&Bullet; physics 14, 83
Breaking the laws of nature isn’t the only reason some science fiction ideas never make it off the written page or off a movie set.
During the day, Charles Adler studies the propagation of laser beams through turbulent media such as ocean water and predicts the rainbow patterns that form when light shines through the morning dew. At night, the physicist who works at St. Mary’s College of Maryland explores the world of science fiction, delving into books and films about human journeys through space or the adventures of aliens on distant planets. Occasionally Adler’s passions collide: he has published a book on the physical plausibility of science fiction inventions, and recently he has produced a series of lectures on how research shapes science fiction. In a presentation by the APS Mid-Atlantic Senior Physicists Group last month, Adler discussed the reasons why some science fiction inventions do not become reality even when they are physically plausible.
Science fiction writers have had many successes in predicting future technologies. The writer Jules Verne, for example, foresaw – in his book of 1865 From the earth to the moon-People traveling to and landing on the moon in a device very similar to the early Apollo spacecraft. He also anticipated hologram technology in 1889, nearly eight decades before the first holographic device was demonstrated. While these technologies are commonplace today, other science fiction ideas are like the space elevator from Arthur Clarke’s 1979 book The sources of paradise, not yet come to fruition. Others, like the James Bond-inspired flying car, have been demonstrated but have not yet fully taken off.
There are tons of reasons why a science fiction idea flops. Most obviously, it violates the laws of physics, but other factors such as cost, safety concerns, and social norms also play a role. “That a technology breaks the laws of science is the least interesting reason why an idea doesn’t work,” said Adler. He is fascinated by cases in which science fiction fantasy did not become reality despite scientific plausibility. “If an idea fails because of just one hurdle, it remains unrealized,” he said.
Space travel at warp speed – popular with the Star Trek TV series – crashes at the physically impossible hurdle. The space elevator – Adler’s most popular yet to be realized science fiction invention – could obey the laws of nature, but it’s likely too expensive for any government or corporation to build. Flying cars like James Bond’s 1974 AMC Matador in Bond The man with the golden pistol, have taken it a step further. Working versions of flying vehicles are now on the market, and earlier this year the Federal Aviation Administration approved one of them for launch. But current “roadworthy planes” come with high prices of a few hundred thousand dollars, making them inaccessible to most people. A bigger problem is the regulatory one, as the transport regulations would require a complete overhaul. Planes landing on residential streets and cars taking off from highways couldn’t pass without that, Adler said.
Adler’s most popular science fiction idea, which seems almost mainstream, is the self-driving car. In his 1930 book Paradise and iron, Miles Breuer imagined an island full of cars that could drive themselves. Over the past few decades, researchers have shown that a computer can safely control a vehicle, and in the years to come, companies will likely be able to offer autonomous cars at a price that many can afford. But, said Adler, technology is now facing human psychology. “Will people accept the idea of sitting in a car that drives itself? I don’t know. ”He noted that it will be interesting to study what happens next from a social science perspective.
The lecture ended with a discussion phase in which the participants discussed their favorite science fiction ideas. Teleportation was a hot topic – one that pushes the boundaries of scientific credibility. But even if it were possible, the thought of turning all of your subatomic particles into photons terrifies even a die-hard science fiction fan like Adler. “You would definitely be dead if you were transformed this way,” he said.
Katherine Wright is assistant editor of physics.