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Science Fiction into Science Fact? 892

Selanit asks: "I'm a student of English literature at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, with a pronounced interest in all things tech as well. Next term I'll be taking an Independent Study course which combines the two -- the topic will be 'Influences of Science Fiction on Real-World Tech.' The professor and I are still trying to assemble a reading list. So here's my question: what science-fiction novels have had a particularly noticeable effect on the development of technology? I'm mainly interested in books that have been written since World War II. The line of inquiry is not limited to computers; any kind of link between sci-fi and hard tech will do (e.g. Cap'n Kirk's communicator == prototype mobile phone). Books that have lent a name to a technology are also interesting (like the 'Little-Endian, Big-Endian' terms which were lifted from Gulliver's Travels, or 'Babel Fish' from Douglas Adams)."
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Science Fiction into Science Fact?

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  • ACC (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Debillitatus ( 532722 ) <devillel2@hot[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:32PM (#2614432) Journal
    I've heard it said that Arthur C. Clarke had the idea for geosynchronous satellites, and wrote about them in a few of his novels.
  • Snow Crash (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Strange_Attractor ( 160407 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:33PM (#2614443) Homepage
    I've read (I believe here on /.) that many Silicon Valley companies gave that to employees and said "this is what we're aiming for", especially referring to his vision of the Metaverse. This was before the bubble popped, of course .
  • Jargon (Score:4, Insightful)

    by UCRowerG ( 523510 ) <UCRowerG@yahoo. c o m> on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:33PM (#2614446) Homepage Journal
    The Jargon File might be a good place to start:

    http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/html/index.html [tuxedo.org]

  • by LittleGuy ( 267282 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:35PM (#2614456)
    Jules Verne, from "20,000 Leagues" to "From the Earth to the Moon".
  • by v3rb ( 239648 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:35PM (#2614462) Homepage
    Jules Verne wrote about nuclear submarines a long time before their invention. Even though this is not your typical "science fiction" book it did have an influence on people.
  • Asimov (Score:2, Insightful)

    by FireCar ( 522036 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:35PM (#2614465) Homepage
    I know that this is the obvious thing to say, but hell, Isaac Asimov would be a great start in reading on things. His stories not only deal with technology, but how technology can get the better of us. As in the story where everyone depends on calculators and doing math by hand is revolutionary (sorry if I forgot the name). He not only shows us where we can go, but also where not to go.
  • by wrinkledshirt ( 228541 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:36PM (#2614473) Homepage
    I think Sci-Fi has had less to do with bringing about certain technologies (still waiting on my ansible) than it has on coining terms that have been applied to technologies.

    For instance, look at Neuromancer. It gave us the term "Cyberspace", which was cool, but then tried to convince us of a guy running around trying to fence one-megabyte ram sticks. Talk about dystopian...
  • by x mani x ( 21412 ) <mghase@NospAm.cs.mcgill.ca> on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:37PM (#2614492) Homepage
    Star Trek : The Next Generation Technical Manual [amazon.com]

    While this book may be the inverse (or reverse?) of what you're looking for, it is extremely interesting, and will surely help you a lot from a research standpoint for your project. It is basically a detailed description of every technical aspect of the ST:TNG universe, which includes many convergences between science fact and science fiction.

    Also don't forget to note the name of the first space shuttle ever: The Enterprise [nasa.gov].
  • Arthur C Clarke (Score:3, Insightful)

    by abde ( 136025 ) <apoonawa-blog@[ ]oo.com ['yah' in gap]> on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:38PM (#2614502) Homepage

    He predicted the Y2K problem (Ghost from the Grand Banks), and communications satellites (The Fountains of Paradise), and also invented the concept of the space elevator. He didnt invent the AI, but he certainly popularized the concept in film and text (2001 A Space Odyssey). Not to mention a realistic look at the role large corporations would play in space travel (Pan Am flights to the Space Station). I've never read The Deep Range, but it is supposed to be quite visionary as well regarding undersea exploration.
  • by scotpurl ( 28825 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:42PM (#2614540)
    Scientists and inventors do not scour literature looking for devices and ideas to turn from fantasy into reality, which means that Sci-Fi has had zero effect upon what gadgets get invented.

    More simply, engineers don't sit around waiting for writers to come up with the ideas.

