Wednesday, December 03, 2008


(Summary: The paper explains, science fiction, historical background, and its importance in the field of science.
This paper was to be read by Justice Yatindra Singh at Varanasi on 13.112008 in the first ever national discussion on 'Science Fiction: Past, present, Future' organised by National Council of Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) New Delhi. However due to unavoidable circumstances it could not be read but was circulated.)

In the thirteenth century, 130 children disappeared in Hamlin, Germany.  It is not clear,
  1. If this was in 1212 or 1260, or 1284 or any other year;
  2. If they died or were killed or just went away to another place;
  3. What was the reason for their disappearance.
However, Hamlin town  records this incident. The 'Donat', the Hamlin book of statutes, contains  references to it. The tragic incident was also recorded in the stained window of the market church. It was destroyed in 1660 but on the basis of surviving descriptions, it has been reconstructed by Hans Dobbertin (historian).  Around sixteenth century, a  tale was added to it:
From Wikipedia
'The town of Hamlin was suffering from a rat infestation. A man dressed in pied garments (the pied piper) appeared, offering them a solution. The people promised to pay him for his services. He played a musical pipe to lure away the rats and drowned them into the Weser river. However  the people refused to pay him. The man left the town angrily. 
The pipe piper returned on St. John's Day.  While the inhabitants of Hamlin were in the church, he played his pipe again. This time, instead of rats, the tune attracted the children. One hundred and thirty boys and girls followed him out of the town and were never seen again. Two children, a lame, and a deaf were left behind to tell the tale.'

Some say that the pied piper was the devil himself; some accept this story as an explanation to the tragic incident. Leaving the dark aspect of the tale, the pied piper  was a master musician, who could attract anyone with his tunes.  So is the case with science fiction: they not only create interest in science but make us aware about different possibilities.

Science Fiction - Interesting
Arthur C. Clark has written an article 'Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination'. In the article, he explains four priciples for the future of science. In the article,  initially the first three priciples were mentioned but the fourth and the last one was added afterwards. They are,
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. 
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
  4. For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.

His third principle is the most famous and is the basis of all science fiction: this is the reason that science fiction is so interesting. After all who does not like fantasy – especially the magical  world of advanced technology.    

What is science fiction?
Science fiction includes such a wide range of themes and sub-genres that it is  difficult to define it. However, it broadly deals with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals; It often involves speculations based on current/ future science or technology.

Science fiction lies in the arena of pure imagination, but it is not pure fantasy; its context is possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature.

Historical Background of Science Fiction
Science fiction has been in existence as far back as stories have been in existence,  but the first recognised and  talked about science fiction is Mary Shelly's (nee Godwin) (30.8.1979-1.2.1851) 'Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus' generally known as 'Frankenstein'. It also gave a new phrase to the English language 'Frankenstein's Monster'. One must remember the monster/ creature in the novel was nameless: it was the name of its creator— Victor Frankenstein.

Edgar Allan Poe (19.1.2808 – 7.10.1849) also contributed to the genre of science fiction. 
However, the person first to the popularise it was Jules Verne (8.2.1828 – 24.3.1905), the French writer, rightly acclaimed as the father of science fiction.
Pierre-Jules Hetzel (15.1.1814–17.3.1886) was a French publisher. He not only published the books written by  Jules Verne but encouraged him and made valuable suggestions. The role that he played for science fiction in the nineteenth century was played  by Hugo Gernsback, an American publisher, in the twentieth century.

Hugo started a magazine named 'Amazing stories' later renamed 'Amazing Science Fiction' to popularise it. He also popularised, if not invented, the word science fiction later shortened to Sci-Fi or just SF. The World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) gives many awards and one of the awards - the Hugo Award - is named in his honour . The convention is held every year since 1939 (except for the years 1942 through 1945, during World War II).
Science fiction is often based on future science and technology. It extrapolates and often refers to emerging scientific fields. It creates interest in those fields. Some examples are:
  1. Lunar Journey
  2. Space Exploration;
  3. Robotics;
  4. Mathematics and Computers
  5. Surrogacy, cloning, and stem cell.

Lunar Journey
We always dreamt about going to the other worlds and the moon being the nearest was closest to our heart. Jules Verne wrote a novel 'From earth to moon' (1865). It was not a complete novel. He wrote another one 'Around the moon' (1870) which continued from where the earlier one had ended. Subsequently, both of them were combined together and renamed 'A trip to the moon and around it'.
Hundred and four years after Jules Verne wrote his story, Apollo-11, the first manned trip was planned to the moon.  Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon (21.7.1969), on this historic event said,
'That's one small step for [a] man, one great leap for mankind.'

