Thursday, June 07, 2012

Science Fiction, or Engineering Fiction?

The death of Ray Bradbury brings out the common assertion that science fiction stories, novels, etc. such as those produced by him and Asimov and others "predicted" various devices such as cell phones, ipods, etc... etc. In fact, when talking to many of my friends, they often brought up a number of the modern-day devices that had some sort of a resemblance to devices in use in various science fiction stories.

I've always considered these to be "technologies", rather than science. After all, these are gadgets. In fact, in the few (again, this may not be representative) science fiction stories that I've encountered, there is more of an emphasis on the engineering aspects of the "fiction" rather than science itself. After all, these are devices that have been engineered to do amazing stuff. So the engineering capabilities are the ones that are being touted, not the science. And strangely enough, the science that usually accompany these amazing devices aren't that "sexy". After all, when was the last time the front page of a major newspaper proclaim the physics that is responsible for the capacitive touch screen on your iPhone? So, if one wants to claim that the science that made these devices possible is also astounding, I would ask "what science"?

And this brings us to really glaring omission in many of the coverage of articles on science fiction stories. The science is often missing or not well-highlighted. The few times that I think that I've seen a "science fiction" is in the dealing with worm holes and hyperspace. But even there, one often finds that it is the "gadget" or the space ship that gets center stage (again, engineering). But here, at least, you can see the direct connection between the device, and the science, and how the "scientific fiction" resulted in the device and the ability to do something. This is not often the case. More often than not, from my reading, it's the gadget that gets top billing, and the science is rather obscure.

I've often been asked why I don't normally read science fiction novels or books. I think people tend to think that if you're a physicist, then reading science fiction stories is almost a second nature. My usual reply here is that, I find more fascinating and mind-boggling SCIENCE (not engineering) in real physics than I can find in science fiction stories. Science fiction writers don't deal with CP violation, spin-charge separation, fractional quantum Hall effect, neutrino flavor mixing, etc.. etc. How about making use of the Luttinger Liquid property of spin-charge separation where a spy decompose himself into a series of signals in a 1D wire to avoid detection? He then transport himself to another location inside the 1D wire, where his charge and his spin moves with different dispersion rate and thus, cannot be detected easily. How's that for "science fiction"?



sudheer s. said...

I completely agree with you.Science fiction stories have indeed given birth to new technologies not new 'sciences'. There is a difference between science and technology(though they are often used together),and people should understand that.
Engineers are the ones who often take inspirations from sci-fi stories.
And yes , sometimes physics textbooks seem more interesting than novels.
Once again,this post is one piece of neat and excellent presentation of an argument to counter a popular myth...

Unknown said...

Obviously I am more intersetd in Engineering than you are.

I think SF novels some use science science very deeply, but in a backwards looking way. They take the science known at the time and try to work out the consequences. A fairly unsubtle example is "Space-time is curved, so space travelers might get around using wormholes".

A more interesting proposition might be: "life explore all kinds of harsh environments, and evolution is endlessly inventive. So in a billion years, the Earth's biosphere might conqure the whole solar system". (This is from /Beyond the fall of night/ by Gregory Benford.

So while SF sometimes does inspire engineering, it can only be inspired by science. This is why attempts to link teleportation research to Star Trek always seem so weak.

upessimist said...

Long time reader, first time responder.

What about Asimov's Foundation series? That has Psychohistory! Do you consider that Science Fiction? Or perhaps it's Social Science Fiction, or Mathematical Fiction?