Science fiction creating the future, reality eclipsing fiction

When the year 2000 finally arrived, I was disappointed.  Science fiction got it all wrong.  Where were the hover cars?  Why didn’t we vacation in outer space?  We were all worried about a silly millenium bug that was to take us back to 1900 when the clock struck 12.  But I remember how uneventful it all seemed, despite some great fireworks shows.  When the actual millenium shifted a year later, still no flash to a visionary future.

Just look at Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the film version by Stanley Kubrick.  Nothing looked like that in actual 2001 or even today.

The Eugenics Wars in the original 1960s Star Trek series–the wars that created Ricardo Montalban’s Khan who takes on Captain Kirk and gets banished to Seti Alpha V–were to happen sometime between 1993 and 1996 according to the original series.

The incredible world of future replicants created by Philip K. Dick took place in 1992, according to the original printing of his short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” that became Ridley Scott’s dark vision of the future, Blade Runner.  We don’t have a robotic Sean Young around here today.

What went wrong?

To be fair, science fiction, more often than not, has laid the ground work for feats of reality unheard of and not dreamed of before science fiction writing put pen to paper (or finger to typewriter).  Think in terms of Star Trek designer Rick Sternbach’s personal access data devices or PADDs, such as those used by Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Used in the series in the 22nd century we now get to use these regularly in the 21st century in the form of tablet computers or android phones.


Or tricorders–regularly used today in different forms but visually more advanced and smaller than those used on the original Star Trek, yet nearly the same in size as those created for Next Generation by Mr. Sternbach, and with incredible functionality.  Just watch any doctor review surgery slides instantly sent from room to office and displayed so you can see immediately, and in real-time, recorded biological detail.  Check out the photo below of one of two prototype Next Generation tricorders Sternbach created and compare it to a Paramount studio-production-made, original series type tricorder.  Today, the latter tricorder looks more like an old fashioned brownie camera.  Compare them to your hand-held android device or Blackberry and score one for future meets reality, or better yet, score one for science fiction visionary creating the future.


A great example of reality actually beating science fiction’s predictions can be seen in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Royale” that aired in 1988.  The eloquent 22nd century Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS-Enterprise-D remarked that people had been trying to find the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem for 800 years, including himself.  Picard saw the riddle as a mental challenge, stating that “in our arrogance, we feel we are so advanced and yet we cannot unravel a simple knot tied by a part-time French mathematician working alone without a computer.”

“Fermat’s last theorem” was an algebraic statement proposed by Pierre de Fermat, a 17th century lawyer and amateur mathematician who was later praised by the likes of Newton and Pascal for his life’s work.  Following Fermat’s death in 1665, a mathematic formula was found scrawled in the margin of his notes: “xn + yn = zn, where n is greater than 2,” which Fermat said had no solution in whole numbers, but he also added the phrase “remarkable proof.”  The writers of Star Trek couldn’t predict that Andrew Wiles would create a proof for the theorem in 1993 (modified and generally accepted in 1995).  Although Wiles’ proof could not have been the same as Fermat’s “remarkable proof,” here he beat the science fiction writer’s prediction, something that doesn’t happen so often.  Public Television’s NOVA has a great interview with Wiles on its website.

Eclipsing the future (a figurative idea only, of course) was a result of a great deal of work by Wiles.  Two accounts of Wiles’ path are worth pursuing further.  The first is NOVA‘s documentary The Proof.  The small community of mathematicians and physicists who experiment with math riddles is taken apart and revealed to the viewer, and what we see is frought with jealousy, ego, and near-schoolyard cattiness.  But Wiles shines through, locking himself away, and seeming to be swallowed up by his passion for this riddle, he somehow emerges triumphant.  You’ll find yourself cheering him on as the documentary progresses.

The second account is Simon Singh’s eminently readable “Fermat’s Enigma:  The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem.”  Singh discusses the history of math in an interesting way and explains the complexity of Fermat’s Theorem, and Wiles’ proof, in a way anyone can understand.  You’ll find Andrew Wiles to be a champion in our time.

C.J. Bunce


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