Fantastic answers to universal questions (2024)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, someone had the idea that science would be at its most interesting when it was being subverted. Just as science itself was developing, storytellers began expanding the worlds of physics, biology, chemistry and engineering.

They came up with a universe full of lightsabers, spaceships and robots, steeped in a heady brew of technobabble and draped on a background of journeys to exotic worlds. But science fiction is more than just pulp fiction; at its core is the desire to understand humanity's place in the universe.

We asked leading scientists from around the world what science fiction meant to them: how they related to it and what influence it had on them. The answers showed that science fiction not only reflects science but is also an inspiration for it. This issue of Life is a celebration of that relationship.

Robert May, population biologist and president of the Royal Society, says of science fiction: "At its best it is very provocative and forethoughtful, like Asimov's books - they think of questions that have since arisen such as intelligent machines." Mark Brake, professor of science communication at Glamorgan University, says science fiction can be construed as an attempt to put meaning onto the idea of the universe proposed by Copernicus, who argued that humans, the Earth and our whole existence were nothing special. "For 2,000 years, we felt that the entire universe was about us because it was geocentric and that humanity was at the centre of it," Brake says.

The origins of the genre go back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Somnium, written by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler and published posthumously in 1634, tells of a young Icelander who travels to the moon. Kepler was, at least in part, responding to the discoveries made 30 years earlier by Copernicus and Galileo.

Ever since Copernicus, Brake says, science fiction has been trying to address humanity's place in the universe by pitting human against non-human or addressing how little we actually know about the cosmos around us. "Often it's about our humanity and the way humanity is changing as a result of the accelerating pace of change through science and technology."

If Copernicus made us reconsider the position of humans in the universe, Charles Darwin forced us to reconsider ourselves in 1859. "After the publication of The Origin of the Species, the style of science fiction changed to reflect that societies remained essentially the same, but that the people would change," says Steve Jones, the University College London geneticist and popular science writer. "Darwin put forward that flesh is mutable." Jones argues that this led directly to HG Wells's The Time Machine in 1895, a tale of super-evolved human beings thousands of years in the future.

Science fiction, a term coined in the 1930s to distinguish the genre from the pulp fiction then becoming popular, carried on examining human morality by placing its characters into situations where some limiting problem had been overcome, such as time travel. What the stories invariably showed was that science does not have all the answers, and that each advance throws up new questions.

Brake says: "Imperialist culture, from the point of view of spacefaring, has often been used in science fiction as a commentary on colonialism on the Earth. This goes back to The War of the Worlds, where Wells was disgusted with the almost complete annihilation of the Tanzanians and tried to turn the tables on Britain to ask: "What would it feel like if you were invaded? It does use this extrapolative form to ask questions about the present."

Science and society are clearly big influences on science fiction, but the opposite is true too. "The best example of that is that it affects the public consciousness very often," says Brake. "One of the reasons we use sci-fi is because we're interested in the public communication of science and extending the franchise of science, trying to get as many people interested as possible."

Take the question of extraterrestrial life. Copernicus identified the fact that as neither the Earth nor humanity is central to the universe, there is a possibility that there is life beyond; Darwin found a mechanism for the evolution of life elsewhere. In 1995, scientists discovered extra-solar planets. But in all that time, the only scientific comment on the question of life and what that meant to science, had been in science fiction. It could even be argued that organisations like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute in California and the existence of Nasa's astrobiology committee are an implicit recognition of the influence of science fiction.

Fiction has certainly pushed the envelope for scientists. "It helps you to think the impossible and see if it is possible," says Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician at Oxford University.

When Carl Sagan wanted to find a method of space-time travel for the novel Contact, he discussed with cosmologist Kip Thorne the idea that he might use black holes. Thorne argued against it, pointing out that Einstein's theory of general relativity did allow for the possibility of a "wormhole" if there was an advanced enough civilisation that could find enough negative energy to keep it open. Subsequently, Thorne even began researching a theoretical basis for wormholes. Brake says that The Time Machine in 1895 was 10 years ahead of the theory of special relativity. "Einstein rethought physics, but you could argue that Wells was there before him, thinking about whether time travel was possible," he says.

