The science reality behind science fiction

Can sci-fi fill the gaps in science

From Dune to The 3 Body Problem, the sci-fi popular in the modern era has arguably become more outlandish than ever. The 3 Body Problem imagines a proton, ‘unfolded’ in 11 dimensions, and turned into a planet-sized supercomputer. Even in the realms of the imagination, the possibility of such future science appears far-fetched. Is the outlandishness of our sci-fi correlated with the size of the gaps in our current understanding? David Kyle Johnson argues the more we learn about the universe, the more there is to discover.


 “[T]oday's science fiction is tomorrow's truth.”

-- Hal McAllister, Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1952, p. 127.

Although this quote (or something like it) is thought to have been said by Issac Asimov (it probably wasn’t), it is still a common sentiment. “What is science fiction today will be science fact tomorrow.” And if you believe this, you might think it explains why science fiction has gotten a bit more, shall we say, far-fetched lately.

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING Science fiction for a dystopian present With Cory Doctorow

Think about the three-body problem, which serves as the title of both a work of science fiction (which was first a novel by Liu Cixin and is now a Netflix series) and is a problem in physics. The novel and show are pretty crazy! (Spoiler alert) You’ve got real to life VR, invisible indestructible nanofibers, and apparently, at some point, a proton will be unfolded in 11 dimensions, whatever the hell that means. “Since science has been unable to solve things like the three-body problem,” the argument might go, “science fiction writers have turned to speculating about solutions. And there’s a lot that science hasn’t explained beyond the three-body problem, like dark matter, dark energy, and quantum mechanics.”  

This argument, however, is based on misunderstandings. But clearing them up will be very helpful in improving our understanding of the nature of science, and of science fiction.


No science fiction ever envisioned relativity or quantum mechanics before they were discovered



Understanding Science Fiction

First, this argument misunderstands the opening quote. McAllister wasn’t saying that science fiction anticipates scientific discoveries. That doesn’t happen. For example, no science fiction ever envisioned relativity or quantum mechanics before they were discovered. You need a deep expert understanding of science, and a scientific mind, to produce real scientific breakthroughs.

McAllister was actually saying that science fiction predicts technological developments. Now, he was right about that. Flip phones, submarines, video chatting, iPads, drones, robots, credit cards, TV, and the moon landing were all anticipated by science-fiction.* But this doesn’t mean that, when science can’t figure out the way the world works, it needs science fiction to step in to propose explanations. Again, that’s never happened.


Understanding the Three-Body-Problem

Second, this argument misunderstands the present state of scientific knowledge. Take the three-body problem (in physics). Commonly understood, it refers to our inability to predict the behavior of three three-body systems—how, for example, three stars in a trinary star system will orbit one another. In the show, an alien race inhabits a planet in such a system and has to abandon it because its climate is unpredictable from day to day.

But the three-body problem doesn’t represent a gap in our knowledge; it represents a discovery. We actually can predict the orbital behaviors of a three-body system; we just have to do it numerically—one state at a time. You use the present state to predict the next one, and that new state to predict the next, etc. It’s just really labor intensive (it requires a lot of computing power). Because it is, we just wondered whether there was an easier way to do it: with (to put it simply) an equation.

What we discovered is that no such equation exists. And to be clear: it’s not the case that there is one and we are just too dumb to discover what it is. No. We were so damn smart that we were able to prove that no such equation exists. If you want to predict the behavior of a three-body system, you have to do it the hard way. That’s remarkable!

What’s more, our ignorance can’t be what inspired the The-Three-Body-Problem. With the numerical method, we can predict the orbits of three bodies hundreds of years in advance. Want evidence? NASA has predictions for eclipses hundreds of years in advance, and the Earth, Moon, and Sun are a three-body system.) So, the idea that an advanced alien race in a trinary star system wouldn’t be able to know what their climate would be like on a day-to-day basis is not rooted in our current scientific knowledge (or our current scientific ignorance). They wouldn’t have an equation into which they could plug any date and get the position of their suns; but they could predict years in advance what their suns would do.**  

  24 01 29 science doesnt describe reality SUGGESTED READING Science does not describe reality By Bas van Fraassen

Understanding Science

Third, the opening argument misunderstands how science works. Take dark matter. While it represents a “hole” in our knowledge of sorts, it also represents a discovery. The need to hypothesize the existence of dark matter was produced by our discovery of, and advancing knowledge of, distant galaxies. If we only consider the amount of matter that we can see in them, given their rotation, there is not enough mass to hold them together (given centrifugal effects). So, there must be matter in them that we cannot see—dark matter—which keeps them from flying apart.

