Fabricating fact from fiction

Field Notes

Science-fiction writers boldly go where no one has gone before. But now the European Space Agency (ESA) wants to follow.

The Nasa counterpart is looking to science-fiction literature for ideas about future technology that can be practically applied in space. Patrick Gyger, curator of the museum of science fiction called, Haus von Anderswo (House from Elsewhere) in Yverdon, Switzerland, has been commissioned by the ESA to mine the museum's archive of 40,000 books for interesting ideas that scientists might be able to develop. There are precedents for science-fiction literature influencing real-world science, according to Kurt Lancaster, who teaches a course on science fiction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

He says early pioneers of rocket science, such as Robert Goddard and Herman Oberth, were directly influenced by writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne on space travel. Moreover, celebrated sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, ("Rendezvous with Rama" and "2001: A Space Odyssey") wrote about communication satellites in geosynchronized orbit as far back as 1945. Those skeptical of the possibility of science-fiction technologies ought to remember that C.J. Cherryh's 1988 Hugo Award-winning novel "Cyteen" suggested the feasibility of human cloning a full decade before Dolly grazed the genetic map.

"When the future does arrive, people say, 'Oh, that was predicted years ago,' " says Prof. Lancaster, referring to science fiction's influence.

The ESA project, dubbed "Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Applications in Outer Space," will group ideas into such categories as "space transportation," "Earth observation," and "propulsion."

At the end of the year, ESA scientists will then examine whether one might harness the gravitational pull of planets to propel spaceships or colonize the moon. No word on whether time-travel machines will be considered, though.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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