, artists and scientists together for workshops, papers and presentations. Intel said at the time that it was trying to help figure out what sort of future we want to live in and what kind we want to avoid.

“a great social upheaval is also a time of great creative genius, when you get scientific and technological advances.”

The fact that big multinational companies are paying very smart people to do such things seems to be the tacit agreement that science fiction is one of our most reliable barometers for the future – that sci-fi begets science.

When Hollywood captures our imagination (often fuelled by the collaborative power of the online world), we will often do our collective best to bring the screen world to life. And we should never underestimate the power of the general public to take action when they’re interested in an idea.

We all remember early 2013 when the Obama White House – forced by law to respond to a outlined popular petition – (with tongue slightly in cheek) why it couldn’t build a Death Star.

Paul Davies loved comics as a kid and now science fiction will inspire real-world scientific innovation. – Kym Smith / Newspix

No one represents the cross-fertilisation of science and science fiction better than Paul Davies. A wide-eyed kids who loved comics, sci-fi novels and cliffhanger movie serials in the 50s and 60s, he is now a renowned cosmologist and a leading figure at Arizona State University’s Beyond Centre for Fundamental Concepts in Science.

But Davies is a contributor to another ASU initiative, called Project Hieroglyph, that aims to inspire real-world scientific innovation using science fiction.

Davies says the dialogue between science and fiction goes back for at least 150 years. “We only need to think of HG Wells or Jules Verne in the 19th century making these sweeping projections,” he says.

The enthusiasm and talent that created the space age was a direct result of the impact of Flash Gordon and his swashbuckling contemporaries on the young minds of the day, he believes.

Project Hieroglyph is also something of a response to science fiction’s tendency to assume the future is going to be a terrible time because of any number of alien invasions, fascist governments, unsustainable population explosions or ecological collapses.

“The idea that we should recapture an upbeat visionary future for mankind that is driven by hope, I think is a wonderful one,” says Davies.

The project grew out of conversations between academics and the sci-fi authors they accused of being too dystopian. “Most futuristic science-fiction is dystopian,” Davies says. “Just think of the Hunger Games. The challenge was ‘let’s restore the balance and return to a utopian vision’.

“When we look back over the past 1,800 years, who would deny science has made life better for just about everybody on the planet?”

But critically praised author Neal Stephenson, the instigator of Project Hieroglyph, believes sci-fi is already prompting scientists to be more creative.

“A kind of creativity is essential to doing important science work,” he says. Project Hieroglyph is designed to test the proposition that, if an engineering organisation has a clear vision of a product, which members agree on, it will work more efficiently toward getting it built.

But he agrees the times may make that more difficult to pull off.

“The idea of collective action for basically non-economic reasons is a hard sell these days,” he says.

“We went into space because of the presumption that we have to compete with these people as if we were in a war. That’s a set of historical circumstances that came about at a particular time.”

A poster for Frederick Stephani’s 1936 action film ‘Flash Gordon’ starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Charles Middleton. – Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

The way to combat that is to go beyond the armies of kids glued to TVs and comics to inspire the people making the investments.

“Decisions are made by the people who have the capital now,” he says. “There seems to be a reluctance to take big risks to do things that might not work out.”

To Paul Davies, there’s another reason why it feels like the age of scientific adventurism is behind us.

“A great social upheaval is also a time of great creative genius when you get scientific and technological advances,” he says.

“A few years ago the banking system had collapsed and it was the time I would expect some clever people to come up with an alternative to money. We’ve had this concept for thousands of years, wasn’t it a good time for somebody to come up with a clever alternative? Sure enough, along came Bitcoins.”

Drew Turney is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
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