    A better thesis would be, "What ideas have been foretold by science fiction writers years before technology made it possible?"

    Or, "Since writers tend to take the social aspects of technology under consideration more often than engineers, what novels and authors have correctly identified social and techonological necessities long before engineers invented the device that created the situation?"
  • by mahlen ( 6997 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:44PM (#2614564) Homepage
    From dictionary.com:

    Word History: Robot is a word that is both a coinage by an individual person and a borrowing. It has been in English since 1923 when the Czech writer Karel Capek's play R.U.R. was translated into English and presented in London and New York. R.U.R., published in 1921, is an abbreviation of Rossum's
    Universal Robots; robot itself comes from Czech robota, "servitude, forced labor," from rab, "slave." The Slavic root behind robota is orb-,
    from the Indo-European root *orbh-, referring to separation from one's group or passing out of one sphere of ownership into another. This seems to be the sense that binds together its somewhat
    diverse group of derivatives, which includes Greek orphanos, "orphan," Latin orbus, "orphaned," and German Erbe, "inheritance," in addition to the
    Slavic word for slave mentioned above. Czech robota is also similar to another German derivative of this root, namely Arbeit, "work" (its Middle High German form arabeit
    is even more like the Czech word).
    Arbeit may be descended from a word that meant "slave labor," and later generalized to just "labor."


    If I want your opinion, I'll ask you to fill out the necessary form.
  • by Bikku ( 531345 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:50PM (#2614630) Homepage
    I thought the one clear prediction Star Trek made around e-books was their rejection. Starship captains always made such a big deal about having genuine leather-bound books for their pleasure reading. Sure, e-books are fine as a query interface to a computer system, or as a data capture device. But nobody wants to use them for reading. Thirty years later the e-book makers still don't get it. Just maybe there's more to "reading a book" than the viewing of text on a page-by-page basis?
  • by Yurian ( 164643 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:56PM (#2614683) Homepage
    I think the (possible myth?) is that his original description in his story was so good that years later when someone else came to try and patent satellites, they found they couldn't because of the story was such an accurate description that it was considered a sort of "prior art" on par with a scientific paper.I'm not entirely sure to what extent this is really true.

    Considering what's happened to the patent office since then, though, I could probably waltz down to the patent office tomorrow, and they'd have no trouble handing me a patent on staellites. Or large orbiting mind control lasers for that matter.
  • by crawling_chaos ( 23007 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:57PM (#2614692) Homepage
    There was an Enterprise (a frigate, I think) in what became the US Navy during the Revolutionary War. It was a lucky ship, and the name has been considered lucky since. Considering that the WWII carrier was at one point the only US aircraft carrier operating in the Pacific (the rest were damaged or sunk), the reputation sort of stuck.

    I would not be at all suprised to see the Navy commission another Enterprise, even if it's a patrol craft, when they finally retire the Big E. Sailors are a superstitious lot.

  • by Hanno ( 11981 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:03PM (#2614735) Homepage
    To all these claims: These are things I heard someplace. I did not research any of these, so don't take these as fact.

    It is claimed that the 1929 movie "Woman in the Moon" invented the launch count-down [filmsite.org].

    Star Trek PADD and today's PDAs [unc.edu]. (I believe that the Newton actually has been designed with the show's device in mind.

    IIRC, pressurized, needle-free vaccination devices have been designed after watching McCoy doing medical treatment on Trek. After a short web search, one of them appears to be the Gene Gun described here [hbcollege.com].
  • Yes, they do (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tony ( 765 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:06PM (#2614761) Journal
    How many scientists, engineers, and researchers were influenced by the books they read as kids? Asimov himself was one, though he ended up doing little research.

    How much were the scientists who shot the moon influenced by Verne, Welles, and E. E. Doc Smith? If many of them were inspired by these authors' works, then the novels indeed had an impact and influence on technology.

    Many authors directly and indirectly influenced our technosphere. Clarke calculated geosynchronous orbit; most satellites orbit in the belt named after him. Larry Niven's warnings about the effects of organ transplants has changed the way people approach the ethics of taking organs from executed criminals. (Incidently, the "Slashdot effect" is really nothing more than a virtual flash crowd, which Niven predicted as a result of easy teleportation.)

