Is truth stranger than fiction? Yes, especially for science fiction

Feb 14, 2014
Lawrence Krauss, Foundation professor at Arizona State University, says science fact is stranger than science fiction. Credit: Tom Story, Arizona State University

From warp drives to hyperspace, science fiction has continuously borrowed from, and sometimes anticipated, the state of the art in scientific progress. This has resulted in the perception that science and science fiction have a causal relationship, one finding direction from and fulfilling the science fantasy laid out before it.

But that is rarely the case, according to Lawrence Krauss, a Foundation professor in the School of Space and Earth Exploration and the Department of Physics at Arizona State University. No doubt, science fiction has taken inspiration from the of its day. And, as Stephen Hawking reaffirmed in the preface of Krauss's bestselling book, the Physics of Star Trek, science fiction helps inspire our imaginations. But Krauss believes science fiction is not a match for reality.

"Truth is stranger than fiction," Krauss said at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

"The imagination of nature far exceeds the human imagination, which is why we constantly need to probe the universe via experimentation to make progress," he said. "In fact, I tend to think that what makes science fiction most interesting is what they missed, not what they got right."

Krauss, a renowned theoretical physicist and science popularizer, was giving his talk, "Physics of the future," on Feb. 14 at AAAS as part of a session titled "Where's my flying car? Science, science fiction and a changing vision of the future."

As examples, Krauss mentioned the World-Wide-Web, developed at the CERN scientific laboratory and which governs the world in ways that were not anticipated. He also described "The World Set Free," often quoted as a prophetic book by H.G. Wells, which was published in 1914 and anticipated the development of atomic weapons that could be used in war. It even coined the term "atomic bombs" decades before they became a harsh reality in the modern world and perhaps influencing some of the scientists who went on to create these weapons.

"Nevertheless not only did Wells' continually burning atomic weapons bear no resemblance to the engines of destruction in the ," Krauss emphasized, "he thought it would unite the world into one society whereas we are painfully aware that it hasn't changed human thinking, except to divide the world into nuclear haves and have-nots."

"Nevertheless it is instructive, and fun, to compare the 'science' of science fiction with that of the real world," said Krauss, who also is the director of the Origins Project at ASU. "Rather than dwelling on things that don't work, it is fun to explore closely related things in the real world that might work."

Krauss discussed a variety of classical science fiction standbys – space exploration, faster than light travel, and teleportation. It seems almost tragic that science fiction is full of space travelers, freely and technologically effortlessly fulfilling their manifest destiny in space while we remain stuck on Earth. But the reality of the situation, according to Krauss, is that space travel costs a lot of money and energy, is a very risky endeavor and humans, as "hundred-pound bags of water," are not built for space.

On a more positive vein, Krauss described how exotica live warp drive and time travel are not ruled out by known laws of nature, though from a practical perspective even if possible in principle they are likely to be impossible in practice. While it is not likely that humans will be "beamed" from one place to another, quantum teleportation might revolutionize computing in ways that has just begun to come to grips with, said Krauss, who has authored more than 300 scientific publications and nine books, including the international bestseller The Physics of Star Trek, a tour of the Star Trek universe and our universe, and Beyond Star Trek, which addressed recent exciting discoveries in physics and astronomy and takes a look at how the laws of physics relate to notions from popular culture.

Krauss concluded that predicting the future of science if fraught with problems.

"The best part of physics of the future is that we have no idea what the exciting discoveries of the future will be," he said. "If I knew what the next big thing would be, I would be working on it now!"

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Doug_Huffman
1.5 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2014
Reality is fractally complex (B. Mandelbrot), easily stranger than human fiction.
Surly
5 / 5 (7) Feb 14, 2014
@Doug: Fractals aren't really analogous to reality. Reality isn't scale invariant. Reality's quantized, and many properties of reality have minimum values (e.g. the Planck length for distance, (1/3)*the elementary charge for charge).
Tangent2
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2014
Krauss emphasized, "he thought it would unite the world into one society whereas we are painfully aware that it hasn't changed human thinking, except to divide the world into nuclear haves and have-nots."

