Exploring science through fiction

Welcome to Exploring science through fiction.

This learning project uses science fiction to introduce and explore topics in physics, biology, computer science and sociology.

Reading Edit

Ordered by date of addition, recent changes go first:

The celestial plot, by Adolfo Bioy Casares. It is a short story about multiple universes, 10 years before the scientific theory. A soldier travels to an alternate present.

The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges. It is a short story about parallel universes too, with a symbolic labyrinth.

Paths to Otherwhere by James Hogan - the Many-worlds interpretation and quantum theory. If there are "parallel universes", how would we ever know?

Stephen Baxter's Manifold Trilogy) - do stellar gamma-ray generating events seriously impact the evolution of biological organisms?

Marvin Minsky's The Turing Option - artificial intelligence as compared to biological intelligence. Will it ever be possible to "download" a human mind into a man-made computer?

Assignment Nor'Dyren by Sydney J. Van Scyoc - introduction to genetic and social engineering. Would it be possible to use genetic engineering to create an optimal social structure?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. A common theme of science fiction is speculation about the ultimate effects of technology on human existence. Some authors have imagined that all technological discoveries and changes will be accomplished in the distant future while others have suggested that technological change is a fundamentally exponential process that will culminate in the relatively near future (Technological singularity). Many such speculations involve a role for intelligent devices that might be able to catalyze technological change at a very rapid pace. Douglas Adams turned such speculations on their head and wrote about computing deices of the future that reveal the ultimate truth of the universe to be an absurdity. Why is it natural for people to imagine that there are fundamental questions about the universe that we should be able to answer using technology? See:The Question.

Greg Egan's Oceanic, etc, freely on-line at [1].

Projects Edit

Projects devoted to using fiction writing as a tool to explore science.

AI in fiction Edit

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a common topic found in science fiction. Although, in reality, we are very far from attaining true AI, fiction tells stories about conscious robots, cyborgs and different artificial intelligence entities. Currently, the state-of-the-art of AI has achieved some goals:

Current AI (feel free to correct/add)

  • Text to speech technologies: it is the ability of a computer to pronounce a text with proper intonation and punctuation. It is famous the text-to-speech engine by Microsoft, L&H speaking engines (seen in Power Translator Delux 1.0 and then sold to Microsoft, for Encarta) and Loquendo software. Loquendo software is very advanced; it possesses many voices and most of them are very understandable for humans.
  • Writing spoken language: the counterpart of TTS technology. It is the ability to "understand" what humans say and write it in a text file. Dragon Naturally Speaking is a famous program who can do that. The user only has to train it once, for a few hours and then the program is ready to write what it hears. The software is built on an artificial neural network, so it learns and improves, according to the user. The newest version has support for many users.
  • Chess: in 1997 Deepblue AI, by IBM, won Grand Master Kasparov, from Russia, one of the best chess players in the world, with an ELO above 2800.
  • Industry robots: current technology allows robots to build cars and many automated tasks in the industry.
  • Humanoid robots: Japan is leading this technology and has made a baby robot and several male and female robots who can engage in a conversation and move their muscles, like humans. Obviously, they still lack conscience.
  • Mathematical demonstration software: there has been software which has been able to demonstrate theorems that humans could not.
  • Expert systems:

Fiction AI

  • Understanding of natural language is completely achieved. See the robots series by Isaac Asimov, like Robots and Empire and Foundation series.
  • Universal computer AI: The Last Question is a short story showing the advance in computers, particularly in the AI field, until the building of a universal computer which can be thought as God.

Getting outside the box Edit

One of the exciting aspects of science is the seemingly endless parade of "revolutionary discoveries". "New ideas" can become part of the scientific world view and open up entire new domains of science. Two examples of revolutionary discoveries are the idea of radioactive decay and plate tectonics. In contrast to such successful new scientific ideas, some "old ideas" seem to endlessly resist the methods of science. For example, ideas about the possibility of "psychic" and "supernatural" phenomena have existed in many cultures for thousands of years. As discussed in the Wikipedia article Science fiction and fantasy, science fiction generally avoids topics such as the "supernatural" while fantasy stories are more likely to incorporate supernatural elements. However, since new elements of science continue to be discovered, how do we know where to draw the boundary between science fiction and fantasy? If "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," how do we know that science will not some day include explanations for "psychic" and "supernatural" phenomena? Are some ideas such as time travel always going to remain outside of the domain of science? Are scientists too constrained by preconceptions about what is and is not possible? Does current scientific thinking and beliefs about what is not possible unreasonably constrain scientific investigations of the world? Can fiction play a useful role in stimulating scientists to "think outside the box"? Has fiction played a useful role in promoting technological advances and scientific discovery in areas such as space exploration? See Science Fiction Challenge, a learning project for exploring the nature and boundaries of science through science fiction writing.

Related resources Edit

External resources Edit