From Sci-Fi to Reality: Exploring the Nexus of Science and Sci-Fi
Future Tech: An Interview with Dr Paul Halpern, Best Selling Science Author, Professor of Physics and Fellow in the Humanities at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
In this Future Tech interview, we’re speaking with Dr Paul Halpern, noted science author and Professor of Physics and Fellow in the Humanities at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Some of the books that Paul has written include: What’s Science Ever Done for Us?, What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe, Time Journeys, Cosmic Wormholes, Collider and Edge of the Universe. His latest book is Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics.
Shara Evans (SE): Today, I’m in Philadelphia sitting with Dr Paul Halpern, noted science author and Professor of Physics, as well as Fellow in the Humanities at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
One of the things that I love about Paul’s books is how he goes into the history of some of the top scientists the world has ever known. Much like myself, Paul is an absolute science-fiction fan. Today, for the Future Tech series, we thought we would talk about some of the science-fiction predictions to see how they might have panned out and to also explore the nexus of science and sci-fi in futurism, and see what that might tell us about how technology could evolve over the next decade or so.
Paul Halpern (PH): Thank you, Shara. Thanks for inviting me to your Future Tech interview series. Really delighted to be here, and I’m really pleased to be talking about predictions from the past and whether or not they turned out to be correct or turned out to be way off.
H.G. Wells — We’re Still Waiting for a Time Machine, but the Atomic Bomb became Reality
SE: Well, let’s start with one of my favourite science fiction authors, H.G. Wells. He obviously was another very prolific author, and he had a number of predictions. I think most of us think of H.G. Wells in time travel, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that that hasn’t happened yet, but what else did he predict?
PH: Well, unfortunately, H.G. Wells didn’t have access to his own time machine. That was something fictional, but that’s how his fictional career started off with his novel, “The Time Machine”. Then later in both his fictional tales and also in his essays, he made a number of predictions about the future, many of them were very rosy. He was very much interested in Utopian societies, and some of them were dystopian; some of them were more utopian.
It’s interesting to see which of his predictions came true and which of them were way off. For example, one of his most famous predictions was in 1914. H.G. Wells wrote a novel called “The World Set Free”, and that novel was about a future calamity — an atomic war in which atomic bombs were launched. Surprisingly, this was way before the development of the atom bomb — H.G. Wells predicted the atom bomb. It wasn’t exactly in the form, with the chain reaction and so forth that later turned out to be the actual bomb, but he did predict nuclear weapons.
He predicted a war involving these, and it’s extremely remarkable that he made the prediction in 1914 because that’s when very little was known about the atom. Niels Bohr had just developed his first atomic model, and it was a very simple atomic model. The atomic nucleus had only just been discovered, and there was very, very little known about the atom. It wasn’t really dissected or really understood yet. Quantum mechanics have not been developed in the full form, but H.G. Wells still, nevertheless, predicted the atomic bomb.
Interestingly, his prediction of the atomic bomb may have stirred a physicist, Leó Szilárd, who had read the book. It’s an interesting story. Szilárd was in London, thinking about ideas related to the book while he was crossing Russell Square, and all of a sudden it occurred to him that you could have a nuclear chain reaction, and he immediately patented the idea. That led ultimately to ideas that were underlying the Manhattan Project that led to the actual bomb. Of course, we know that the bomb was developed in the early ‘40s, and the first atomic bombs were dropped in 1945.
SE: It seems to be a common theme of scientists reading science-fiction stories and that sparks their imagination and then they find ways of inventing things. Now with H.G. Wells, how detailed was he in his prediction of how an atomic bomb might work? Was his model scientifically accurate?
PH: Well, he didn’t really go into the details of how the bomb would work — he couldn’t have really, because very little was known about atomic nuclei at the time. Basically, atomic nuclei, the existence of it, had just been discovered. They didn’t even know about neutrons, for example. The atomic bomb is based upon bombarding a special kind of uranium with neutrons. Of course, that particular uranium isotope wasn’t known or the type of neutrons to bombard it with. So the scientific details were not very accurate, but just the fact that he came up with that idea is pretty remarkable.
One thing that was off about the story was he predicted an era of world peace following the launching of the bomb. He was very Utopian, and he thought that having such a horrific weapon would scare people so much that they would all get together and form a world government and a society based upon peace.
SE: It’s a shame that that prediction didn’t pan out as well as the nuclear bomb prediction.
To go back to your point about scientists being influenced by science fiction, it’s interesting because of scientists I’ve spoken to and scientists I’ve read about, some of them were very much influenced by science fiction. Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist, was an excellent example. He loved science fiction. He read science fiction. He even wrote his own science fiction. Fred Hoyle, who developed the steady-state universe, was another person who was very much connected with science fiction, as well as science, and yet there are physicists like Einstein, for example, who had absolutely no interest in science fiction and wasn’t really inspired by science fiction, and many others who don’t even really consider science fiction in their models. Maybe they find out about it indirectly, but not all scientists like science fiction.
