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2014 Annual Meeting: Exploring Science Fiction and Science

What is the connection between science and science fiction? Are television shows like "Battlestar Galactica" and "Dr. Who" inspiring the next generation of scientists? Professor Lawrence Krauss explored these issues at the 2014 Annual Meeting in his talk, "Physics of the Future," which was part of the symposium titled, "Where's My Flying Car? Science, Science Fiction, and a Changing Vision of the Future" on Friday Feb. 14.

Krauss is foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is the author of numerous books, including "The Physics of Star Trek," and most recently, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing."

AAASMC: What do you plan to say about the physics of the future? Does science fiction hold any hints?
The most important thing of all is that we don't know what the physics of the future is. The point of science is that it progresses, and that we don't know the answers in advance. In my talk I'll discuss some of the staples of science fiction, including space travel and time travel, and discuss how most of what we can say about these given our current knowledge is pretty negative. The realities of space travel have proven that the science fiction's vision of traveling throughout the galaxy, or even within the solar system, is probably not possible. Humans just aren't made for space. We're hundred-pound bags of water that do much better on Earth. If we send anything throughout the galaxy, at best it will be robots with instructions on how to make humans.

What I really want to point out is that nature's imagination exceeds that of science fiction writers and physicists. Almost all the major discoveries of nature have not been anticipated by science fiction, including major developments like the Internet. What I want to talk about is what science fiction missed instead of what it made.

AAASMC: Given that science fiction isn't anticipating scientific developments, how do you view the relationship between science and science fiction?
In the preface of "The Physics of Star Trek," Stephen Hawking said science fiction inspires the human imagination. Science fiction doesn't cause physicists to say this or that could be possible. It inspires them to open their minds and motivates them to think about the world. A lot of kids get interested in the science because of the vision of the world that they see in science fiction. In that sense, to inspire the imagination, science fiction is important like any type of literature.

We shouldn't confuse doing science with the thrill of exploration. It's not always the same thing. For instance, sending people to other planets would be the thrill of adventure more than science. It's incumbent on scientists to explain that science has a thrill of its own. People perceive science as full of answers when really it's full of questions and mysteries, and that's what makes it interesting.

Science fiction may help create the scientists, but once they're scientists, the real world is so much more fascinating than the world of science fiction. Most scientists don't get involved in science fiction for ideas. The real universe is far more fertile.

AAASMC: Is there a role for science fiction in generating support for working scientists?
Science fiction can get the public excited about possibilities. It's a double-edged sword, though, because it can make people think science is neat, but they can get frustrated by the fact that in the real world science is generally much harder and takes much longer than they've been led to expect. Some science fiction fans are frustrated because they think we should already be traveling through the galaxy. One of the more unrealistic parts of science fiction is that often scientists solve an urgent crisis in three days of hard work, when usually three years or three decades is more accurate. It can lead to unrealistic expectations.

AAASMC: Can people discern between science and science fiction?
Really good science fiction writers will point out that the important part of "science fiction" is "fiction." It's a good story. The science is usually on the periphery, and it's almost always wrong. The science elements have to be plausible enough that you can suspend disbelief, but if it's that plausible then people can get mixed up.

AAASMC: What do you want the audience at your seminar to take away?
The message is that the truth is stranger than fiction. If what you're interested in is fascinating, remarkable things then nature trumps science fiction every day of the week.