Science Fiction in the Classroom

Article excerpt

"FIRST, of necessity, come thought, fantasy and fable. Then follow the scientific calculations. Finally, thought is crowned by achievement". This is how Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), one of the pioneers of space travel, defined the basic relationship that exists between science fiction and scientific and technological development.

In its wider sense of the creative, imaginative dreaming that foreshadows scientific achievement, science fiction, like myth, reflects the ambition to dominate nature which is as old as mankind.

Indeed, dream and rational thought, imagination and precise calculations, are interwoven in the creation of even the simplest tools or techniques, and it is not always easy to know where one ends and the other begins. For instance, those prehistoric cave drawings whose force and realism excite our admiration can be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps they were only fanciful dreams, primitive "science fiction" created by the imagination of prehistoric artists; perhaps they were projects or plans--for the manufacture of hunters' snares --drawn up by prehistoric engineers.

A project is often classed as science fiction simply because its achievement demands a higher level of technological advance than society has attained. Leonardo da Vinci designed a prototype flying machine four hundred years before the first aeroplanes appeared. His contemporaries treated his project as no more than a technical fantasy. Nobody could explain how the propeller of this remote ancestor of the helicopter would be driven, for the motor was not invented until much later.

Until a few decades ago, this was true of space flight. Because technological development was not advanced enough, it was impossible to produce rockets possessing the requisite propulsive power. But science fiction had already foreseen the decisive role of the rocket. Jules Verne had equipped his moon ship with several auxiliary rockets.

One of the major objectives of technological development is, of course, to perfect the means of production in order to increase productivity, and at first sight this seems to be a purely practical aim which has nothing to do with fantasy or the imagination. But this is a superficial view. In every technical achievement there is an initial stage of capital importance: the stage at which, drawing on the maximum available information, every possible solution is sought to a given problem, thus allowing ideas to take form. At this stage intuition, imagination and fantasy are even more important than purely technical competence. This kind of imaginative freedom was exercised in the invention of the wheel just as in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or the first supersonic aeroplane, and it will be equally necessary for the manufacture of tomorrow's micro-computers.

In the engineering sciences, the inventive process is much closer to the procedure used in science fiction than is generally realized. They are two similar forms of human activity, each applied to the search for new solutions although, of course, in different contexts and perspectives. The history of technological progress includes many examples where imagination, combined with scientific knowledge, provided the seeds of new ideas and original concepts. Analysis shows that to produce any kind of machine that is to be commercially successful one must begin by examining at least fifty to sixty original ideas.

This is where science fiction can play a decisive part in technological creativity. …