    The early works about robots and sentient computers have influenced the direction of research in these fields. AI researchers talk earnestly about the three laws of robotics.

    Terraforming was an idea first proposed in science fiction. The US First Contact Protocol is based on science fiction scenerios.

    SF influences science and research because scientists tend to read science fiction. If that doesn't color our ideas of the world (which in turn influences our research), then our imagination has died.
  • by Weasel Boy ( 13855 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:20PM (#2614883) Journal
    Man wakes up in the future, and finds that his life savings have grown to $500,000. He thinks he's rich; everyone else thinks he's quaint. Everyone is tied to a mobile data communication device, whose rental and service fees are ruinous. People expect to be paid for everything they do (they have to be, to afford those fees). Anyone not in the government's database is a non-person, unable to receive services or protection from the state.
  • Asimov, Verne (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rice_burners_suck ( 243660 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:30PM (#2614952)

    I would say that Isaac Asimov's "robot" series of books probably had the biggest effect on both fiction AND science. Although the robots in existance today are nothing like the robots in his novels, the inspiration and the name "robot" came from him. Asimov's robots were a lot like Star Trek's character Data. They looked human, had positronic brains (dreamed up by Asimov, of course), and could think and act on their own. Most of our robots today are nothing like that. They are controlled by computers, which are programmed by humans. Robots are designed for specific purposes and carry out only that purpose. For example, a six axis robotic arm might be installed in an automotive assembly line and programmed to perform the same exact action thousands, tens of thousands (or even vastly more) times. The idea, however, stems from Asimov's dream of machines that could perform actions for humans.

    Another great writer, Jules Verne, wrote science fiction novels that eventually became science fact. From the submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to the rocket in From the Earth to the Moon, to the trip Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne came up with some truly incredible ideas that soon became very credible indeed.

    There are many others. I'm too busy to list them all, or I'd take the same kind of course. OH WELL

  • Nice Post (Score:4, Insightful)

    by scotpurl ( 28825 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:34PM (#2614981)
    But, I'll stick (stubbornly) by my original comments. The author thinks of what technology can do, and the engineer thinks of what to do with technology. A bit circular, and I'm feeling chatty....

    The author throws the rules out the window, and does some What-If-ing.

    The engineer, trained and bound by rules, but reporting to the demands of the Manager (who has read too much SciFi, and thus believes nothing is impossible), tries to find what technology can perform the task.

    More simply, the author goes from task backward to technology, and the engineer goes from technology forward to task. In your post, they have the techology, and want to know what else to do with it. They are not trying to make SciFi come true. (am I nitpicking, here?)

    I do think we need more dreamer-engineers, but the cirriculum and managers tend to conspire and weed them out.
  • Causality (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:36PM (#2614996)
    From reading prior posts, I think people are taking the causality of sci-fi and invention a bit too literally. I don't think the idea is that some inventor/engineer says "Gee, this communicator thing on Star Trek looks really neat. I think I'll invent one!" Obviously, that's ludicrous. I think the point is that sci-fi authors may have introduced a general gestalt into either the mainstream or scientific community from which real ideas drew influence.

    There is, of course, a chicken-and-the-egg situation here. Did Star Trek introduce the idea of a communicator, or did it simply formalize an idea that was already floating around in sci-fi circles?
  • by IP, Daily ( 250583 ) <ranterX_98@yahoo.com> on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:44PM (#2615042) Homepage
    Maybe it's not bureaucratic bungling. In order for an invention to be patentable, it must be described in a way that is "enabling". That is, given the description of the invention, a person of ordinary skill in the art must be able to construct a working model of the invention.

    An example of a non-enabled invention would be a teleporter. If you apply for a patent for your teleportation apparatus, and your description only says that it provides near-instantaneous transmission of a human being over vast geographical distances without saying how it works, well, you aren't gonna get a patent, because you haven't enabled your idea; it's not really an invention. If someone actually ever gets such a device to work, that person gets the patent, and you've got no valid gripe just because you had an unworkable idea for the invention first.

    The sort of response that ACC got in the story you relate seems to indicate that he didn't provide an enabling description, only a high-level description that can be said to be a great idea, but not a fully developed invention. Later, satellites became a reality because someone else provided that enabling description (and presumably was awarded the patent).
  • by Transient0 ( 175617 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:44PM (#2615043) Homepage
    Asimov coined the term positron with his description of positronic nets, which were also a brilliant insight into the way in which neural nets and dynamical systems would develop.

