Should we look to literature to predict science’s future?

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Fleming and penicillin; Watson, Crick and the double-helical structure of DNA; Bell and the telephone. New ideas often come to life because of the vision of scientists, doctors and inventors. But sometimes the pen is mightier than the pipette, with authors creating fantastical inventions that are completely unfeasible – or are they?

Many sci-fi authors have made quite accurate predictions about future inventions. The ‘fathers of Science Fiction;’ Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, are perhaps the most well-known. Attributed to their name are some of the earliest depictions of future technologies and ideas; rocket ships, submarines, alien life forms and even automatic doors.

Then there are the sci-fi classics: robots, space travel, or new-fangled communication devices; things that, for the most part, exist where they didn’t 50 or 100 years ago. But some authors have predicted weird and wonderful new inventions, like the waterbed depicted in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein’s depiction of a hydraulic mattress that arose as a result of his frustration with uncomfortable hospital beds. Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961; the first modern water bed was patented only a decade later in 1971.

Screens have become part of our lives, from our phones to huge advertisements. The first colour television first appeared in 1950 – with a screen that was about the size of most laptop screens today. But Ray Bradbury foresaw the advent of large screens, as well as their influence on us, in his novel Fahrenheit 451, where wall-size screens are a distraction from daily life to the point of people losing touch with reality. The time we spend interacting with screens today certainly reflects the influence of virtual reality on our lives.

Now add communication to screens, and you get video chatting. Seeing people and communicating via the medium of a screen was a far-fetched idea, but it was first conceptualised in 1889 in Jules Verne’s In the Year 2889 as an invention called the Phototelephote, in which images are transmitted by wires and sensitive mirrors. 20 years later, E.M. Forster depicted a similar, if slightly more elaborate, idea in his 1909 The Machine Stops, in which a hand-held disk permitted characters from opposite ends of the world to see, and speak, to each other in real time.

Many authors have depicted hand-held tablet-like devices in their novels. The most well-known examples of tablets include the NewsPad, the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Calculator Pad and the Opton, depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur Clarke, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Asimov’s Foundation, and Return to the Stars, by Stanislaw Lem respectively. All of these were written between 1951 and 1978, whereas the first tablet prototypes were released in the early 1990s, showing these author’s foresight.

Finally, an example of a scientific advancement, rather than a technological one, could be found in Huxley’s Brave New World, written in 1932, which includes detailed descriptions of in-vitro fertilisation and genetic engineering. Babies are grown in test tubes and manipulated according to which social class they will belong to –the upper class citizens get the intelligence and beauty genes, whilst the lowest class citizens are little more than glorified apes. While genetic manipulation of humans does not exist in this way in our time, genetically modified organisms, whether plant or animal, have certainly become a reality as well as a controversial issue. In-vitro fertilisation, meanwhile, is well established, with the first test-tube baby born in 1978, only 46 years after the publication of Brave New World.

All of these ideas seemed far-fetched at the time but are now aspects of everyday life. So the next time you video chat with someone using a tablet whilst lying in your waterbed, think of Forster, Clarke, Adams, and Heinlein, and all the other sci-fi authors with crazy ideas that weren’t quite so crazy after all.