Modern Science Meets Science Fiction

Three recent news articles caught my attention this weekend. All three touch on subjects I have personally followed through news and science literature for decades. The convergence of these themes in February news articles seemed a fortuitous reason to write about them on the Web.

First, if you live in or near Detroit, MI you may have heard about the Star Trek technology exhibition that highlights some of the technological advances that have been inspired by Star Trek. The most commonly cited examples include medical monitoring stations and cell phones but this exhibition looks at other examples.

Second, if you live in China you may have heard about SIASUN Robot & Automation Co, Ltd, a company founded by Qu Daokui, an esteemed Chinese robotics professor. SIASUN is leading China’s robotics revolution and maybe one day lives around the globe will be impacted by the technologies SIASUN develops.

Finally, astronomer Alan Boss is predicting that trillions of planets have life based on the fact we’ve identified 300 planets orbiting nearby stars.

Some of those 300 ExoPlanets are Earthlike — they are rocky and may have atmospheres and water. However, Boss seems to be going way out on a limb, risking his scientific credibility and reputation in making some rather unsupportable predictions.

His statements might have been taken out of context by the Times Online (it happens) and it may simply be that he is expressing unbridled enthusiasm based on a growing database of exoplanetary information. Nonetheless, we have no statistical basis for concluding that life has arisen around nearly every sun-like star in the universe.

We have barely concluded in a scientific way that Mars may be capable (or may have been capable in the past) of sustaining incipient life. We’ve yet to find any evidence to support extra-solar life hypotheses (unless you count thousands of otherwise unexplainable UFO reports).

I have written about NASA and UFOs elsewhere (NASA’a track record for explaining mysteries is pretty sad) but I’m not ready to declare that even some UFOs must be signs of life from other planets in the universe.

Good science is built on discipline and patience, and a little bit on faith (perhaps more on faith than on discipline and patience, when you consider how many scientific discoveries have been vindicated despite massive skepticism). But we need more information before concluding there must be life on trillions of planets.

I asked several questions in the SF-Fandom forums last October pertaining to the issues of space colonies and how life may arise. In How many people would a space colony need to survive? I raised the prospect of colonizing Mars within 50 years. There would be many ethical as well as biological and technological issues to consider.

That discussion led me to ask what needs to be done to colonize Mars. In order for Earth-like life to evolve and survive, a planet must meet certain criteria. For one thing, we need plate tectonics and a moon. Most people just think about gravity, water, and air. It’s a little more complex than that. A geologically active planet is more likely to generate a magnetic field strong enough to deflect most of the Solar Wind. Mars can do this in a few local places but no longer on a planet-wide scale.

In the Times Online article Alan Boss suggests we may have to send a ship out and wait a thousand years for it to send back images of another planet. Maybe our first interplanetary destination is close enough that we would not have to wait 1,000 years for communication from a probe (however, some scientists now argue that radio waves dissipate before leaving the Solar System, so we probably have to come up with a whole new communications technology).

I followed up all these discussions with a speculative article about where the UFOs may have come from. Keep in mind that I am not a convinced UFO believer. I just believe that the whole UFO phenomenon has not been convincingly explained away. The idea that any star-faring civilization wanting to visit Earth would simply land on the front lawn of the White House and declare itself is extremely naive, but then, a lot of scientific principles we know nothing about would have to be discovered in order to enable a space-faring civilization such as UFO enthusiasts believe exists.

Science fiction asks “What if …” in a way that science is not permitted to, because science fiction has the liberty of making assumptions that cannot be allowed in pure scientific thought. Nonetheless, I think it can be reasonably argued that science fiction has inspired generations of scientists and engineers to study the universe in the hope that one day we’ll be able to travel to the stars and leave our mark upon them in some way.


SF-Fandom is a fan-run moderated Web discussion community devoted to science fiction, fantasy, history, and mythology. Founded in 2001, SF-Fandom is part of the Xenite.Org Network of science fiction and fantasy Web sites.

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