Saturday, March 1, 2008

How Science Fiction Changed the World

Some may think that science fiction is simply just fantasy to be read by geeks and nerds and is not a force that plays a role in shaping the world in which we live. This kind of thinking is flawed. Using the most influential Science Fiction ever created we will find through this post that the world we live in now was inspired by the imaginations of writers and brought to reality by scientists, doctors and engineers who are continuing to bring to life the fiction they grew up on. To think that one lone Los Angeles police officer and former WWII bomber pilot could have such an impact on the world is amazing.

Star Trek as created by Gene Roddenberry has inspired two generations to strive to bring forth into existence what they watched as children on television and read in novels and fan magazines. The space program is full of "Trekkies" who have named space ships after the ships on the show while others such as Mark D. Rayman, Chief Propulsion Engineer at NASA's JPL, was inspired to develop Ion Propulsion because of Star Trek and is continuing with the dream that was created by science fiction. It is hard to find someone at NASA who is not a fan of this science fiction phenomenon.

It's not just the space program that contains these folks inspired by science fiction. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cell phone, claims he was inspired by the communicator he saw being used on Star Trek while he was the Chief Engineer at Motorola in the 70's. It is because of Martin and, in part Star Trek, that we now have iPhones. The creation of the iPhone owes its existence to Star Trek even more than the inspiration it gave to one engineer. It seems that early computer nerds were inspired by Star Trek and used this inspiration to make their favorite fiction just a bit more real and ended up developing the gadgets we hold dear today.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the first Apple computer after playing with the Altair computer kit. The Altair was named after a solar system in the original Star Trek universe. While the two "Steves" were busy creating an Apple computer, another great computer geek was busy creating a massive empire. This computer geek was Bill Gates who wrote Altair Basic and from there made some good business decisions which allowed him to later become the richest man in the world.

We're not talking about Microsoft right now though, we we're talking about the iPod. It seems that in 1987 another Apple Computer geek was watching Star Trek and was inspired by seeing Data (the Android on Star Trek the Next Generation) playing music over the computer and pulling up his favorite songs at will. This was an impossibility at the time, but Steve Perlman took this idea, ran with it, and soon created QuickTime, which has led to MP3 music, iPods, even our favorite YouTube, and the demise of the music industry, as we know it. Steve Perlman is now a millionaire and is the president of his own company Mova where he hopes to one day make Star Trek's fiction of a holodeck a reality. Now let's move back to Microsoft.

While Bill Gates was becoming a billionaire, he brought many people up with him and in doing so has altered the world. Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and he has used his billions to create the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, which pays homage to science fiction greats such as Star Trek and Planet of the Apes. Paul Allen does a lot with his money and intelligence. It seems Paul Allen has also created a company named "Vulcan Inc." which successfully launched the first privately funded space ship named "Space Ship One". Now it appears that a new commercial space program has started and "Virgin Galactic" has been born in part by the imaginations of science fiction writers. Just in case you are not a Star Trek fan, "Vulcan" is a species of highly intelligent aliens in the Star Trek universe. It would appear that Paul Allen has been greatly inspired by science fiction and is taking the influences of his early life and making drastic changes in the world with those influences.

Science fiction hasn't just inspired computer geeks; it seems that good old Bones McCoy and his non-invasive medical technologies have altered the world of medicine. Professor John Adler claims he was inspired by Star Trek to invent the "Cyberknife". This robotic device uses lasers to deliver radiation directly to cancer tumors without cutting into the patient. In the 1960's Star Trek doctors were scanning people without cutting them up and because of this many claim that they were inspired to create technologies that allowed non-invasive scanning that is used in today's medicine.

Professor Lawrence Krauss of Case Western University was inspired by Star Trek to get into the field of physics. He is the author of "The Physics of Star Trek" which can be purchased here. Lawrence claims that Star Trek and Science have been linked.

Other notable people who were inspired and had their lives changed by science fiction are Rob Haitani who is a product designer at PalmOne and Dr. Seth Shostak who works for the SETI Institute. Dr. Mae C. Jemison was the first African American in space and a woman claims that the fictional character Uhura drove her desire to be who she became. She started all her communication with Earth with the following words: "All Hailing Frequencies Opened" which came from a science fiction show she watched as a child.

After the death of Gene Roddenberry and with the help of writers and future producers such as Ira Steven Behr, Star Trek was changed forever and instead of being the "Happy Clappy" version of technology and the future we grew to love it became the darker and more sinister version of the future we are more than likely going to encounter. Within these new shows, we were introduced to the Borg and to faulty space stations such as Deep Space Nine and lost in space crews like the poor Voyager folks marooned in a distant part of the galaxy. It would seem that Star Trek "grew up" and was predicting something similar to the "Technological Singularity" where people merged with technology and thus lost what made them human.

People haven't taken so kindly to these new shows, which is apparent in the low ratings and failures of the darker "flash back" Enterprise series. We all wish that the future holds bright and happy utopian realities, but as we move forward, it is apparent that we just may lose ourselves to the technology we are creating. We may become more than the Borg could have ever imagined, and we may do so much faster than predicted through science fiction. We are quickly gaining technology far vaster than ever "predicted" in Star Trek with the exception of space travel. We may find ourselves forgoing space travel all together as we delve deeper into the universes that we create within cyberspace. This makes you wonder if that the reason for the flash back series Enterprise and the the new movie that flashes back to Spock's and Kirk's first adventures together is because the writers could no longer think of a positive future that fit with current thoughts on technology and were unable to think beyond the technologies they projected in Star Trek The Next Generation. The future writers imagine may no longer be a happy one.

It may not be the "job" of science fiction to dictate the future, but it is often the effect of good science fiction that helps generate the realities that we all later share. Even if scientists are in a sense creating a "self-fulfilling prophecy" in bringing to light the worlds in which they saw in science fiction, they are still being driven by the imaginations of the science fiction writers. Science fiction writers have historically created the prophesies while the "nerds" do the fulfilling through their abilities to create worlds that were previously living only within the dreams and imagination of writers.

The information in this post came from a show on the History Channel, which stated the following: "Star Trek had the power to make intelligent people devote their lives to making it true." You can buy the documentary here. The documentary is entitled "How William Shatner Changed the World" and is a tongue in cheek exploration of the power of Star Trek and it's ability to shape the modern world. Play the video below for a short "preview" of the documentary. This documentary is highly entertaining and is a must for anyone who loves William Shatner. If you do not have the History Channel and cannot catch this as a repeat, it is highly recommended that you purchase the video.

Further Reading........
Websites that may not have existed without science fiction:

Paul Allen's Website
Vulcan Inc.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison
Seth Shostak
Virgin Galactic
NASA Creating "Star Trek Like" Computer
Network Worlds Top Ten Star Trek Inventions

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