Theoretical physicist Ben Schumacher recently gave a lecture (described in this story) in which he points out the motivational value of science fiction, saying, “Plenty of really interesting research has been motivated by science fictiony ideas.” Elaborating this point a little more:
Even the most outlandish science fiction stories can spur very real questions for those probing the mysteries of our universe [….] Stories about time travel, flying faster than the speed of light and other supposedly impossible things have long captivated physicists, he said. While most spend their careers studying possible things, there’s value in researching the stuff that falls on the other side of the laws of physics, said Schumacher, who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio.
One example he uses is the way that Carl Sagan’s book Contact inspired real research into the possibility of wormholes. Motivated by Sagan, physicist Kip Thorne and others at the California Institute of Technology did research that indicated, at least, that the laws of physics don’t absolutely rule out wormholes. But even if they don’t exist, that doesn’t mean the idea was a waste of time:
“It may be there are no such things as wormholes. But if there were, we now understand what the implications would be,” Schumacher said.
Another example is discussed in an article by physicist Paul Davies (How to Build a Time Machine):
Time travel has been a popular science-fiction theme since H. G. Wells wrote his celebrated novel The Time Machine in 1895. But can it really be done? Is it possible to build a machine that would transport a human being into the past or future? For decades, time travel lay beyond the fringe of respectable science. In recent years, however, the topic has become something of a cottage industry among theoretical physicists.
His article delves into the theoretical details, and it’s fascinating stuff. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that even if time travel ultimately turns out to be impossible, physicists could possibly gain some insights into what is possible by way of grappling seriously with the question. And that in itself would be something for science fiction to be proud of.
[Interesting aside: Davies has also been (still is?) chairman of SETI’s Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup. Which means that in the case of a plausible signal, he is called in to advise and consult. Awesome — why can’t I get a job like that?]
And just to drive home the importance of science fiction to physicists, I found this interesting:
At least 10 physicists and technicians from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., regularly attend science fiction conventions.
I’d sure go hang out with a bunch of sci-fi-loving physicists, sounds like a blast to me! :)