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When fiction becomes reality – Science fiction vs Science

Team StoryWeavers|September 5, 2020|

The field of science is often portrayed in a serious light. Science has a reputation for being a field that does not foster creativity but instead relies on cold, hard facts and rational thinking. It is thought of as a world where there is no room for the imagination to run wild. But in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth!

Time and again through history, science has found inspiration in the unlikeliest places – sometimes even from fantastical and fictional worlds. Some of the most advanced feats of engineering we see today, from self-driving cars to touchscreen technology, were born from the imagination of an enthusiastic storyteller first and not in a laboratory! Such works of fiction — be it in literature, film or any other medium — which are based on a foundation of science but are often set in a futuristic galaxy far, far away are called works of “Science Fiction” or “Sci-Fi” for short.

Let’s take a look at three such technological advancements that first originated in the imaginative world of sci-fi before turning into a scientific reality.

Mankind’s mission to the Moon

On July 20, 1969, two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by being the first-ever humans to set foot on the moon. Although the achievement was a result of the promise of then US President John F Kennedy amidst a bitterly fought “space race” with the Soviet Union, the seeds for the idea of putting a man on the moon goes way back.

The spaceship in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon.

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, a bunch of ammunition enthusiasts build a giant cannon to launch themselves all the way to the moon! The mathematical calculations that Verne made to find out what it would take to launch such a vessel are eerily similar to NASA’s actual calculations for the Apollo missions. Even the design of the launch vessel that Verne proposed involved a hollow, conical metallic pod that was very similar to the command module aboard the Apollo 11. In Verne’s story, the spaceship even takes off from Florida and drops into the Pacific Ocean on return, similar to the actual journey of Apollo 11 over 100 years later!

Zapped back to life!

In the late 1700s, electricity was a new phenomenon and the subject of great fascination. All over the world, scientists were experimenting with the effects of electricity. Some of them were curious to see electricity’s effects on human bodies. One such scientist was the Italian researcher Luigi Galvani, who lends his name to the process of ‘galvanisation’ in chemistry. 

An illustration demonstrating Galvani’s experiments with frogs.

In the 1780s, Galvani discovered that a jolt of electricity could cause a dead frog’s leg to twitch. A few years later, Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini conducted experiments on the corpses of criminals. He discovered that by passing electric currents to the brain of the dead body, he could get certain parts of the body to move, shocking the audiences who had never heard or seen anything of the kind in their lives! 

This 1836 illustration depicts Galvani’s nephew electrifying a criminal’s corpse.

An English author by the name of Mary Shelley heard about these experiments through her scientist and doctor friends and was inspired to write a story. She went on to write the famous novel Frankenstein, a story of a scientist obsessed with discovering the secret to life. In Shelley’s story, Dr Frankenstein collects human body parts and uses a jolt of electricity to bring them to life – creating the famous monster that we are all familiar with today.

A still from the 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Frankenstein went on to be a great hit and was converted to a film (as many successful books often are) in 1931. One of the many fans of the film was a young American engineer called Earl Bakken, who took inspiration from the movie to work with electricity in the field of medicine. In 1957, Bakken developed the first wearable battery-powered pacemaker – a device that uses electric pulses to correct abnormal heartbeats. And thus science fiction provided a helping hand in creating a life-saving medical miracle!

Earl Bakken, the inventor of the pacemaker was inspired by Frankenstein

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Science-fiction has had a long history of fascination with robots. In fact, the first time the word ‘robot’ was used was in a 1920 Czech-language play called Rossum’s Universal Robots or R.U.R by science fiction writer Karel Čapek. 

The idea of the robot is perhaps the single most prominent feature of science-fiction works. From helpful droids like C3PO and R2D2 in the Star Wars films to robots set to destroy humanity as portrayed in films like Terminator and The Matrix, sci-fi cinema has brought many interesting fictional robots to life. Robots have even appeared in popular children’s cartoons. Richie Rich had a robot maid called ‘Irona’. The Cartoon Network show The Jetsons famously featured a robot maid called ‘Rosie’.

Rosie was a robot housemaid that featured in the popular cartoon ‘The Jetsons’.

In 2002, a company called iRobot, inspired by Rosie from The Jetsons went on to make ‘the Roomba’ – a fully automated robotic vacuum cleaner. Today, there exist robots that can perform complex tasks just as efficiently (or sometimes even better) as humans. Boston Dynamics is one such robotics company that makes robots which can open doors, run, swim and even do backflips!

Another concept that always goes hand-in-hand with robots is Artificial Intelligence or ‘AI’. One of the first complex sci-fi portrayals of AI was in Arthur C Clarke’s famous novel 2001: A Space Odessey. In the story, an AI-powered robot called ‘HAL 9000’ served as the pilot of the spaceship. HAL 9000 could speak, play chess, and even hatch devious plots! 

Today, many of us have AI right in our pockets. Digital assistants like Siri and Alexa can listen to our voice and execute specific tasks like playing music, turning on the TV, calling a friend and a host of other actions. The day is maybe not too far where we could literally ‘talk’ to all of the devices around us, and they would perfectly execute our requests!

These are just some of the many instances where science drew inspiration from the world of fiction and imagination to impact the reality around us. Can you think of any more such technologies that were inspired by the fascinating world of science-fiction? Tell us in the comments below.

Enjoyed reading this? For more, check out these interesting reads on The Learning Tree Blog:

A museum of robots, by robots, for people

Careerscope: Build a career in robotics

Meet the first living robots – Xenobots!

[custom_author=Suraj Prabhu ]

About the Author


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Suraj Prabhu

Suraj Prabhu is a self-proclaimed audiophile and a jack-of-all-trades writer with a diverse set of interests. An amateur quizzer on the side, he claims that the first object he fell in love with was a book on flags at age 3. His favourite punctuation mark is the 'Oxford comma,' which coincidentally happens to be one of his favourite songs too!

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