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Science Behind the Fiction: Real-life superheroes and how science fiction feeds the future

Contributed by
Apr 3, 2018

The relationship between real-world science and science fiction is a fickle one. One feeds off the other, taking in what is produced before discarding or reshaping and realizing it. Science (or scientists) sometimes looks upon its fictional counterpart and scoffs at the seeming nonsense played out on page or screen. But the two are inextricably linked and have existed in a symbiotic relationship since the sci-fi genre was born.

Many a scientist found their calling because of works like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the various works of H.G. Wells. It's easy to see how something like Star Trek might not only inspire young people to pursue careers in the sciences but might also plant the seeds for technologies like cell phones and tablet computers. On the other hand, it's difficult to look at something like 2012's Upside Down and not want to tear out your hair at the way it waves a hand at physics, no matter how beautiful a shot it might allow for.

Scientific advances often have origins in the world of fiction, but the relationship isn't only one-sided. Every new scientific breakthrough is an opportunity for new stories to be told.

The connection between science and fiction is, for the most part, a good one, with both sides pushing the other to greater heights. Even if that means occasionally we have to put up with Jeff Goldblum hacking an alien spaceship with a '90s laptop computer.

Previously in Science Behind the Fiction, we have covered such things as how people are trying to live forever, the potential reality of a zombie uprising, computer brain interfaces, brain-to-brain interfaces, the possibility that we're living in a Matrix-like simulation, and more. And that's just scratching the surface of the ways in which science fiction interacts with the real world.

If there were any doubt as to the relationship between science fiction and future science, we need look no further than the existence of "design fiction." Big companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft have been known to bring in science fiction authors to give talks and then have private discussions with developers about emerging technologies. They've even been known to contract authors to write stories about potential technologies just to see if it lights a fire in the hearts of those working on them. The truth is, there is little that can inspire technological advancements better than a particularly engaging tale.

SYFY WIRE recently spoke with Mark Brake, author of the new book The Science of Superheroes: The Secrets Behind Speed, Strength, Flight, Evolution, and More about the ways science and fiction interact. Brake's book is the culmination of decades of work going back at least to 1999 when he set up the world's first degree program examining the link between science and science fiction.

"My main interest is the huge impact science fiction has always had on modern science and culture. Science fiction is an imaginative way of doing a kind of theoretical science: the exploration of imagined worlds. Scientists build models of hypothetical worlds and then test their theories. Albert Einstein was famous for this. His thought experiments led to his theory of special relativity, for example," Brake told SYFY WIRE. "Science fiction writers and movie makers also explore hypothetical worlds. But with more scope. Scientists are meant to stay within bounded laws. Science fiction has no such boundaries. But we can see that a spirit of ‘What if?' is common to both science and the art of science fiction."

In his book, Brake explores ideas like the varying powers someone might exhibit after being bitten by a radioactive spider and how those abilities might differ depending on the species of spider involved. He uses the X-Men as a vehicle to talk about evolution, mutation, and carbon dating.

The chapter on mutants takes an interesting turn when it outlines what Brake calls "The Darwinian Dozen," twelve real-life examples of mutations that resulted in very real, and very cool, human superpowers. Examples of the Darwinian Dozen include a kid named Liam Hoekstra with a mutation that causes his body not to produce myostatin. This results in heightened muscle production without the need for physical training. Then there's someone with an inborn immunity to deadly disease and a woman with a mutation that has left her without fingerprints, an ability that Brake points out might make her more suitable for super-villainy than hero work.

When asked what, in the course of researching the book, was the most interesting, fun, or mind-blowing discovery he made, Blake said, "Maybe the fact the Groot isn't as imaginary as you might think." Brake was, of course, referring to what is sometimes called, rather cheekily, the Wood Wide Web. A recent episode of Radio Lab showcased some of the many ways that trees and other plants communicate and even learn from their surroundings. While research is still needed, as is always the case in the scientific arena, there is mounting evidence that many plants have a form of awareness and intelligence we're only now beginning to understand.

The character of Groot, while recently popularized by the massively successful Guardians of the Galaxy films, hearkens back to issue 13 of Tales to Astonish, published in 1960. At the time, the notion of a plant that walks and talks and has feelings was purely the stuff of fiction. Now, not so much.

Discoveries such as these make us wonder what it is to be conscious and what other things we previously thought to be mindless might actually have secret lives. These are precisely the types of things that push the boundaries of future fiction and of our understanding of the world.

In the introduction to the book, Brake describes the themes present in science fiction as "a way of exploring the relationship between superhero fiction and the science and, beneath that, a deeper underlying theme of how we humans relate to the nonhuman nature of the science and technology of our ever-evolving universe."

That is, in the end, what makes science fiction important. While critics of the genre belittle it as pure escapism, having no real literary or cultural value, being aware of how stories can push boundaries can inspire, can open up lines of inquiry and shine a light upon previously dark arenas of thought, and reminds us just how priceless that escape from the confines of reality can be.

Mark Brake's book The Science of Superheroes: The Secrets Behind Speed, Strength, Flight, Evolution, and More is available wherever books are sold.