Even today's scientific institutions occasionally look for inspiration from fiction. The European Space Agency asked sci-fi fans if they had come across imaginative and inventive forms of spacecraft in books or films. "In many cases the books are at least as sensible, if not more sensible than some of the science being done now," says May.

As so many people are exposed to the ideas of science through science fiction, is there a responsibility for it to be scientifically accurate? "No not at all, after all it is fiction," says Steve Jones.

Brake argues, however, that different authors feel differing levels of responsibility. In any case, there are shades of grey with some science that fiction can legitimately play with."You could also say that, by its very nature, science fiction is extrapolative," he says. "Science fiction involves a willing suspension of disbelief and it's not bound by the constraints of science. From our point of view, we try to identify two different sorts of science. There's normal science, which most people don't bother themselves with because its so dry and tedious and it goes on in labs from day to day that it wouldn't ruffle any feathers. Then there's something called controversial science - that's often the sort of science that science fiction confronts."

In any case, there is such a thing as too much science in a story. Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield-Grieg Hazard Research Centre at UCL, says science fiction writers have a duty to educate but need a decent story, too. He gives the example of Darwin's Children, by Greg Bear: "There is so much biology in it that it just swamps the story. The balance has to be right."

But as a way of introducing budding scientists to the subject, science fiction does have value. Stephen Minger, a stem cell biologist at King's College London, says: "I was born in 1955, it was the early days of space travel and the Apollo and mercury missions. I used to get up at three o'clock in the morning and watch the first rockets take off at Cape Canaveral back in the early 60s. I was really fascinated by the idea that we were going into space. It all tied in with the science fiction."

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Seti institute in California, says of the 1953 film of The War of the Worlds: "The film definitely interested me in astronomy and, ultimately, my work in Seti I'm sure is a consequence of some of those earlier films in which we were first encountering some of those mostly hostile creatures."

Our panel of scientists shows that this interest in science fiction is still alive and well. Of the top 10 films, perhaps only 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris use or explore scientific ideas. That Star Wars makes it into the top 10 is a little surprising, as it is a story that could be set anywhere. The same could be said for The Matrix.

"I draw a distinction between films like Kubrick's 2001 and The Matrix," says May. "The former is about ideas, where as the latter is essentially not science fiction, but more pretentious. It is a blend of brilliant technology and martial arts; the visual equivalent of pageturners, but devoid of ideas."

Both Alien and Blade Runner were directed by Ridley Scott, a director sometimes criticised for style over depth. In these films, the future, in space and on Earth, provides the atmospheric backdrop for what are effectively a haunted house thriller and a LA-based gumshoe detective story.

With the books, things were different. All the authors on the list are clearly defined as being science fiction writers, viewed as genre writers with limited mass appeal. They are authors mostly from the "golden age" of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. But the genre is thriving, with writers like Iain M Banks, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford. Even literary novelists such as Margaret Atwood dabble with science fiction, although she prefers to describe her Booker-shortlisted novel, Oryx and Crake, as speculative fiction.

But what is clear is that like all science fiction, both Blade Runner and Asimov in his most famous work, I, Robot, focus on the questions that people have asked since civilisation began - what does it mean to be human?

Fantastic answers to universal questions (2024)


What is the hardest question in science? ›

20 Big Questions in Science
  1. What is the universe made of? Astronomers still cannot account for 95% of the universe. ...
  2. How did life begin? ...
  3. Are we alone in the universe? ...
  4. What makes us human? ...
  5. What is consciousness? ...
  6. Why do we dream? ...
  7. Why is there stuff? ...
  8. Are there other universes?