    However, most of the posts i have seen have been along the lines of authors predicting things that ended up actually happening. The intent of the original post appeared to be more interested in science fiction actually AFFECTING the paths of science.

    In this regard, I would still point to Asimov. Asimov's three laws of robotics have become so embedded in our society, that some people don't even know that they originate in fiction. I can say it is reasonably certain that once we start to have stronger weak-AI devices(def'n; weak AI - systems made to imitate intelligence in order to achieve tasks. compare: strong AI - systems made to actually BE intelligent, to BE human) becoming extremely common and intereacting directly with people on a regular basis we will see either an industry standard, or more likely legislation, enforcing the hard-coding of something very similar to Asimov's laws.

    Also the [Gibson ---> modern internet] connection is good.
  • by gaudior ( 113467 ) <`marktjohns' `at' `gmail.com'> on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:52PM (#2615098) Homepage
    Scientific American [sciam.com], if you really believe:
    Nano tubes will change the world far more than any other creation of man.

    They are little more than lab curiosities, with no practical applications. The late 1980's gave us Cold Fusion, and the late 1990's gave us Bucky Balls and Nano-tubes. What will change the world, (and NOT for the better is the continual meddling in cloning and human genetics. The moral, ethical, legal, environmental, and biological problems are not being addressed by those who are doing the research. We are behaving like children with shiny, dangerous toys. One thing many Science Fiction writers have done over the years is examine these things, as they relate to technology.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:52PM (#2615099) Homepage
    George Lucas's first film, "THX-1138", introduced the concept of phone tech support based on obnoxious recorded messages. That was a very insightful film. Lucas later abandoned insight for popularity and became successful.
  • by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:39PM (#2615426)
    ...Selanit asks:

    So here's my question: what science-fiction novels have had a particularly noticeable effect on the development of technology?

    Some folks here have actually attempted to answer the original question, like the guy who suggested the Navy adopted the use of key tactical stations in the same vein as the Enterprise. Others, however, seem to confuse the mere mention of some "futuristic" concept as "having an effect" on the realization of the concept.

    I've read Verne, and I find it hard to believe his ideas (futuristic as they were) had any influence on modern nuclear technology. I think Selanit has taken on a formidable task: How does one prove a cause-effect relationship between sci-fi and reality? I've seen little evidence here I would consider "proof" in this regard.

    Maybe Selanit would be so kind as to publish a link of his/her work on /. ... I'm sure that would be an interesting, and original, article.

  • by Voivod ( 27332 ) <`cryptic' `at' `gmail.com'> on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:59PM (#2615563)
    A common thread in most recent future fiction is the idea of monolithic governments slowly becoming irrelevent to our lives. They are replaced in importance by communities or tribes that reflect the lifestyle choices of its members. These tribes are sometimes megacorporations which are an extended family to their employees, providing everything they need to live productive lives. Sometimes they are special interest groups such as religions, philosophies, pop culture groups, hacker clans, etc.

    For years I've felt like this was slowly becoming true. I think Card's vision of a future Democracy powered by highly sophisticated online discussion groups is the most likely form of government that would rise to manage such tribes.

    Take the society described in Sterling's "Distraction" and add the tribal ideas in Stephenson's "Diamond Age" and then the government from Card's "Ender's Game". I think together that is an excellent picture of what the western world will look like 20 years from now. Read Copland's "Microserfs" to see a good current example... or just realize how powerful Slashdot is in organizing (un)productive energy in the young tech community.

    Also, I recommend that you seek out authors who genuinely come from scientific backgrounds or clearly take these subjects very seriously. David Brin, Vernor Vinge, Bruce Sterling are brilliant people who spend a lot of time thinking about these ideas.

    Others (Gibson) are more interested in the pop culture metaphorical aspects and are in my opinion highly overrated. Gibson did not in any way "invent" virtual reality. Famously he refused to use e-mail for years. Not long ago he wrote for Wired about finally discovering the appeal of the Internet when he began shopping for antique watches on eBay. Whatever.

