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Which came first? Sci-fi or science?

  1. May 13, 2012 #1
    So maybe this should go under Philosophy, but I was thinking about this for a while and I need professional input. Read a 1950s science fiction novel. Compare it to modern science that either exists or is on the works. Humanoid robots that think for themselves, living in giant metal structures in space, (I bet someone at NASA wanted to make the ISS look like the death star) mind control headsets, et cetera... Is it just me or does science fiction inspire modern science? Just a thought that I think should be thrown out there.
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  3. May 13, 2012 #2


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    None of these things exist or seem to be on the verge of existing
  4. May 14, 2012 #3
    Frankenstein is considered the first science fiction novel. While the main character refuses to tell how he brought his creature to life, he mentions a fascination with lightning and hence electricity, and alludes to the [real life] discovery that dead animal muscles have been made to twitch by the application of electricity, hinting strongly that electricity was the means by which he reanimated the dead parts sewn together into his "Adam".

    So, I think, from the start of the genre, the science precedes the fiction. A small discovery hints at larger implications. The Sci-Fi writer speculatively inflates those implications into extreme scenarios.

    It could well be that some engineers try hard to achieve things predicted in science fiction, but the fact is that Sci-Fi writers don't have a good track record of latching onto things that will eventually be possible. They've only been correct in the blanket belief that the future will be very much more technological than their times. That's proven to be true, but they generally get specific predicted breakthroughs very wrong.
  5. May 14, 2012 #4


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    Imagination always pre-dates discovery and application.
  6. May 14, 2012 #5
    I don't think so. Effects are discovered and recorded, then later someone realizes there might be a use for them.
  7. May 14, 2012 #6


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    But what pre-dates the discovery?

    I'm not saying that the imagination only relates to the thing being discovered: but that things have been set in motion by the processes of the mind amongst other things.

    It's not like people just imagine things and then get what they imagined in the nice package that they envisaged when they actually imagined it.

    People need to think about things in one way or another before doing anything, especially when it comes to creativity and discovery (which involves creativity at some stage) and this requires imagination.
  8. May 14, 2012 #7


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    Also when one actually discovers something, one must be initially focused in some way to look for something specific whether at a unconscious, conscious or semi-conscious level.

    If a layman that had absolutely no care in the world for mathematics picked up a paper that had the solution to the Riemann Hypothesis, then do you think they would get excited and do the kinds of things most number theorists would do if they saw the same thing?

    The layman might just un-peel the paper from his shoe and throw it in the bin and why not: he doesn't know what the fuss is all about.

    The person that has made the discovery has has a particular focus, perspective, and set of things that have initiated to them that this has value and for this to happen they have had to do thinking and other precursors to initiate this.
  9. May 14, 2012 #8
    Most important effects I know of were discovered by accident. In many cases you have people who are deliberately exploring, but the important things they find are incidental to what they are actually looking for, if they have anything specific in mind at all.

    Faraday, for example, was often motivated by a question (Is there a relationship between magnetism and electricity?) but was not looking for a specific answer to attain a specific goal. He did not imagine the electric motor and then explore electricity to see how to make one. He explored electricity and then realized certain effects he discovered could be used to construct an electric motor. Edison first happened to pay attention to the fact that sound caused physical objects to mechanically vibrate, then began to wonder how that effect might be used to physically record sound. And so on.
  10. May 14, 2012 #9


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    You're missing the point.

    You need context in order to evaluate something and that context comes from things that have been set in motion long before something has happened or been realized.

    I'm not saying that people are going to expect everything they pre-anticipate in a specific sense, but rather be geared to realize something when it is realized and observed.

    Again imagine for example that some highly non-mathematical person stumbled across say a solution to the Riemann Hypothesis and they were in a hurry and didn't have the slighest care or clue about what it was.

    Would it be so unsurprising for them to just peel it off their shoe and continue on their journey?

    Again it's not that people have to anticipate everything specifically (because as you have mentioned with examples, this doesn't always happen), but again people need context that is developed in a very complex way mentally.
  11. May 14, 2012 #10
    Does this help?
    Often attributed to A. Einstein, but I doubt it.
  12. May 14, 2012 #11


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    The fatal flaw in the reasoning of this thread is that "science", for some odd reason, is confined only to formal, "scientific" activity. Believe it or not, even cavemen way back when also practices science. When you try something and it didn't work, and you try to figure out systematically why it didn't work, that is science! Or when you shoot at something, and you make it so you improve your accuracy each time, you are doing science! You may not realize it, but that is what science is! It may not be formalized and called as science, but it still is!

    So the idea that science fiction somehow came first ahead of science is puzzling. They were already science fiction during early human evolution? 2001 - A Space Odyssey was actually the brainchild of Urok in the rift valley of Africa?

    And in addition to that, for every so-called "inspiration" that was attributed to science fiction, I can come up with others science principles and discoveries that science fiction writers didn't even imagined - superconductivity, spin-charge separation, CP violation, fractional quantum hall effect, etc.. etc.

  13. May 14, 2012 #12


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    I must point out once again that there is a vast difference between Science Fiction (SF) and sci-fi. SF tries to portray situations in which the science is realistic, even if speculative. Sci-fi is "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster". Using the term sci-fi when referencing SF is a smite-worthy insult.
    I contend that in the case of SF, the fiction precedes the reality. That is based upon the fact that until something is proven scientifically, it is considered to be theoretical and thus fictional. That might just be a matter of semantics, though. I will, as always, defer to Monique's judgement on that matter.
  14. May 14, 2012 #13
    The "context" is not "imagination", though. A person can imagine anything they want, including things that are not, and never will be, possible. This makes science fiction, and imagination in general, about the worst place to look for ideas to pursue.