On his way back, he made a speech, where he recalled the story written by Jules Verne and pointed out some of the similarities. In fact, there are many similarities between the story written by Jules Verne and the moon mission:
  1. The first manned vehicle to go to the moon would be launched from the US.
  2. It would be blasted off from Florida, so did all Apollo missions. (Verne correctly states that objects launch into space more easily if they are launched from the earth's equator.)
  3. The shape and size of the vehicle would closely resemble the Apollo command/ service module spacecraft.
  4. Verne's cannon was named the Columbiad and the Apollo 11 command module was named Columbia.
  5. The number of men in the crew would be three.
  6. A telescope would be able to view the progress of the journey. The actual launch was televised.
  7. Verne predicted weightlessness although his concept was slightly flawed in thinking that it was only experienced at the gravitational midpoint of the journey (where the Moon and Earth gravity balanced).
  8. The Verne spacecraft would use retro-rockets which became a technology assisting Neil Armstrong and his crew mates in their journey to the Moon. 
HG Wells (21.9.1866 – 13.8.1946) also wrote a novel about moon trip 'The First Man in the Moon' (1901). It was based on different principles. A sphere that could shield gravity. If gravity has particle nature and graviton, the elusive particle, is found then you never know – will this be possible.

And now we are on our way to moon – Chandrayaan-1 (चन्र्दयान-१) is on.

Space Exploration
Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, was inspired by astronomical speculation of the time, that envisioned  Mars to the similar to Earth which was now becoming less hospitable to life. He wrote many stories (11) relating to life on Mars which was called "Barsoom" by its inhabitants.

HG Wells wrote another classic 'War of the Worlds', an invasion by Martians where we are saved by bacteria to which Martians had no immunity.

We all grew up with excitement of Star trek. It fired the imagination of many with its classic opening,
'Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.'

Arthur C. Clarke (16.12.1917- 19.3.2008) and Isaac Asimov (2.1.1920 – 6.4.1992) have written great science fiction stories. They were travelling down Park Avenue, New York while sharing a taxi. They entered into a pact that Asimov was required to insist that Arthur C. Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Isaac Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself). This was acknowledged in writing by Clarke in his book 'Report on Planet Three',
‘In accordance with the terms of the Clark-Asimov treaty, the second best science writer dedicates this book to the second best science fiction writer.’  
This may not be true. For many, Isaac Asimov  is the best science fiction writer, if not of all times then at least of the twentieth century. One should not compare him with Jules Verne, the father of science fiction: Jules belonged to a different era, a different century.  The progress of science makes the comparison unfair. But what Jules Verne was to his generation, Asimov was to his .

Asimov's best-known work is the 'Foundation Series’  (see End note-1). He has written other series too: The 'Robot series' (see End note-2) and  the 'Empire Series' (See End Note-3). The stories in the series are independent of each other and have been written at different times without any intention of connecting them.  But in the end, they were connected. There is some inconsistency between them but this is expected as they were not planned to be connected. These three series together form, what one may call ‘Foundation Universe’. They offer a kind of picture of the future, painted through stories that are gripping, and make enjoyable reading.   

Robotics is the new emerging field of science. We already have dancing robots; robot competitions are common in the engineering colleges. The time is not far when we will have robots doing the manual work. How will they be build; what principles will they follow? I have no doubt that the fundamental principle will be the   three laws of Robotics that Asimov framed at the beginning of Robot series in 1941.  Like three laws of motion, three laws of Robotics will endure time and will be basis for Robotics.   These laws are: 
  1. A Robot may not ignore a human being or through inaction allow human being to come to harm
  2. A Robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law
  3. A Robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law

Should we have robots doing all work for us? Well, we should learn from the science fiction story 'The Return of Vaman' written by Jayant Vishnu Narlikar. This may not happen but the moral is
'Utopia, if there is one, is end of life.'
The story also raises interest in the theory of selfish genes and  if a machine can replicate itself.

Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence
Most of the science fiction have reference to Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence but there are not many that are written with them as main theme. However I will like to mention about two:
  • Uncle Petros and Goldbach's conjecture by Apostoles Doxiadis: Golbach's conjecture is that an even number greater than two can always be expressed as a sum of two prime numbers. This story revolves around  Goldbach's conjecture and Godel's theorem of incompleteness and is spun around Professor Petros and his nephew.   Prof. Petros and his family is fiction but rest of the characters are real and stories about them are also real anecdotes about mathematicians.  The publishers had announced one million dollars prize to any one who could solve Goldbach's conjecture within two years of publication of the book.  The book is engrossing and creates interest in the world of Mathematics.
  • The Cambridge Quintet by L. Casti: Information Technology (IT) has slowed down.  Nonetheless it will continue to dominate our lives and the data collected would require application to get meaningful results.  This would require opening of new frontiers in artificial intelligence.   It is a fictional account of a dinner party of five greats of the last century namely, C.P. Snow, physicist, Civil servant; Alan Turing, Mathematician; J.B.S. Haldane, Geneticist; Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel prize-winning physicist; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher.  The dinner is hosted by Snow who is to give a report on what Tuning had proposed in the middle of the last century, 'Is there any logical reason why we cannot envision technology advancing to the point where we could construct a computing machine that would be distinguishing from human being in its cognitive capabilities?' Or can a machine think? Snow thought best to call the other four to get their views before writing it. Strictly speaking the book is not  science fiction.  It is also not popular science writing: it is not limited to the knowledge of that time.  The book gives arguments (pros and cons) about artificial intelligence. And one should not forget to read 'Afterwards', which gives a good account of 'Artificial Intelligence' today and the books in this regard. It gives history and future of artificial intelligence. Casti is  a Ph.D. in Mathematics, has full credentials to write such a wonderful book.
Surrogacy, Cloning, and  Stem Cell Research
The areas relating to surrogacy, cloning and  stem cell research have come into existence. They not only raise scientific but moral questions too that are difficult to answer. Some science fiction novel discuss these issues:
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by HG Wells: The story revolves around the idea of vivisection of animals to resemble humans.
  • The Imperial Earth (1976) by Arthur C. Clark: It is set in twenty third century and discusses surrogacy and cloning. It also envisages a society where bisexuality - instead of heterosexuality or homosexuality - is the norm;
  • 'Jurassic Park' (1990)  by Michael Crichton: He has added sequels to it. It talks about re-creation of dinosaurs. It also uses the mathematical concept of chaos theory.

'Jurassic Park' provides interesting insight. Many say that this story is impossible for various reasons:
  • It is not possible to recover dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree sap.
  • It is unlikely to find a complete sequence because DNA is typically unstable outside living organisms (unless it is in the proper buffer).
  • Any gaps in the resulting DNA sequence must be filled with dinosaur DNA; using frog DNA, as the story suggests, would likely produce an organism that varied from the original animal.
  • In order to clone a complete DNA sequence, an oocyte from the same organism is required. Since no Mesozoic dinosaurs are alive today, this would be impossible.
  • Any prehistoric DNA obtained from a fossilized mosquito would have become contaminated with the mosquito's own, again making it problematic to clone an 'accurate' and viable organism.
However these objections may not apply for the species that are endangered or likely to disappear. Their DNA can always be preserved – just in case it may be needed.

Science fiction often deals with emerging field of science. It provides an allurement to  study science that no other kind of fiction does. What a good idea will it be, if science fiction can be introduced as one of the extra curricular activities in the schools and colleges under Science Club or perhaps part of literature or science subjects. If this happens then this may lead to better scientists of tomorrow.

(All photographs, except the photograph of the robot are from Wikipedia)

End Note-1: ‘Foundation’, is the first novel in the 'foundation series' from publication point of view. It was initially published in the form of four stories between 1942 to 1944. Later on (1951) they appeared as one novel.  Two more were added ‘Foundation and the Empire' (1952) and ‘The Second Foundation' (1953).  For twenty-five years the Foundation Trilogy remained the best science fiction ever written. It is only later, that two more were added to the series ‘Foundation’s Edge' (1982) and ‘Foundation and Earth' (1983).  One thought it was the end of the matter but then he came up with ‘Prelude to Foundation' (1988).  It is in fact the first in the Foundation Series though written in the last. In all this series consists of six books.

End Note-2: The 'Robot Series' consists of ‘The Complete Robot’ (short stories about robots published from 1940 to 76),  ‘The Caves of Steel' (1954) (The first Robot novel), ‘The Naked Sun' (1959),  ‘The Robot of Dawn' (1983) and ‘Robots and Empire' (1985).

End Note-3
: The 'Empire Series  consists of ‘The Currents of Space' (1952) (the first Empire novel though again written in the last), ‘Pebble in the Sky' (1950) and ‘The Star Like Dust' (1951).

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