September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Flying machines, lasers and genetic engineering were once fictional fantasies. Will today’s science fiction become tomorrow’s science? ...


Mankind has wondered about its future for thousands of years. What will our planet, our societies and our species look like in years to come? Many visions of our future have either foreseen a utopia – an ideal society we can look forward to embracing – or a dystopia – an undesirable future that in its extreme will harm our lives and threaten our existence. These visions of the future may seem farfetched at the time, and many remain that way, but some predictions have come eerily close to realisation.

H.G. Wells, a renowned science fiction writer from around the turn of the 20th century, was one of the most prolific predictors of the future. In 1896 he wrote about a doctor who creates human and animal hybrids, thus envisaging genetic engineering over half a century before scientists showed that the concept was possible. In 1901 he predicted a future moon landing, an event that was not realised until 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission.

Wells’s most famous science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, was published in 1898 and featured many things which later became reality. The Martian ‘Heat-Ray’ weapon is a type of laser. While the scientific principles behind a laser were theoretically discussed by Einstein, it was not until 1960 that the first laser was produced. In the story, the Martians are defeated as the result of biological warfare, something that wasn’t seen in real combat until the First World War.

Many past visions of the future expected that automation would eventually replace human beings with robots. This plays on both the ideal of not having to work to make a living and the fears of artificial intelligence becoming a risk to mankind. Contrary to these predictions, many people are still employed to undertake manual labour. Automation is playing an ever-increasing role, yet in an advantageous way, with no signs yet of artificial intelligence posing any real threat to us.

Over half a millennium ago, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a basic helicopter, which he called the ‘Aerial Screw’, and explained how he thought the flying machine would work. It was never built, but it promised a future where mankind could traverse the skies rather than stay on land. The term ‘helicopter’ was coined in 1861 and the first operational helicopter was developed in the 1930s, some 450 years after da Vinci thought up the idea. Nowadays, helicopters are much more developed and are a major part of air travel.

Time travel has always featured heavily in our predictions of the future. Wells first wrote about a time machine in 1895, and we continue to be fascinated by time travel to this day, as evidenced by the popularity of Doctor Who and films such as Back to the Future. While the scientific community has largely dismissed the possibility of time travel, there are scientists who are devoted to researching it. Time travel as portrayed in science fiction may seem unlikely, but modern day predictions of the future still include it as a possibility.

Space travel and exploration are also common themes in futuristic predictions, usually spurred on by one of two things: the search for extra-terrestrial life, and the feeling that humans should branch out from Earth in order to ensure our prolonged survival.

Yet here at the start of the 21st Century, space travel is still relatively primitive and very costly. Mankind has journeyed to the moon and inhabited orbiting satellites such as the International Space Station, but we’ve yet to venture further. Missions to Mars are underway, and missions to other planets in our solar system are planned for the near future, but these are far from the visions of accessible space travel for all. Our current technology is simply unable to transport us vast distances in reasonable times, making space travel impractical. There is a ray of hope, however: NASA and other space agencies are researching ways to make everyday space travel possible, so it is not inconceivable that we may head for the stars in the near future.

Of course, visions of our future are not always positive. Many foresee the cataclysmic decline of society or even the downfall of the human race itself. These bleak views play on our fears, yet are compelling and often promote a change to our attitudes and our ways of living. George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a state that constantly monitors and controls its citizens’ lives. With the invention and widespread use of CCTV, it’s easy to see how some people think this prophecy might become a reality.

So what of our modern-day predictions for the future? The UN has predicted that the worldwide population will increase, partly due to increased life expectancy, to an estimated peak of 10 billion people. This will worsen the problems of food shortages and strains on resources. Fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, will have been used up. Nuclear fusion will likely have been developed, providing us with a new energy source. Improved travel will enable us to commute anywhere around the world in just a few hours. We may have visited Mars, colonised the moon and have begun to venture deeper into space. Our world, once thought vast by our ancestors, continues to become a much smaller place to be.

Image from NASA