What kinds of questions can science answer? ›

One of the principals of science is the testability of the hypotheses. The questions that are testable can be answered through science by experiments, observations, or surveys. For instance, whether a river can move a huge rock is a matter of science because the answer is testable.

Which topic do all scientific questions have in common? ›

All scientific questions aim to understand and explain various aspects of the world around us. While ethics, medicine, and modern practices are important topics, they are not the common thread for all scientific questions. Natural events, on the other hand, encompass a wide range of phenomena that scientists study.

How do you ask a scientific question? ›

Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant. Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.

What questions science still hasn t answered? ›

What happens to us after we die? How did so much life appear on our planet when others seem devoid of any species at all? Who, if anyone, pulls the strings of our universe? Is it some all-powerful god in control or are there physical and mathematical principles driving the engine of our existence?

What are the biggest unanswered questions in science? ›

Science's Greatest Unanswered Questions Revealed
  • Are we alone in the universe? - ...
  • Will there ever be a cure for cancer? - ...
  • Does God exist? - ...
  • How big is space? -

What is the most asked question in the world? ›

What is the most asked question in the world? It might be quite surprising to know that the most asked question in the world is “what is my ip”. There are a little over 3 million people who ask this question every month on Google and that's just one variation of the question.

Which question Cannot be answered by an experiment? ›

Questions that cannot be answered by direct observation or by evidence gathered through experimental inquiries (i.e., “why…” questions), are not testable questions. Questions which require an opinion, or could be answered differently by different people, are also not testable questions.

What are the big questions in life? ›

You've already got answers to the five big questions of life:
  • Where did I come from?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • How should I live?
  • Where am I going?
Nov 8, 2018

What is a really good scientific question? ›

A good scientific question should be objective and testable. It may be a verification question, theory question, or experimental question. A scientific question should be narrow enough to answer with data gathered by observation or testing. It should not be a question about opinion.

What is one thing all scientists have in common? ›

The characteristics or traits of a scientist that make them successful are: observation, curiosity, logic, creativity, skepticism, objectivity, and peer review. These traits are important for all scientists, regardless of their field.

What is the 1.1 scientific method? ›

This procedure consists of making observations, formulating hypotheses, and designing experiments, which in turn lead to additional observations, hypotheses, and experiments in repeated cycles (Figure 1.1. 1).

Which is the best way scientific question can be answered? ›

A scientific question can be answered by making observations with your five senses and gathering evidence. The question you ask needs to be something you can measure, so you can compare results you are interested in. For example, “How does fertilizer affect plant growth?” would be a testable scientific question.

What are the 7 questions you should ask about any scientific claim? ›

Can You Believe It? Seven Questions to Ask About Any Scientific Claim
  • What's the claim?
  • Who says?
  • What's the evidence?
  • How did they get the evidence?
  • Is there anything (or anyone) to back up this claim?
  • Could there be another explanation?
  • Who cares?
Dec 15, 2016

What are the four types of scientific questions? ›

Scientific inquiry is as diverse as the natural world itself, but most scientific questions fall into four broad categories—existence questions, origin questions, process questions, and applied questions.

What is the hardest question ever? ›

We think one of the toughest is, “Why do I exist?” You may have your own ideas or reasons, but finding a universal answer to this question is daunting.

Which is the hardest in science? ›

The Hardest Science Degrees
  • Physics. ...
  • Biomedical Science. ...
  • Neuroscience. ...
  • Molecular Cell Biology. ...
  • Mathematics. ...
  • Nursing. ...
  • Computer Science. ...
  • Statistics. Statistics is a more complicated course than most people imagine it to be.
Jul 26, 2023

Which is the hardest chapter in science? ›

The toughest chapter in Class 10 Science is Heredity and Evolution. However, it also contains more weightage of marks.

What is the hardest science theory? ›

Quantum mechanics is deemed the hardest part of physics. Systems with quantum behavior don't follow the rules that we are used to, they are hard to see and hard to “feel”, can have controversial features, exist in several different states at the same time - and even change depending on whether they are observed or not.


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