Give it time Krauss. Just because it has not happened yet, doesn't mean that it never will. We are still relatively new to the nuclear age, hasn't even been 100 years.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 14, 2014
Give it time Krauss. Just because it has not happened yet, doesn't mean that it never will. We are still relatively new to the nuclear age, hasn't even been 100 years.

I guess he meant that nuclear isn't the unifying force literature made it out to be - and I can't see that happening, either. Not now or in 100 years.

There's other technologies I could see accomplishing that, though: Personal energy production and personal production (of which 3D printing is the beginning). As these two have the ability to completely destroy what we call 'the economy' (i.e. a barter system based on scarcity that furthers inequality).
Nestle
1.6 / 5 (8) Feb 14, 2014
The imagination of nature far exceeds the human imagination
This is just a Krauss's imagination, I can imagine most of these stuffs easily. Actually the universe is not so strange place, as it appears by now for someone. But for physicists - the priests of modern era - it's more advantageous to pretend, that the only key for its understanding is the abstract language of math equations. You shouldn't believe him in the same way, like our fathers stopped to believe the medieval priests. The key for reality understanding is in your own head.
Diogenes Tha Dogg
5 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2014
Surprised the article has no mention of Asimov.
Scroofinator
1.2 / 5 (5) Feb 14, 2014
Sci-fi writers are typically extremely versed in the theories of science. They let their understanding test the laws of physics as they know it, and in many cases it proves to be possible. They let their imagination determine what is or isn't possible, whereas scientist are so "in the box" that unless an equation proves something to them, they can't possibly believe it would be true. It's the typical atheist viewpoint of why, instead of the simpler thinking of why not.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
The title of his talk was intended to grab attention. But it's not really a valid comparison. At any given instant, what we know about science is always going to be exceeded by what we imagine.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
@Doug: Fractals aren't really analogous to reality. Reality isn't scale invariant. Reality's quantized, and many properties of reality have minimum values (e.g. the Planck length for distance, (1/3)*the elementary charge for charge).
I particularly like this paper.

A. Albrecht and D. Phillips Origin of probabilities and their application to the multiverse.
http://arxiv.org/...212.0953

We argue using simple models that all successful practical uses of probabilities originate in quantum fluctuations in the microscopic physical world around us, often propagated to macroscopic scales. Thus we claim there is no physically verified fully classical theory of probability. We comment on the general implications of this view, and specifically question the application of classical probability theory to cosmology in cases where key questions are known to have no quantum answer. We argue that the ideas developed here may offer a way out of the notorious measure problems .
Nestle
1 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
Our position appears to offer significant implications for the Boltzmann Brain problem. For our purposes here, this problem is simply the case where pathological observers, called Boltzmann Brains or BB's, vastly outnumber realistic ones. The pathology of the BB's is that they match all the data we have so far, but the next moment experience catastrophic breakdown of physicality, experiencing a rapid heat death.
Whole the AWT is just about Boltzmann Brain perspective, i.e. about deduction what some giant BB would see from its/his random environment in which it/he resides. I don't see any reason for "catastrophic breakdown of physicality" here.
As a trivial example of such BB can serve the density fluctuations inside of dense gas, like the supercritical fluid. The more such a gas is dense, the more its density fluctuations are complex, less temporal and stable. They still remain fully randomly generated.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2014
Krauss emphasized, "he thought it would unite the world into one society... Just because it has not happened yet, doesn't mean that it never will
What the world wars did was create a Structure where 2 apparent super-enemies were dominant over the entire world. This competition and threat enabled the production of some 8000 tons of fissiles, arguably the most valuable material a civilization at our stage of development can possess. It enabled complete control of land and sea.

The nuclear age was inevitable. One can only imagine if it had emerged among all the petty monarchies and fiefdoms that had made the world wars so savage. Without the superpowers, nuclear war would already have happened.

