No Science without Fiction

By Kazantsev, Alexander | UNESCO Courier, November 1984 | Go to article overview

No Science without Fiction

Kazantsev, Alexander, UNESCO Courier

SCIENCE fiction has its own rules. Concerned as it is with the new frontiers of science, it portrays the latest scientific achievements and sometimes even produces ideas which science an exploit; for the role of science fiction is not only to distract and entertain, but to announce the future, to foresee new scientific and technical achievements, to prompt and predict them.

Ivan Efremov, the eminent Soviet scientist and science fiction writer, and author of many famous novels and tales, describes in his short story, A Shadow of the Past (1945) how, when old bare rocks were illuminated in a certain way, a lifelike three-dimensional image of a gigantic dinosaur appeared. This caused a public sensation, and in particular excited the curiosity of Yuri Denisyuk, a young scientist who is now a corresponding number of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. According to him, it led to discoveries in the field of holography (see Unesco Courier, March 1981).

In the 1950s Soviet geologists discovered diamonds in Yakutia exactly as Ivan Efremov had described in his story The Pipe of Diamonds (1945). As a scientist Efremov was able to substantiate his hypothesis concerning the location of the diamond deposit, and as an artist he showed how it could be discovered.

There is no end to the scientific and technical predictions of Jules Verne. One has only to recall his Nautilus. Up to a hundred of his "fantastic" forecasts subsequently came true.

H.G. Wells, in the War of the Worlds, and Alexei N. Tolstoy, in his Hyperboloid of the Engineer Garin anticipated the invention of the laser beam, which now promises unheard of advances in science and technology--but also has unprecedented destructive capacities.

In his story, Professor Dowell's Head (1925) the Soviet science fiction writer Alexander Bieliayev foretold the possibility of transplanting human organs. Several decades later the Soviet scientist Sergei S. Bryuchonienko amazed the world when he grafted the head of one dog onto the trunk of another. Now organ transplants take place every other day. The world was fascinated by the pioneering heart transplants performed by Professor Christiaan Barnard. Nowadays such operations have become, if not commonplace, at least frequent.

Alexander Bieliayev foretold anabiosis (suspended animation) in his story Neither Life nor Death (1926). Another Soviet writer, Yuri Dolgushin, was the first to evoke the possibility of restoring the dying to life in his Generator of Miracles (1939). Thus, both these writers anticipated the now well-known technique of reanimation.

The doyen of American science fiction, Hugo Gernsback, described in his novels the mechanism of a television set at a time when such an invention was not even thought of. He wrote about many technical innovations which subsequently became realities, as well as atomic wars which are now threatening all life on earth.

In one of his works written shortly after the Second World War, the well-known English since fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke introduced the idea of placing an artificial geostationary satellite in orbit at an altitude of some 30,000 kilometres above the Earth, which could be used for telecommunications and the retransmission of radio and television programmes.

Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky's story Beyond the Planet Earth, which was published at the beginning of the century, contained so many scientifically valid ideas that it provided a theoretical basis for cosmonautics in both the USSR and the USA.

But the most remarkable figure in the domain of scientific forecasting is, perhaps, that of Cyrano de Bergerac. His Histoire Comique des Etats et Empires de la Lune and Histoire Comique des Etats et Empires du Soleil, both written over three hundred years ago, are not only full of pungent with but of what his contemporaries regarded as preposterous figments of a childlike imagination. …

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