In my ongoing struggle to balance my day job as a scientist and my passion for science fiction it occurred to me that I could reconcile this by simply stating that:
I write science – from fact to fiction.
As a scientist one is typically writing about the latest results – at least that is what we would like to be doing. In reality we also spend an increasingly large amount of time writing project proposals, which is in fact writing about what we want to do in the near future, but is perhaps not even possible yet. Then, if one is really unlucky, one has to write “roadmap documents” and “vision statements”. Typically the later discuss what we can imagine to do if 5, 10, 20 years. This is very hard and requires a certain perspective over a field, or even many fields, of research. Furthermore, if we’re honest, once we get past five years, these uncertainty on these “predictions” rapidly increases. In polite company one might argue that these are educated guesses. If we were increasingly honest, we might simply say that they are a guess. Obviously, the time scales involved depend on the field, its maturity and how fast progress is being made.
So it is that with my science fiction writing, speculative fiction if you prefer, we can see that as simply an extension of this – typically I would be looking beyond the 10-20 year time scale, certainly into guessing territory, and imagining “what if?” In science fiction, I am free from the constraint that I actually have to prove or demonstrate what I claim will be true. Nor do I have to worry about respecting the currently accepted laws of Nature but the “what if” question remains the starting point.
Let’s consider an example – Teleportation. This is a subject that fascinates the general public. The first experiments were performed back in 1997-1998 and since then many groups around the world have demonstrated this in a wide variety of physical systems. The teleportation that takes place in the lab, however, is far removed from the vision that everyone has from Star Trek. There are a couple of very important points that one needs to consider scientifically. The first thing is that matter, a person if you think of Star Trek, is not teleported, only the information pertaining to how the matter goes together is teleported – the information is then used to reconstruct the matter (or person) at the other end of the teleportation channel. The teleportation does not allow faster than light communication – some communication needs to be sent between the departure to the arrival location, so that the matter is reconstructed in the correct order.
So, if I want to now extrapolate over the next few years, I know that in the last 15 we have gone from teleportation over a few centimetres to over 25km and that this has even been done in the normal fibre optic cables that we use for a daily communication. So I could make an educated guess that in the next 15 years that we could increase this distance in a linear way, we did 25cm then 15 years later 25km, so in another 15 years we could do 100,000km, which is over twice around the planet. Does that sound absurd? There needs to be a few things to fall into place to make that happen but the technology is all progressing. Thing is that I know that if I can already get to a few thousand km then the rest is “easy”. In any case, I keep my scientist cap on and I’m only thinking of teleporting information and not people.
Now, if I take off my scientist hat and put on my bowler – you can chose your preferred writing cap – then I can start to relax, or at least ignore, some of these annoying artefacts of reality. I could imagine that I want to teleport someone from one planet to another. I could go a step further and think about doing it in the case of an environment such that humans, as we know them, can not survive. I could imagine a life form based on Silicon instead of Carbon and I just teleport the information necessary to reconstruct a Silicon based version of myself on this new planet. Then the “what if” game starts to be really interesting. I haven’t started to think about messing with the faster than light communication but I might leave that for another time…
In the end, I can be happy that I only have one job and that’s always thinking “what if”. Sometimes I have more constraints than others but it all helps and my imagination also gets time to play.