Humans have a hard time contemplating large numbers. And when it comes to the really big things like the size of our Sun, our Galaxy and the Universe, we simply lose the sense of scale. Sure, we can put a number to these beastly objects, but can’t really contemplate the actual magnitude of their existence.
For example, we know that the diameter of the Earth is about 12500 km. But that doesn’t mean that you can contemplate such a big ball of rock with all its topology and life forms in one go. That feeling is strictly reserved for the physical and mental senses of an Astronaut. Another example is the temperature of our Sun’s core. We know from Science that it’s 15 million degrees Celsius. But we can merely imagine the threatening thousands of degrees of lava heat, let alone a million degrees in the Sun’s core required for fusion!
And we haven’t even ventured outside the Solar System yet!
The reality is just too big for our puny minds to capture at once! Science is full of numbers (associated with facts) every text you look at. That makes it dull to a general audience who can’t relate those facts to their existence. In fact, it even applies to science students. This is where science fiction chips in. By weaving the facts of nature in a story format, science fiction enables you to contemplate both the grandeur and the subtlety of reality.
Remember the scene from Interstellar? The astronauts who landed on one of the Planets around the black hole only spent 10 minutes there but when they returned to their spaceship, their friend has aged freaking 23 years! That’s Einstein’s General Relativity for you personified! Remember the orbital complexities involved in bringing Mark Whatney from The Martian back home? The story enables you to understand how going to Mars and coming back isn’t that easy. If the facts of nature are expressed in a story format (that we all apes have a thing for), you get an understanding of why scientific facts are important and how do they affect you.
History is filled with amazing science fiction writers such as the legendary H.G.Wells, king Isaac Asimov, luminary Arthur C. Clarke and others. In the last century alone, science fiction has gone from the fascination of the nerds to being a very part of our media culture. How many time travel movies can you list, eh?
The classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (considered as the greatest science fiction story of all time) is still more than relevant even after 47 years of its first publication! Artificial Intelligence, Lunar colonies, manned mission to Jupiter, Aliens, Wormholes, all in a single story! 2001 has come and gone and none of these things have been done yet. It is still an inspiration for our generation to make it happen. The guy who invented ion propulsion engines which is now utilized by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, got his inspiration from Star Trek! The Laws of Robotics are well-known to have been derived from the great roboticist (it’s his invention) Isaac Asimov, who practically conceptualized the entire field! We are still looking forward to the day when something similar to iRobot comes into existence! The impact of science fiction can not be overstated.
Science fiction is also well-known as a tool to reflect on our social structure. From Ray Bradbury‘s The Martian Chronicles to the immortal Dune Series by Frank Herbert, science fiction authors have tried to reflect light on the dark sides of our social culture. Even the hilarious mathematical fiction Flatland satirically put our way of unjustly treating women to questioning. After being rejected of his hypothesis, scientists like Fred Hoyle have resorted to the means of science fiction to popularize his hypothesis among other scientists and then find its way into mainstream science!
This constant give and take of science fiction with science and our culture is what has enabled our species to judge our deeds, question our traditions, improve our understanding of Mother Earth and march on our way as a space faring species, which we hope will carry less of our weaknesses and more of our strengths.
Read science fiction. It will open your eyes to not only worlds that can be, but the world that is. What are some of your favorite science fiction books and movies?