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When Science Meets Fiction

Created 12 June 2000

By reporter Mindy Ran

Throughout the past century, fiction and fantasy writers have often seemed able to peer into the future. Many of our recently developed space technologies were first described fairly accurately in fiction, years before technology caught up and allowed them to become a reality.

"This is only a work of fiction. The truth,
as always, will be far stranger"  -
Arthur C. Clarke: '2001, A Space Odyssey'

Dr David Raitt of the European Space Agency is heading a project specifically aimed at reviewing past literature for concepts that could possibly be developed today. "There must have been a lot of ideas in literature in the past, before space travel had become a reality, that have in effect been lost because we have not gone back to them," says Raitt.  HG Wells is a good example. This author was seen as prophet because he was able to describe and predict tanks, aerial bombing, nuclear war, gas warfare, lasers and robots. When his ‘War of the Worlds' was first broadcast in 1938, people believed it was fact and not fiction.

waroftheworldsWells was inspired by a series of real-life events. In 1894, Mars was particularly close to Earth. Telescopic study revealed what was, at first, thought to be canals on the surface. This gave rise to the idea that Martians were intelligent, humanoid creatures. Dr Chris McKay is an astrobiologist at NASA. He is part of the team working on the real search for life on Mars. "When people first started pointing telescopes at Mars," he explains, "they noticed seasonal changes very much like on Earth. Then Percival Lovelle reported seeing ‘canals' on Mars and created an elaborate story that they had been made by a dying Martian civilisation." McKay credits early fantasy writers like Wells with propagating this image of human-like, advanced intelligent Martians.

Dr Joan Leach, a professor of Science Communication at Imperial College, London, feels that we have to look at writers like Wells within a much broader context. "He's imagining a relationship between science and culture and coming up with fantastical things," she says. "But, they have serious impact, he is helping us work through things that are going to be happening to us because of science." Throughout the 20th century, this has been the role of fiction. In the 19th century there were few boundaries between artists, writers and scientists. In the early 20th century a divide began to form. Scientists began to write in a purer, more objective fashion that left no room for the "what if" questions.

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