Who Did it First, and Have We Done it yet? The Physics and Origins of Five Sci-Fi Concepts

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Many sci-fi terms have become so well rooted in the English language that we all unanimously know and agree on what they mean. We humans have accomplished so much that was only a figment of the sci-fi imagination in the past, and there are many breakthroughs yet to come. In this article, I have compiled a list of common concepts from sci-fi, their origins and scientific possibilities. It is breathtaking to see how many technological innovations today were conceived of centuries prior on the writing desks of science fiction writers.

 

Time Travel and Time Machines

What is a good sci-fi piece without a healthy dose of space-time continuum warping? The concept of time travel dates at least as far back as ancient Hindu mythology. In the Mahabharata (400 BCE–200 CE)), King  Kakudmi, also known as Raivata, returns from a trip from the heavens a few centuries too late and thus effectively (and accidentally) travels forward in time. The first written work to bring forth a mechanical time machine was El anacron (1887) by Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau. The honor of coining the term “time machine” however, goes to popular favorite H. G. Wells for his titular novel The Time Machine (1895).

Do we know how to do it yet? Kind of. While we cannot travel faster than light—which we would need to do in order to completely time travel—according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and confirmed by other physicists hence, there is a way to kind of do it. This theory states that if you travel close enough to the speed of light, time would move slower for you than for someone not traveling as fast. For example, if you set off on a space ship as a child, traveling close to the speed of light, and returned to Earth after fifty years, your classmates would be middle-aged while you would remain much, much younger. It goes to show that time is relative, and we might someday be able to ‘travel’ it in the direction and speed we choose.

Teleportation:

Charles Fort coined this term in his book Lo! (1931) to mean unusual appearances and disappearances that may be connected. In 1877, Edward Page Mitchell spoke of a “matter transmitter” in his short story “The Man Without a Body”, which is closest to the teleportation we know in sci-fi today.

Do we have the technology yet?

We have been working on it since 1993, and it is essentially a sophisticated copy and paste. Physicist Charles Bennett and a team of IBM researchers first found that quantum teleportation was possible, but only if the original “teleportee” copy was destroyed (yikes!) and only if the second recreated copy remained. Since then, experiments using photons (little packets of light) have confirmed the possibility of quantum teleportation. The research continues to this day.

Robots:

The word comes from the Czech word “robota”, which means “forced labour”. It was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R. to mean “organic humanoids”. Although literary fiction and fantasy has grown to think of robots as more or less human-like machines, the word semantically encompasses much more.

Do we have this yet? You bet we do! We have robots and programmed machines today that can do a whole lot of things—from robots mimicking dogs to humanoids with your facial expressions.

Robotics:

This word made its debut into the English language thanks to the literary giant of A.I., Isaac Asimov. In his 1941 short story “Liar!”, he coined the term “robotics” to mean the science and technology of robots.

How far has this science come?

It’s now an established discipline studied in universities, and one of the most innovative fields today.

Android:

In literature, “android” has come to mean a humanoid of organic matter (like Capek’s “robotti”) but it started out to mean simply “manlike”. Its first modern literary usage is believed to be in Jack Williamson’s The Cometeers (1936). The word’s first recorded usage in the English language was by Ephraim Chambers in his Cyclopædia, when he writes that Albertus Magnus created an automaton.

Are they here yet?

Organic robots are already here, fiercely serving in militaries and disarming you as cute pets.

Telekinesis or Psychokinesis:

First coined by author Henry Holt in his book On the Cosmic Relations (1914), psychokinesis is the ability to move things with the mind alone. This seemed like the range of parapsychology for the longest time, and has remained that way until today.

Is it real?

There is no conclusive evidence thus far, and we haven’t yet created any devices enabling us to do so.

Telepathy: This is the ability to transmit from mind to mind. The most significant early literary work on telepathy was done by parapsychology enthusiast John W. Campbell Jr. and later by author A. E. van Vogt (1946), among others.

Is it possible?

Recent research indicates it might be.

The University of Washington conducted an experiment where signals from one person’s brain were transmitted through the internet and controlled the actions of another person through their brain, within seconds of transmission. This brain-to-brain interface indicates the early stages of a lot of possible applications, telepathy being only a step away.

-contributed by Shanin Imtiaz

 

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