I think Wells was right, the world IS one society comprised of competitors by Design, as is democracy, the only form acceptable to the people and the only one which would compel them to suffer and sacrifice for the common good. Humans have always been a crisis-driven species.
Nestle
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
Humans have always been a crisis-driven species
Yes, even the stars evolve into more complex ones in crisis. My question rather is, when we all know about it so well, if we will find a way, how to evolve comparably fast without these crisis. Every idiot handles the evolution by trial and mistake. Are the scientists predestined to check every blind alley of research before choosing the correct solution, until their money are going? Are we really paying them for such a trial and error approach - or rather for being smarter than that?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
when we all know about it so well, if we will find a way, how to evolve comparably fast without these crisis
Well that is the question isnt it? People were already destroying the world back in nebucchadnezzars time. He concocted a scheme to remove the top few feet of soil in the euphrates valley because irrigation had saltified it and rendered it unusable. He gave up.

If you look at a world map you can see a denuded, desertified, and ruined area stretching from the gobi to the sahara. Agriculture did this. It looked like this 3000 years ago. Most of the world SHOULD look like this today, but it doesnt. Why? Because people like the the babylonian king understood the Problem and took proactive measures to save the world.

The Problem was the people. Leaders devised ways of dividing them up and setting them against one another in Constructive and Beneficial Ways.

US vs USSR. The world saved once again through Creative Planning and Forethought.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
Wise old king solomon wrestled with this problem.

"18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. " ecc2

-But then in the next chapter the heavenly chorus gave him the Answer to securing the future for all he had created.

"3 There is a [Proper] Time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens... He has made everything beautiful in its Time." ecc3

-A PROPER Time for everything. This acknowledges both Inevitability and Planning. Leaders who could foresee the inevitable and PLAN for it could reap enormous benefits. Joseph and pharaoh understood this. They knew they could not prevent famine from following feast, but they could prepare for it. They ended up owning everything of value in egypt.
Nestle
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
Well that is the question isnt it? People were already destroying the world back in nebucchadnezzars time.
I indeed know about it well. But my question was, is the global (nuclear) wars are really so necessary thing for further evolution of human civilization? In particular, do we really need to wait for implementation of cold fusion just after global war for the rest of fossil fuel sources or after complete destruction of life environment (which will bring it anyway)? Why not to simply imagine the consequences and to use a different, not so drastic way for their achievement? Are we predestined to evolve like chaotic density fluctuation like many other ones in our Universe? Couldn't we utilize such an understanding for more entertaining stuffs?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
But my question was, is the global (nuclear) wars are really so necessary thing for further evolution of human civilization?
We can no longer afford to fight world wars. There may be regional nuclear exchanges but nuclear war on a global scale would destroy civilization. And so the world was rearranged to prevent it, while still being able to exploit these valuable new technologies.

Nukes, ICBMs, intercontinental bombers, nuclear subs - all products of the world wars and all the exclusive property of the superpowers which emerged. This was NO ACCIDENT.

This tech gives us the potential to colonize the solar system. This was NO ACCIDENT. As soon as the potential was understood, Plans were made to create the global environment where it could be accomplished safely.

This explains the sham of the Cold War and the sham crises which were Staged to define for the people just who the enemy was and what he was capable of.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2014
And further, no technologies which could disrupt these developments would be allowed to emerge, and this includes LENR.

"3 There is a [Proper] Time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens... He has made everything beautiful in its Time." ecc3

-Solomon would be smiling in his grave if he had ever existed. Alas he was just another metaphor, albeit a magnificently brilliant one. Leaders described exactly what They were doing, and why, in these holy books. Why would They do this?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Not a sham you say? One of the many critical flaws in a genuine Cold War standoff is the inevitability of either side planting nukes throughout enemy countries. Backpack nukes in DC, the kremlin, outside military bases, near critical infrastructure.
http://en.wikiped...m_Russia
Tangent2
not rated yet Feb 18, 2014
"I guess he meant that nuclear isn't the unifying force literature made it out to be - and I can't see that happening, either. Not now or in 100 years."

That statement added nothing of value except to show that you are of the same mindset as Krauss, limited in what you believe to be possible, which has no value. Predicting the future is never an easy game, but considering that we typically repeat the same mistakes of the past, full out war with nuclear intervention is not so far fetched.