    If you're interested in good idea sci-fi from the last few decades, find the authors who helped build The Well, or were writing stories inspired by the precursors to the Usenet in the 70s.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @05:09PM (#2615620)
    In particular:

    • The Door Into Summer, Heinlein: Computer Aided Design (CAD), household automation, telephone answering machines, speech to text, ATM's, hospital delivery robots, etc, etc. In terms of real products that really "happened", one of the most predictive books of all time. Nice, human story, too.
    • Paris in the Twentieth Century, Verne: computers, automation, mass transit, lots more.
    • The Sleeper Awakes (and lots of other books): HG Wells: plenty of predictions, lots of them fairly accurate.

    Now, do written predictions of technology influence its development? My guess is that yes, they do, if for no other reason than that people are more likely to consider a given technology seriously if they've already heard of it in print (even if the print is fiction).

    Hell, there are a LOT of people out there who think that the science of the Star Trek universe is already an open book to us, just because they've seen it on TV so much.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @05:30PM (#2615728)
    One could ask the inverse question: what technology was most unpredicted by scifi writers? The I would vote for the personal computer. Until the early 1970s, computers seemed to be going the direction of becoming larger and more central. We had stories about wayward supercomputers like the Forbin Project, 2001 HAL, and the story that spawned the Terminator movies ("I have no mouth and I must scream!") The idea that everyone would own a computer, or hundred or more hidden in cars and appliances, seemed outlandish when they cost a hundred years' salary or more. And whole new segments of human culture- computer stores, software writing companies, games, geekdom, etc.

    If anyone came close to predicting this, it may have been Asimov. I recall a short story (in Nine Tomorrows?) about a society entirely dependent on PDA devices. When a savant comes along who can do arithmetic in his head, then that society goes into chaos.

    Another close Asimov prediction are his robot plantations where armies of robots do all kinds of labor. In some sense the all of embedded CPUs are like this army.
  • Re:Neuromancer (Score:2, Insightful)

    by maggot the shrew ( 243579 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @05:57PM (#2615908)
    It also spawned several subcultures, including cyberpunks and cypherpunks, and possibly contributed to goths...

    Bill Gibson's novels had absolutely Jack to do with the evolution of goth, which was already five years old by the time Count Zero was published. Bill was great at looking at things that are out there and pegging them, right on the mark.

    The Gothiks in CZ were far more a reflection of japanese glam rock, which in turn was a reflection of the LA punk/goth scene.

    As far as "cyberpunks" I've said it before, I'll say it again, like New Wave music, there wasn't never no cyberpunk scene, just a lotta middle-aged yuppies trying to sound hip.
  • by vbprgrmr ( 411532 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @06:08PM (#2615976)
    I think there is some confusion by the guy seeking the books or stories with first references to ideas of invention.

    Just because they thought of the idea first, doesn't mean that the scientists or engineers who implemented that idea, ever read or were influenced by the writer.

    I think what the student is attempting to research is based on faulty logic.
  • Re:Farenheit 451 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by karb ( 66692 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @06:12PM (#2615987)

    e.g. example walkmans have increased our social isolation.

    You could say that. You could also say that it finally provided an alternate avenue for those of us who had always preferred listening to music to always talking to people.

    I think casual social interaction is overrated. All the extroverts decided it was important and nobody spoke up to disagree. I am personally satisfied with a few friends and the spiral of downward moderation I receive on /.

  • Missing the point? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by harlows_monkeys ( 106428 ) on Monday November 26, 2001 @07:26PM (#2616418) Homepage
    I think it was an essay by Heinlein (but may have been Asimov) that said that the important thing is not describing or anticipating future technology in SF, but rather the effect of that technology.

    E.g., if you were writing a story in 1870, descrbing how everyone would be driving around in cars in the future is amusing, but not important. How the automobile will change society by giving people a much greater range of movement is what is important.

    I'd say the biggest influence of SF on future technology has been inspirational. A lot of people involved in the space program in the 60's and 70's got hooked by reading SF, especially Heinlein's works, for example.

  • by Alien54 ( 180860 ) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @12:10AM (#2617589) Journal
    b) thank god he wasn't able to patent that idea.

    Under the patent laws of the day, he would have had 17 years. Not very renewable.

    1945 + 17 = 1962.

    Note, the first geosynchronous satellite was launched in 1964

    The patent would have likely run out anyhow.

God doesn't play dice. -- Albert Einstein