Science fiction ideas have inspired advances in the real world – remember how Arthur C Clarke predicted modern satellites. But some SF ideas can turn out to be utter codswallop.
The link between science fiction and science is something columnist Henry Gee looks at in the April edition of Focus, on sale 11 March. In a great blog
displaying vintage American science magazines, I found a writer doing exactly the same – in the 1930s.
In “Most Scientific Fiction Can’t Come True”
in a 1931 edition of Modern Mechanics magazine, William J Harris considered how the science fiction of the day might become a reality. How many of the ideas he explored have moved from fiction to fact?
Fiction: Space travel
Harris thought that the missing piece was to discover how vehicles could withstand the gravitational strain of space. He also thought astronauts would only be weightless at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and Moon when “occupants would cling to ceilings or hang suspended in the middle of the rocket until their space ship reached a point where gravity began to be exerted again”.
Fact? Forty years later Armstrong et al did their thing, and NASA chief Charles Bolden has said humans could visit Mars by the early 2030s.
Harris imagined knocking electrons off the atoms in the human form to reduce it eventually to hydrogen. The body would move through the elements as it gradually lost electrons, becoming “in turn many rare and wonderful things, including krypton, antimony, argon, arsenic, cadmium, gallium, manganese, molybdenum, rhodium, and even silver”.
Fact? It’s not as dramatic as Harris’s shape-shifting proposition, but scientists have beamed individual subatomic particles from one side of a lab to the other. Focus recently predicted it might happen by 2150, so we’ve got a way to go before we can tele-pop to the shops.
Fiction: Extra-terrestrial communication
Harris ruled this out because the recently discovered ‘heavyside layer’ – the ionized part of Earth’s atmosphere – was believed to reflect all radio waves. “The prospect of forcing a signal through into outer space seems negligible,”he wrote.
Fact? We now know that while high-frequency radio waves are reflected by the ionosphere, others aren’t. We could in theory communicate with other beings, but as to if there’s anyone out there to hear us…
Fiction: Men on stars
Harris proposed a more distant human habitat than we’ve ever considered: “The mean density of the bright star Capella is about the same as pure air, so one could live at the center of it, if it wasn’t for the temperature of a few million degrees and an atmosphere composed of flying electrons.”
Fact? Capella is over 42 light years away, so we won’t be getting near enough to solve those pesky temperature and electron issues any time soon.
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