Monday, September 9, 2019

Stephen Hawking on the Purpose of Science Fiction

In 1995, the American theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss wrote a popular non-fiction book called The Physics of Star Trek. The book contained a Foreword by no other than Stephen Hawking, the man considered by many as one of the greatest theoretical physicists to ever walk on the planet.

In his brief Foreword, Hawking touched on the role that works of science fiction play in a world that continues to change because of scientific developments and technological revolutions.

This is what he had to say about the “serious purpose” of science fiction in a very modern world.

“Science fiction like Star Trek is not only good fun but it also serves a serious purpose, that of expanding the human imagination. We may not yet be able to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before, but at least we can do it in the mind. We can explore how the human spirit might respond to future developments in science and we can speculate on what those developments might be. 

There is a two-way trade between science fiction and science. Science fiction suggests ideas that scientists incorporate into their theories, but sometimes science turns up notions that are stranger than any science fiction. Black holes are an example, greatly assisted by the inspired name that the physicist John Archibald Wheeler gave them. Had they continued with their original names of “frozen stars” or “gravitationally completely collapsed objects”, there wouldn’t have been half so much written about them.”

Hawking passed away in March of 2018. He was 76 years old. He left behind an undeniable legacy and a body of work that continues to guide aspiring theoretical physicists (and aspiring scientists for that matter) in their journeys toward scientific enlightenment.

Photo by David Montgomery
Hawking also left behind a good number of books he authored that include the ubiquitous A Brief History of Time. If you are looking for a good introduction into Hawking’s work, this is the book you should peruse. Only then should you proceed reading his other books (i.e. The Universe in a Nutshell, On the Shoulders of Giants, and Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays).