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Science Week: From Science Fiction to Reality: the Innovations of Sci-Fi

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Welcome to Science Week, everybody! In conjunction with the eminent minds over at, we're bringing you a week's worth of science-themed articles. Our books editor, Beth Woodward, kicks things off.

ImageWe are living in the time of science fiction.

Think about it: both 1984 and 2001 have come and gone.  And while 2010 may be a disappointment to those of you who were expecting flying cars and time machines, many of the devices we take for granted now have their origins in science fiction of the past.   So here, I’d like to take a look at the science that science fiction has given us—and the ones they’re still working on.

Big Brother

In science fiction: George Orwell’s 1984 introduced Big Brother, a totalitarian government spies on its own citizens anywhere and everywhere.  

In reality: Whether you agree that the government is “totalitarian” and has become infused with “thought police” or not, it’s hard to dispute that the technology for such surveillance exists.  From the growing ubiquitousness of security cameras to biometric identification to facial recognition software, Big Brother is not just possible—it is here.  Whether or not we’re employing that technology in the right ways probably depends on which side of the political spectrum you lie.

Video Calling

In science fiction: Remember that scene in Back to the Future when Marty gets fired—complete with the “You’re Fired” fax—over video phone?  Or how the Mr. Spacely used to interrupt George Jetsons’ procrastination by appearing over his video screen suddenly (always yelling “Jetson!” natch)?  Or how Darth Vader was able to talk to the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back—long before we met him in person in Return of the Jedi?  Yes, instant video calling has been a staple of science fiction for years.  And yet we still seem married to that antiquated “telephone” thing Alexander Graham Bell invented over a century ago.

In reality: But that, my friends, may be changing.  The technology for video calling has been around for awhile now, but it never really caught on before because it was choppy and cumbersome.  But with newer internet-based modes of communication—and faster broadband connections—it’s now possible to video call quickly, easily, and cheaply.   Video teleconferences are common office protocol.  And forget about calling across the city or country; services like Skype allow you to call across the world—for free.

In the years since this news segment was produced, Skype and similar services have only increased in popularity.  And no, maybe it’s not quite as common yet as a regular audio-only phone call, but give it a few more years.  By 2015, maybe Marty really will be able to get fired via video phone.

Can intergalactic calling really be far behind?


In science fiction: From The Six Million Dollar Man to The Bionic Woman, the idea of the cyborg has been a popular one in science fiction for a long time.  But perhaps the most famous techno-enhanced being is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.

Picture it.  1984, Los Angeles.  A woman named Sarah Connor has been targeted for termination by a cyborg assassin called the Terminator, because she will later give birth to a son named John Connor, who will rescue humanity from the machines.

I could go on.  But you’ve seen this movie.  Easier just to show you.

In reality: Sounds farfetched, right?  But the idea of human parts enhanced by technology isn’t as unrealistic as it sounds.  Scientists have been working on improving prosthetic limbs so they look, feel, and behave more like real limbs.  This article talks about the “Luke hand,” artificial limbs so advanced they can fool the amputee into thinking that it’s actually connected to their nervous systems.  Or this one, which talks about a prosthetic arm fused with the amputee’s own skin and bone.  And robots are becoming more and more humanlike.  If the Terminator isn’t here yet, it will certainly be possible soon enough.  Just don’t tell Linda Hamilton.


In science fiction: Teleportation—transportation of people and objects from one place to another instantaneously—has been used all over the place in science fiction.  My theory is that teleportation in science fiction prevents that dreaded e-word: exposition.  Seriously, who would watch a sci-fi movie where two hours are spent in a spaceship with the main character asking, “Are we there yet?”

But for the most famous use of teleportation, it only takes four words: Beam me up, Scotty.

In reality: Okay, we’re not beaming across the universe yet.  But scientists have been able to transmit photons —a particle of energy that carries light—across distances.  Of course, the original photon is destroyed in the process.  Teleportation might sound cool…but I’m not so sure I’d want to risk that.

Time Travel

In science fiction: From H.G. Wells to Audrey Niffenegger, time travel has been a product of fiction for a very long time.  It’s tantalizing: the idea that we could witness the past long after it’s gone, or see the future long before it actually happens.  It’s too good to pass up.

In reality: No, there are no time machines.  Not yet.  Maybe not ever.  But scientists from Stephen Hawking to Carl Sagan are still debating its possibility.  So who knows?  50 years ago, things like cell phones and personal computers would have been science fiction.  50 years from now, who knows?

Although, I can say one thing: when and if the time machine is ever invented, it probably won’t be a Delorean.