    The only context that permits useful evaluation is the one that strictly limits "imagination": the scientific method. An effect is discovered, THEN people start imagining what it might be used for. That subsequent imagining has to be constantly tested against reality.

    The OP is suggesting that we are trying to create a world that resembles the Sci-Fi imaginings of the 1950's, that we are cultivating technology to fit that template. I think it's the other way around: that template was suggested by the real technological progress that preceded it. And the real technological progress since the '50's has veered far from the template of 1950's imagination.
  15. May 14, 2012 #14
    Actual experience with primitive peoples indicates they did not, and still do not, think this way, though.

    Specifically in reference to archery, because you mention it:

    George Catlin found that the best archers among Native Americans were considered to be better because they had more "sacred power". The concept of skill acquired through practice was, weirdly, unknown to them. One man was the better archer purely by virtue of having more "sacred power".

    In the matter of fishing:

    On the currently running TV show River Monsters, host Jeremy Wade finds that he is often required to consult a local shaman or religious figure of some kind before he starts catching the particular fish he's after. His skill as an angler means nothing to the local tribesmen: the way to catch a fish is to propitiate the river spirits or fish spirits.

    So, while humans have always believed in cause and effect, the cause was more often than not considered to be ineffable "mojo" of one kind or another. If you cut down a tree to make a canoe, you have to have a ceremony first apologizing to the tree. If not, the canoe will sink or bring you bad luck somehow. Your abilities as a Naval Architect are moot.

    It's doubtful cave men were doing much that we'd call science.
  16. May 14, 2012 #15


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    I'm not sure whether or not this is what you meant, but your post prompted me to remember that there wasn't much difference in cover art between "Analog" and "Popular Science" magazines back in the 50's and 60's. The former was SF, and the latter state-of-the-art technology. Both depicted hovercraft, wheel-type space stations, flying cars, microwave ovens... We now have all of those except for the space stations, but only because the design of the International Space Station is currently more efficient. Once launch technology gets up to speed, we'll be able to fulfill Gerry O'Neill's vision of an L5 colony. I saw on the news last week that asteroid mining is now in the planning stage. I can only hope that the "Belters" will adopt the Mohawk hairstyle as predicted by Larry Niven. :biggrin:
  17. May 14, 2012 #16


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    At some point someone imagines something, the imagination will be based on a mixture of what they already know combined in novel ways. For example: "X is faster than Y, is there something faster than X?" Yes a lot of knowledge is discovered accidentally, trying to figure out how it works and what can be done with it requires imagination.

    The only practical difference I can see in this conversation is the second word in the name; Fiction. If you use your imagination to tell an entertaining story then it's safer to say it is SF, if you use it as a basis of a goal and try to see if you can work towards it then it's safer to say it's science. There is of course some overlap, someone may read an SF model and then say "I'm going to try and do this" but I doubt this happens the majority of the time.

    The thing is about science fiction is that most of it is fairly obvious to think up. Not necessarily the delivery which may be unique, but the theme is almost always based on something in real life.
  18. May 14, 2012 #17


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    Great post, Ryan. One of the examples of a functional transition from fiction to fact is the diagnostic bed as "invented" by Gene Roddenberry for "Star Trek". It seemed outrageous in '66, but almost exactly a year ago, when I died for a brief while, I spent 2 weeks in one. The people who designed them, and a lot of other very useful equipment, credit Roddenberry with having inspired them to create the things that he had envisioned in fiction.
  19. May 14, 2012 #18
    Imagination is being creative and thinking "outside the box". It is asking what if. Sure, that "what if" can be based on something. Sometimes the "what if" question comes first.

    IMO, being imaginative and creative is separates the great scientists and engineer from the everyday ones. You have to constantly ask "What happens if I do this...", "What about doing it this way...", "What happens if...."

    Yes, I think sci-fi can come first. Look at Asimov. In one of this stories he talks about a device that can pinpoint your location anywhere in the world. Flash forward, we now have GPS.

    Sorry, I could go all day on this.
  20. May 15, 2012 #19


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    Inspiration yes but I bet it was nothing like Roddenberry envisioned. That's one of the problems with these conversations, it's so easy to look back and say "X predicted Y!" ignoring the fact that X was obvious/not fleshed out/only superficially Y etc
    IMO great scientists and engineers are the ones who have the logical mind and the meticulousness necessary to design and follow through on the experiments needed to get from where they are to their goal.
    See my above comment, this type of discussion is rife with rationalisations in hindsight. Not saying you're wrong but a good example of this is that a few years ago I read an article which said something a long the lines of "Asimov predicted that by the millennium we would have space based solar power, which is technically true because around that time the solar powered international space station was in construction". It's a bit of a stretch. Furthermore it ignores the fact that just because he wrote about it doesn't mean he first thought of it, or that it was a particularly unique thing to think. Lastly it's easy in these conversations to miss out on all the things that haven't come to pass.

    Science fiction isn't prediction; it's using your imagination to tell and sell an entertaining story. Science is using your imagination to come up with an end-goal and working towards it.
  21. May 15, 2012 #20
    You are correct, sir:


    It's conventional technology configured to imitate the star trek prop.
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