Science Fiction as Science Prediction

Truth is stranger than fiction. Or so the saying goes.

But in science fiction, it often takes truth a long time to catch up with fiction: Many of the most fascinating ideas in science originated not in the laboratory but from the minds of imaginative science fiction writers.

As a 12-year-old boy, Simon Lake read Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), which inspired him to become a marine engineer. In 1895, Lake designed and built the Argonaut, the first submarine to operate successfully in the open sea. Jules Verne sent a cable to Lake congratulating him for transforming "a work of my imagination" into a reality.

In fact, submarines had been speculated about more than 200 years before Verne's novel, by John Wilkins's in Mathematical Magic (1648). David Bushnell had built an experimental submarine in 1775 and Robert Fulton in 1800, but it was not until Lake that submarines became practical.

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, invented communications satellites in an article in 1945. Robert Heinlein practically did the same with nuclear warfare. A large number of the scientists responsible for sending rockets to Mars say their inspiration came from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and astronomer Carl Sagan credited science fiction for sparking his interest in science.

Aldous Huxley and many other writers predicted cloning, decades before Dolly the sheep. As SF historian and writer James Gunn observes, "Many inventions, from Buck Rogers's backpack rocket to robots, lasers, and computers, have first been described in science fiction stories. But the literature owes an equal debt to science, from which it drew not only inspiration but many of its ideas."

More often than not, predictions made in science fiction don't come true. But at the same time, many of those that do come true have been described, with uncanny accuracy, decades before the science is proven to be correct or the technology feasible.

For instance, I was reading Robert Silverberg's 1976 novel Shadrach in the Furnace (Bobbs-Merrill) and came across this passage describing an artificial liver:

  • Since Genghis Mao will be liverless for four to six hours, an artificial liver must be used to sustain him during the operation. But no wholly artificial liver has ever been perfected, not even now, after more than fifty years of organ-transplant technology.
  • The squat cubical device Warhaftig employs is a mechano-organic composite: pipes, tubes, pumps, and electrodialytic filters keep the patient's blood properly pure, but the basic biochemical functions of the liver, having thus far proven impossible to duplicate mechanically, are performed by the naked liver of a dog, resting in a bath of warm fluid at the core of the operation.

Notice that the artificial liver is an external device, and the liver functionality is provided by a donor organ: specifically, a dog's liver kept within the machine's chamber.

I have in my files a 2005 report from a company called HepaLife describing the artificial liver it is developing. The parallels in the technology are uncanny:

  • The patient's blood is routed into a vessel containing HepaLife's patented line of "PICM-19" swine liver cells. The cells detoxify and purify the patient's blood, doing the job his liver cannot. The cleansed, treated blood is then returned to the patient's body.
  • Within the vessel, two plates, comprised of 12-inch square glass or plastic sheets, are sealed at the edges and spaced about 200 micrometers apart. Mature PICM-19 liver cells grow on the inner plate surfaces.
  • The artificial liver device has an intake and outflow manifold, allowing for the flow of blood or plasma to pass through the plates. The patient's blood flows between the plates, where it interacts with the PICM-19 cells.
  • The cell culture plate is constructed with a semi-permeable membrane so fluid such as media, blood, or plasma may be effectively circulated through the apparatus for liver dialysis. The membrane contains the PICM-19 within the vessel so they do not escape into the patient's circulatory system.
  • A single plate can contain approximately one billion adult PICM-19 cells, all alive and performing the many functions of a healthy liver.

The major difference is that while Silverberg uses the whole liver of a dog, HepaLife's artificial liver uses a colony of liver cells from a pig. Notice how Silverberg correctly predicted that, even in a bionic liver, the liver functionality would have to be performed by living cells, and could not be duplicated mechanically - which is the line of research virtually all scientists in this field are pursuing today. It amazes me that Silverberg took the time to think this through and got it right, despite the fact that he is neither an M.D. nor (as Isaac Asimov is) a biochemist.

Perhaps Silverberg should get a royalty when the artificial liver is patented. According to James Gunn, SF editor Hugo Gernsback once campaigned to allow science fiction writers' ideas to be patented, on the basis that getting the idea is 90 percent of the invention. (As an engineer, I'm not sure I agree.)

Here's another example of a science fiction writer getting the idea first: in his 1953 short story "The Golden Apples of the Sun," Ray Bradbury described a space mission in which a rocket is sent to collect a small chunk of material from the sun using a solar "scoop."

Almost half a century later, NASA launched the Genesis probe into deep space, where it spent 26 months collecting matter from the sun before returning to Earth (the probe crash-landed in a Utah desert when its parachute failed to open, but some of the material was recovered successfully). The solar material consists of ions -- atoms stripped of many of their electrons -- that are emitted by the sun in what is known as the "solar wind." The Genesis mission's purpose: to increase our knowledge of solar chemistry.

For more examples of science that was predicted or popularized by science fiction writers, click on the Science page of this site now.