When science fiction fuels research

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2039. France has entered an authoritarian ecological regime: veganism is imposed on the entire population. Because of global warming, farming has become impossible south of the Loire. This future that is cold in the back is that imagined by the students who participated in the “Science Fiction Committee” (CSF). An initiative launched in 2017 by the Institute for Environmental Transition (ITE), in partnership with the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) and the Sorbonne.

→ READ. From science fiction to climate fiction: novels to think about climate change.

The goal ? Invent future worlds based on current scientific knowledge, working with both science fiction authors and researchers. The written news (1) is then put into perspective during theater-debate sessions. “The students were able to imagine things that a researcher would have had a hard time conceiving”, enthuses Anne-Caroline Prévot, researcher at the CNRS and the Museum who piloted the project. Like the “cinerveau”, this instrument which captures all the thoughts and emotions of living beings and projects them on a cinema screen.

“I’m not sure that we will be able to catch the thoughts of a tomato, smiles the ecologist, but the interesting thing is to wonder why the students thought about it, and how it questions our world today. The research framework in France is focused on rationality, on reasoning. We forget all the emotional part that drives us. “ More than the invention of possible technological prowess, it is this emulation, this stimulation of the imagination that can fuel scientific research.

“The imagination is an important driver of innovation”

As early as the 1980s, EDF already published its Muxian Chronicles, to imagine the future uses of telematics.

In the early 2000s, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a vast project called ITSF (“New Technologies in Science Fiction”). Thus 250 imaginary space concepts and technologies are compiled, from Jules Verne’s rocket launcher (From the Earth to the moon, 1865) to antimatter-propelled interstellar vessels in Dawn of the night by Peter F. Hamilton (1990s).

“I am convinced that the imagination is an important driver of innovation, says Thomas Michaud, researcher in social sciences. Institutions or companies should study it, draw out the ideas that interest them and discard the rest. Behind this approach, there must be an ethics, filter science fiction to draw a speech as beneficial as possible for humanity. “

Tickle scientists

A prospectivist approach that appeals to R & D centers but which includes a pitfall: emptying science fiction of all meaning, neglecting the fact that it is above all a work of fiction. “There is a form of misunderstanding on the part of the public about what SF is: it has no predictive value. Those who write it are not trying to predict the future, ” alerts Patrick Gyger, who worked on the ESA ITSF project, in his capacity as director of the science fiction museum Maison d´ailleurs, in Switzerland.

“However, this study showed that people who work in space are inspired by the visions conveyed by science fiction and by a kind of momentum that is created when you read it. It does not give a manual to build a rocket or a space shuttle, but it allows to provoke a desire. “ Science fiction has the merit of tickling scientists, of stimulating their imagination, often, of giving them ideas, sometimes – even of arousing vocations.

Ideas otherwise passed under the radars

Astrophysicist Roland Lehoucq, himself addicted to this literary genre, has written numerous popularization essays based on SF. For him, “This literature can also be a good means of transposing or disseminating scientific objects or techniques that are sometimes forgotten.” Like the example of this Russian engineer, Yuri Artsutanov, who formalized in 1960 the idea of ​​a space elevator. A kind of large cable stretched towards the space along which nacelles would slide allowing to reach the orbit more easily than with a rocket.

Published in a Russian magazine during the Cold War, this article went completely unnoticed. Almost twenty years later, in 1979, the American novelist Arthur C. Clarke unearthed the concept and staged it in The fountains of paradise. “Engineers read this novel and decided to continue the research. Without science fiction, this idea would have gone under the radar ”, assures Roland Lehoucq. Even today, researchers continue to work on the subject. In late 2018, a Japanese team from Shizuoka University conducted tests from the International Space Station (ISS) with a miniature cabin model on a cable. If current technological means are still largely insufficient, the Japanese company Obayashi aims to commission an elevator connecting Earth to the ISS by 2050.

For Roland Lehoucq, the imaginary literature is especially interesting for researchers in the humanities, because it allows to consider the consequences of scientific advances on humans, by proposing a “Directory of possibilities”. A truly “Experience of social and political thought” which can initiate an ethical reflection on scientific and technological progress.

Cyberpunk literature, for example, imagining dystopian worlds, questions the risks associated with the development of artificial intelligence or the increase of human capabilities by technology. The novel Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984), describes an ultratechnological society, governed by all-powerful multinationals, where the most unbridled capitalism reigns. A world where humans are plastered with sensors and artificial implants. A world that leads us to question ourselves: how far could the enslavement of individuals by new technologies go?


Amazing intuitions

♦ Energy from plants. In the XVIIIe century Jonathan Swift stages in Gulliver’s Travels a scientist seeking to “Extract cucumbers from the sun’s rays, in order to enclose them in vials (…), and that they could be used to heat the air. “

♦ An autonomous car. In 1953 Isaac Asimov portrayed smart, driverless cars like Sally, a magnificent convertible “Positronic brain”.

♦ Bionic members. In Cyborg, by Martin Caidin (1972), an injured astronaut is implanted with artificial legs and arms which he controls with his brain.



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