All Those Scientists Out There…

As I mentioned in a previous post this past August, I attended Bubonicon 46 here in Albuquerque, and had a great time.  One interesting topic that came up in one of the panel discussions was the fact that while science fiction writers have been known to predict the development of future objects and appliances, by and large, sci-fi writers are lousy at making future predictions of real objects.  Science and technology always seem to come up with items that no one foresaw or foretold.  Like CAT scans and MRI technology.  So why can’t science-fiction writers figure out the next big thing?  We work in the future.  We should be able to decipher the code to the future, but we just haven’t been able to.  Why not?

I suspect several good reasons exist as to why it’s impossible to predict the future (by scientists themselves or sci-fi writers), and I can’t go into all of them, so for what it’s worth, here’s my explanation: too many scientists.

Every breakthrough in science has to start in somebody’s laboratory (or basement or garage).  Someone makes an observation, small at the time, and publishes it in a scientific journal.  Then that scientist–and others as well–may work on it and develop it until it becomes a big damn deal.  At that point it becomes a real breakthrough and is hailed as the next big thing.  That can take a long time, though, ten or twenty years or more.  Yet, it had to start with a single, simple observation or concept.  Thomas Edison is reputed to have said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

There are millions of scientists in the world today, most of whom publish papers that wind up in scientific journals.  That’s a lot of papers–millions every year.  No scientist has the time to read all those papers.  Not even close.  As a virologist, I read papers only in my limited field within the overall broad field of virology.  And virology is only one part of the larger field of microbiology, which is one part of the still larger field of biology.  In one year, I probably read less than one percent of all papers published in virology.  A tiny percentage.

In contrast, how many science-fiction writers–currently publishing–are there in the world today?  Maybe a few thousand?  No science fiction writer has the time to scan all those scientific papers to glean the next big thing.  Somewhere, buried in all that science, could be a breakthrough that will lead us to better times for all.  (Or most.)  But where is it?  And not only would that sci-fi writer have to find it, he/she would have to have the intelligence, experience, expertise and training to be able to recognize it in the first place.

Science-fiction writers, like everybody else, see mainly the big things that have come up recently, for example, solid-state electronics; the latest iPhone; the images from the Hubble telescope; the data from the Large Hadron Collider; the emergence of diseases such as AIDS, MERS, and ebola; data from neutrino experiments; the development of small personal drones; and so on.  Extrapolating from these and others is possible, but leads only to an extrapolated future, not a future populated with the “next great thing.”  A good example of that is the talking computer HAL in “2001 A Space Odyssey,” or the computers onboard the Starship Enterprise.  The next big thing is somewhere within that mess of scientific journals, and someone’s going to have to find it.  It’s extremely unlikely.  There’s just too much to wade through.

Read any good scientific journals lately?

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