SE: It’s interesting though that many science-fiction authors also have science backgrounds or at least an interest in science fact, and they extrapolate from there.
Going back to H.G. Wells, he got some other things right. He got the atomic bomb right, at least the principles of that. He also made a prediction about newspapers. You had shared that with me just before our interview.
PH: Yes, it was remarkable. In a BBC radio program from the 1940s, I think 1943, H.G. Wells made the comment: “Newspapers are today as dead as mutton.” He thought newspapers were on the way out. This was going back to 1943. Well, not quite on the way out in 1943 — we still have newspapers today. But his prediction was that, in the future, people would get news from phones, which is really remarkable because, of course, he didn’t anticipate the cell phone; he certainly didn’t anticipate the smartphone, but just the idea that people would get their news constantly as a stream rather than reading it in the newspaper, the idea that people would eventually be in communication with some source of news that was constantly updating.
SE: Did he talk about something like the Internet or network of people, or was it just limited to news at that stage?
PH: He just said people will get their news from phones, and at that time, of course, the telephone was just a landline and with a very heavy phone set. I would imagine that he thought people would call up some number, and there’d be some reporter on the line, or a recording of a reporter, or a phonograph record that would play and people would hear it. It’s hard to know what Wells had imagined, but maybe some kind of record playing which has the current news, and then they would put together another record and play it, and it would have the news from the next hour, and people would get that by calling up a number.
SE: Yes, or possibly even a recording of a radio broadcast where you call up and get the radio broadcast.
PH: Yes. They did have spoken recordings on phonograph record at that time, so maybe he thought that that would be something that was done constantly and constantly updated.
Isaac Asimov — Predicting Escalating Computing Power
SE: Another famous science-fiction author is Isaac Asimov, and he had many books that talked about robots and worlds full of computing devices. What’s your favourite prediction from Isaac Asimov?
PH: Well, Isaac Asimov wrote a very interesting short story called “The Last Question” and it predicts — it tries to predict the far, far future of the universe all the way until the very end, so it’s a very wide-reaching story. The idea behind “The Last Question” is that somebody talks to a computer and asked the computer a question, and the question is: can entropy — meaning, the amount of disorder in the universe — ever be reversed?
This was a really interesting problem because we know, according to laws of physics, that entropy and disorder build up over time and that the universe gets more and more disorderly. For example, if you take a teacup and you knock it off a table and it smashes to the floor, the pieces are not going to spontaneously reassemble themselves and come back on to the table and form a new teacup. That’s not going to happen.
SE: Only in the movies!
PH: So unless you have a videotape and reverse it, that’s not going to happen.
Well, that’s what happens in the universe, that, over time, stars wear out; galaxies wear out; stars become things like white dwarves and black holes, and eventually those radiate. Eventually, the universe will reach a state called heat death in which nothing happens, where the universe has a uniform temperature, and nothing will ever change from that point on. It’s a big question in science, as well as science fiction, whether or not that situation could be reversed.
Analog computing machine at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in 1949
Asimov, in his short story, imagines somebody posing this question to a computer, and this was not a computer as we know them today. This was a computer from the 1950s: these were huge, room-sized computers with vacuum tubes and wiring and so forth. The computer responded by saying, “Insufficient data for a meaningful answer,” so there wasn’t enough data assembled yet when the first person who asked the last question asked it. Asimov continues and imagines millions or perhaps billions of years in which computers developed and human beings developed. His prediction was that computers would develop. He never imagined the chip. He imagined that you would have computers that are bigger and bigger and would eventually be so big as to take up worlds or maybe even an entire galaxy full of computational equipment.
SE: He never imagined Moore’s Law with computing power getting more and more powerful in smaller and smaller form factors.
PH: Well, he didn’t imagine Moore’s Law, but he did imagine the computers getting more powerful — but he thought that more powerful meant bigger. That was a natural assumption from the 1950s: to think that smarter computers must be bigger. Asimov would have been amazed that people carry around miniature computers in their pockets today. That was something he never really thought of, even in his finals years.
Anyway, “The Last Question” imagines bigger and bigger computers, and finally there’s a computer that basically spans the universe, and humans have developed into this cosmic brain, a cosmic mind, and that merges with the ultimate computer and finally solves the last question. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but the computer solves the last question.
His prediction was that computers would get bigger and bigger, and many people predicted that, up until really the 1970s, that computers will be big, that people would perhaps access them through remote hook-ups. No one really imagined, even in the 1970s, that every household would have its own computer, let alone that people will carry around miniature computers in their pockets.
