12 Sep 2016

Criticism of Science Fiction Suffers from a Serious Flaw

I'm a big science-fiction fan. Star Trek is an important part of life. When my mom and I first watched Star Trek in the late 80s, she told me it's just make-believe, not real, just made to entertain.

But maybe there's a civilisation out there with warp drive and transporters and tractor beams, and it's just a matter of time before we get there too? Such optimistic thinking sometimes attracts the criticism that some of this technology is scientifically impossible. In other words, it's not just that a particular device hasn't been invented, but that it can't be, the critics say.

One problem with this criticism is that we reason using the science we do know. Of course a warp drive seems impossible because, otherwise, we'd have invented it already. It reminds me of the scientist Lord Kelvin declaration that "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." In other words, airplanes and helicopters are impossible. Because, according to the science of the day, if something is lighter than air, like a balloon, it rises, and if it's heavier than air, it sinks to the ground. Logical, right? And Kelvin was not some random guy. He was the accomplished scientist after whom the temperature scale is named. He was reasoning using the framework he knew.

As another example, anthropologists visited a remote tribe that lives in the forest, in trees as high as 140 feet. When the visitors told a tribesman that we in our cities have houses ten times as high as their tallest house, the tribesman replied that that's impossible because nobody can climb that high. In his mental framework, where lifts don't exist, that reasoning is perfectly valid. Critics of science fiction are no different.

Even if something that can be proven to be impossible using widely accepted theories, those theories aren't infallible. New scientific theories are occasionally discovered that contradict old ones. For example, Newtonian mechanics claimed that speed and time are independent, that moving at a high speed doesn't cause time to run slower or faster. But Einstein's theory of relativity later contracted that claim. If you went back two centuries and talked about changing time by moving fast, you'd be dismissed as being unscientific. Or crazy. So, when present day science says that something is impossible, it's the science that could turn out to be wrong, when we discover a better theory later. Just as Kelvin was wrong when he said that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.

I see no reason to accept the pessimists' point of view that the fascinating technologies we see in Star Trek are impossible. I hope that one day, we will boldly go where no one has gone before, to an alien world, and beam down there to explore.

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