The same is true for dark energy, which is a placeholder for whatever is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Accelerating expansion was an amazing discovery! But thinking the fact that we haven’t explained why yet, is a reason to fret about the state of our scientific knowledge, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science and scientific discovery.

As I often tell my students (in my class on science and pseudoscience), it’s perfectly fine for a scientific discovery to lead to more questions than answers. Indeed, that is what good science should do: open up new lines of research for even more discoveries to be made. The germ theory of disease was a huge advancement, and increased our understanding of the world, but it opened up all new kinds of questions: What different kinds of germs are there? How do they cause disease? What can we do to prevent it?


Every time scientists fill in a gap in the fossil record, it creates two more


What good science cannot do is raise questions that are in principle unanswerable. This is why belief in miracles, by definition, is not scientific. There is no, and can be no, explanation for why they happen, how they happen, or even any proof that they happened. Such questions are, in principle, unanswerable. “An inexplicable being did it with an inexplicable force” is just replacing the unexplained with the unexplainable.

But there is no reason to think that the nature of dark energy and dark matter are, in principle, unexplainable. Indeed, there have already been many good suggestions (for dark matter and dark energy). Maybe humanity will destroy itself before we find the answer; but that doesn’t mean that their nature is inexplicable.

The same can be said about quantum mechanics. Sure it’s difficult to wrap your head around what it entails. Light and the fundamental building blocks of matter are both waves and particles. They have no definite property of location until they are measured, and what location they take on when measured is random and uncaused. And there is no settled answer to what this means. The pilot wave theory, the Copenhagen interpretation, the many-worlds interpretation are all attempts to understand quantum mechanics, but there is no consensus on which is right.

But that doesn’t mean that quantum mechanics represents a gap in our knowledge that indicates that science is stagnating. The discovery of its truth greatly increased our understanding of the universe; it is also what made almost every piece of technology invented in the last century and a half possible.

Think of it this way. Every time scientists fill in a gap in the fossil record, it creates two more. And if you fill those in, you’ll have four more.

Gaps in science knowledge

But that doesn’t mean that filling in the gaps in the fossil record decreases our understanding of how life evolved. It clearly increases it. In the same way, the advancement of scientific knowledge will always raise new questions—perhaps even more than it answered—but that doesn’t mean that science is “struggling to find the answers” or that science is somehow “stuck” and unable to make progress.


Conclusion: Strings and Simulations

So, if science fiction (like the Three-Body-Problem) is becoming more ridiculous, in response to the “holes” in our current scientific theories, science fiction writers are not understanding the science—both its discoveries, and the nature of the scientific endeavor itself. But I don’t think that is what science fiction writers are doing.

At the worst, the Three-Body-Problem—with all its talk of unfolding particles in 11 dimensions—is referencing string theory, which suggest that particles vibrate in higher dimensions to achieve the properties they have. Whether string theory is a scientific theory—to date, it has offered no novel predictions and so is untestable—is a debate unto itself. Can a theory’s explanatory power alone make it rational to prefer it?

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING The trouble with string theory With Katie Robertson, Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Eric Weinstein, Tasneem Zehra Husain

Marus Arvan has argued that the hypothesis that we live in a computer simulation explains basically every major unsolved scientific and metaphysical problem. (And he proposed this after The Matrix, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor.) Is that a reason to think this hypothesis is true? I guess that’s a question that will have to wait for another time (like the upcoming revised version of my Exploring Metaphysics course).

In any event, I don’t think the far-fetched nature of current science fiction has anything to do with the current state of science knowledge; I also don’t think that the far-fetched nature of our current science fiction is a bad thing—although it is always good when science-fiction gets the science right.


*Note: To be fair, there might be some selection bias involved in saying that sci-fi predicts future technology.  Science fiction writers envision a lot of technology, and most of it never will be real. Star Trek transporters will never be real, and sci-fi arguably began with a piece of technology that will never be produced: Dr. Frankenstein’s flesh reanimator. We just remember the hits, and kind of forget the misses. Still, the point stands.

**Note: This is a lot like our relationship to the weather. We can’t just plug in a date and know what the weather will be like; but we can predict it (with relative accuracy) a few days in advance. And, although we can’t do it weeks in advance, we are never completely surprised by where and when a hurricane will hit; we can prepare.


Latest Releases
Join the conversation