SE: Or that kids would have miniature computers in their toys and they’d have a whole roomful of these toys with miniature computers.
PH: Yes, it’s really remarkable. That prediction, the prediction of smarter computers, almost everybody predicted that, but the prediction of universal computers, of ones that are in households, ones that people carry around, nobody really imagined this. It shows that not all predictions come true.
SE: Well, he wrote a lot about robots, and I think we’re starting to see the rise of the robots in the real world in lots of different form factors that don’t necessarily look humanoid in appearance, but we’re seeing them in many different guises, in factory automation, in mining, in agriculture.
PH: In fact, there’s a robot called ASIMO, but I’m not sure if it directly relates to Asimov’s name. These robots are not exactly the kind that Asimov envisioned. Some scientists still think that the type of artificial intelligence that Asimov imagined in his robot series is way off, or maybe even impossible, but we’ll see. Things happen. Sometimes things happen so quickly that just a small change can make a huge difference, and then all of a sudden we find that the world has completely transformed. Maybe that will happen, and all of a sudden we’ll have super intelligent robots. It’s hard to say.
SE: Well, it seems to me that we’re going to have robots in our life in some way, shape or form. I know I have a little robot vacuum cleaner.
PH: Well, of course, you can call the self-guided lawnmowers and things like that a type of robot. Certainly in terms of the devices that people use, such as GPS devices — those are also in a way a kind of robot because they give automatic responses.
SE: Yes, well, certainly Asimov talked about artificial intelligence, and that’s something that hasn’t really panned out the way that people thought it would — say, even 30 years ago when a lot of computer scientists were putting efforts into AI — but there seems to be some progress in that direction these days.
PH: Yes, there’s AI optimists and AI pessimists, and so far things have been in the middle. That’s just how AI has developed. I read recently that a computer supposedly passed the Turing Test, which was considered the litmus test for AI, that if you had a computer in another room and you spoke to the computer and didn’t realise it was a computer. I would have to look into that more carefully to see if I actually believe that, but I did see in the news that a computer seemingly fooled people into thinking that it was an actual person.
SE: I’d love to find out about that. You’ll have to send me some information when you do your investigations.
An Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite relays secure communications for the United States and other allied countries. Image: USAF (Los Angeles AFB)
Arthur C. Clarke — The Father of Satellite Communications
Let’s now turn to another one of the prominent science-fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke. One of the things that I remember about his books was that he talked about communication satellites.
PH: Yes, that’s remarkable and he was both involved in science fiction and also in the development of satellites. Of course, Clarke foresaw, back in the 1950s and earlier, that you would have these devices floating in space and that they would prove critical to navigation, and to communications. Way back then, He predicted that people would be able to communicate with each other instantly. Of course, that’s come true today, using mobile devices people can communicate with each other instantly. Clarke foresaw that, and he thought that satellites would play an important role in that.
SE: I’ve read somewhere that some of the early satellite pioneers had stated that they were heavily influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s books.
PH: Yes, well, a lot a lot of people were influenced by Clarke, and I think that once again there’s a case where science fiction and speculative fiction influences people to pursue things to try to press forward and see if these possibilities can work.
Jules Verne — Submarines, Tasers and Travelling to the Moon
Engraving of Captain Nemo viewing a giant squid from a porthole of the Nautilus submarine, from 20000 Lieues Sous les Mers by Jules Verne (1870).By Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou, via Wikimedia Commons.
SE: Well, another classic science-fiction author that has had a huge influence in the technology in our world is Jules Verne, and I suppose one of my favourites would be his tales of Captain Nemo and the submarines.
PH: Yes, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” was a really remarkable novel, and Jules Verne, of course, predicted the submarine, and for submarines have played so much of a role in the world today, both in military and civilian applications, that it’s remarkable that Verne predicted that back in the 19th century.
SE: If I recall correctly, weren’t they nuclear-powered or powered by something very much like nuclear power?
PH: It was something like that, but once again, like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne couldn’t have imagined exactly how nuclear power would work — it was way before then — but some kind of powerful engine was powering these submarines. Now we, of course, have nuclear-powered submarines.
SE: He also imagined amazing engines and technology that could take people to the moon.
PH: Yes, he imagined rocket ships to the moon, which of course was realised in the 1960s. He also pictured television newscasts and also the Taser. There were a number of things that were predicted in Jules Verne’s stories that came true.
About the author: Shara Evans is internationally acknowledged as a cutting edge technology futurist, commentator, strategy advisor, keynote speaker and thought leader, as well as the Founder and CEO of Market Clarity.
In Part 2 of our interview with Dr Paul Halpern we continue our discussion about the nexus of science and sci-fi. Topics include the Star Trek universe, genetic engineering, human augmentation, time travel and teleportation.
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