The Plausible Impossible

I’ll have to admit right up front that the title of this posting, “The Plausible Impossible,” is a term I didn’t make up, but got it from another source.  But more on that later.  First I want to define it.

By “plausible impossible,” I mean something that is actually impossible is made to seem plausible.  Plausible means that, superficially at least, it could have happened, or looks like it could have happened.  This is basically what science fiction is all about.  Sci-fi tries to tell stories that could have happened, even though we know that the laws of physics (or chemistry or biology) make it totally impossible.  For example, I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about a human cancer cell line, HeLa, that was transformed by the genome of a virus to alter its growth abilities and make it grow wild, not only in the body of the woman where it originated, but in culture outside her body.  It’s been growing like that for over fifty years.  Then I got to thinking: what would happen if we were to try to reconstitute a human out of those cells?  Would that person have super powers?  What would that person look like with his/her cells constantly dividing unchecked?  That might make a good science-fiction story.  Medically speaking, though, it would be impossible because the genome of those cells, as a result of having been in culture for so long, is so fractured and so modified that it doesn’t resemble anything like a human genome.  Some chromosomes have been lost and others have been duplicated to the extent that there is trisomy within the cells, i.e,, a third copy of one or more chromosomes.  That’s weird and it shows just how screwed up the HeLa genome really is.

So, making a person from cells that have grown in culture for a long time would be totally impossible, but a good writer might be able to construct a plausible story about a human so made.  An interesting concept.  That’s what science fiction is all about.

Other examples of the plausible impossible are faster-than-light spaceships and time machines.  Though both of these may be found to be possible in the distant future, today we consider them impossible, yet writers constantly write good science fiction using them.  Star Wars and Star Trek both use faster-than-light space ships.  Though the stories are physically impossible, we readers suspend our disbelief and accept them for what they are: stories; not reality.

Above I said I’d reveal where I got the term “plausible impossible,”  The term comes from a Walt Disney story on Disneyland, the TV show all about the world Walt Disney created back in the 1950’s, and the precursor to Disneyland in Anaheim, California.  He didn’t use it with regard to science fiction, though, he used it to refer to cartoon characters.  Cartoon characters have at least this one concept in common with sci-fi characters.  Both have to act believably, even when they are doing things that are impossible.  Like ducks and mice and dogs talking and carrying on a lifestyle that resembles that of humans.  So, it seems, the plausible impossible actually dominates a large part of our literature, from Superman to Donald Duck.  Maybe you have other examples of the plausible impossible.

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