Can Science Fiction Predict the Future?

Astronomy on Tap event tonight explores that theory

Published : Monday, February 12, 2018 | 6:31 AM

Caltech Planetary Sciences graduate student Harriet Brettle

Caltech Planetary Sciences graduate student Harriet Brettle

Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship U.S.S. Enterprise crouches behind a boulder as a drooling alien fires killer laser beams at him. Kirk turns to the camera to callto his ship to beam him up. He pulls out a communicator… or is it a flip cell phone?

Science fiction writers have predicted future outcomes very well over the years, much the way Stark Trek writers in the 1960’s portrayed “communicators” that looked and functioned like flip cell phones and clipboards that looked and worked like I-pads.

Caltech Planetary Sciences graduate student Harriet Brettle explore science fiction’s uncanny prescience at “Astronomy on Tap,” an event tonight at Der Wolfskopf Pub in Old Pasadena.

The event will also feature Caltech astronomy professor Dr. Jim Fuller and astrophysicist Dr. Elizabeth Tasker from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Brettle will discuss “Can Science Fiction Predict the Future?,” Dr. Fuller will discuss “The Stellar Ultrasound: Journey to the Center of a Star,” and Dr. Elizabeth Tasker will speak about “Earth 2.0: Will We Find Another Potential Home?” during the monthly forum organized by Caltech postdoctoral fellow Cameron Hummels.

Pasadena Now spoke to Brettle about her upcoming talk and her passion for astronomy and space studies as well as her keen interest in the interactions between different fields relevant to space exploration.

Your topic at Astronomy on Tap is “Can science fiction predict the future?” And so far it has – maybe not 100 percent, but Star Trek has certainly done a good job at predicting cellphones, computers and laptops. Are these kinds of concepts you’ll be talking about?

This is one of the things I’m going to explore through the talk, and [give] examples of science fiction stories which have come true to a remarkable extent. There are some really fantastic stories that have been written in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that detail what the future might look like and a lot of them have come true in a really remarkable way, which is exciting to me.

Now what about today forward? What kind of science fiction is being written today that might give us some insight as to what might happen in the next, say, 20 years?

I don’t know if you’ve read Martian by Andy Weir? I’m going to talk about that briefly in the talk. But that is a fantastic novel, which talks about the first human mission to Mars, how it ultimately goes wrong. One of the things that’s impressive about that is the lengths that Andy Weir goes to to make this incredible science fiction story. And if you look at sci-fi predictions in the past, you can have wacky ones where it feels like just grabbed out of thin air and they get some fantastic prediction that is nothing more than a coincidence. I think the sci-fi predictions are much more impressive [when] the writer takes the time to try and make them as credible as possible.

What about propulsion and perhaps overcoming gravity or getting around Einstein’s theory of relativity and going faster than the speed of light?

That’s a really interesting one. It’s been explored and tackled in sci-fi in a number of different ways that we haven’t really been able to make work just yet. One that has been explored in detail is the use of some sort of wormhole network – to try and pinch space time so that instead of taking the long way, you find some sort of shortcut. Something that’s really interesting that the movie “Interstellar” explores. And actually Kip Thorne (advisor to the film) is now a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Obviously, we’re still talking about the theory of it, but that’s quite exciting.

Let’s talk about a couple of fun topics. What other science fiction concepts are fun, like X-ray vision for example? I heard there are some apps using X-ray vision technology coming out of Caltech? What about flying cars?

A classic is Philip K. Dick’s “Bladerunner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” where you see hover cars driving around, flying around in the movies. This is really interesting because these kinds of stories came out years ago when we had cars, so the next natural progression would be to make flying cars. In a sense, we already do have flying cars. If you think about what the helicopter is, it really is nothing more than a flying car. It just doesn’t quite look like cars that you see driving around on the road. So I think that’s a really interesting example of something where in a sense we have seen that come true, but maybe not in the same way that people first envisioned it happening. But then looking forward, who knows? A really interesting talk here about Elon Musk and his his vision of transport in the future. He is working on one of his many science fiction founding projects to develop a kind of tunnel systems under cities including LA to transport cars around and try to deal with our terrible traffic issue.

Summing up….?

These kinds of things have been sci-fi stories up until now, but we may be seeing them become a reality, which I think is really exciting.

Astronomy on Tap starts tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Der Wolfskopf Pub, 72 N Fair Oaks Ave. in Old Pasadena. For more, visit

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