Monday, 17 October 2016

Newton's Third Law, and The Trap of Hard Sci-Fi

“Newton’s Third Law. The only way humans have figured out how to move forward is to leave something behind.” - TARS (Interstellar)

For the last three years, there have been major, blockbuster, award winning Science Fiction movies. Gravity. Interstellar. The Martian.

And that's not even counting the really big numbers like Star Wars and Avatar.

So why do I focus on these three movies? Because they have something in common: They're 'hard' sci-fi.

For the uninitiated, a 'hard' sci-fi is one based on real science, real physics. The sort of movie or story where the spaceship can actually exist and do everything you see on screen, if only it were built. The Martian is a good example of this genre. With one or two exceptions, every single thing you see in the book or movie is based on real fact.

'Soft' sci-fi, is a story where the rules are made up for the plot. Star Wars is a good example of this. Until someone makes a working lightsaber, or a hyperspace drive, it's purely imagination.

Don't get me wrong, I love both; but 'Hard' sci-fi has an inherent weakness that Star Wars does not share. But we'll come back to that.

Today, a patent was filed for the EM Drive. A patent is a matter of public record. Up until now, this technology has been kept a secret, except in academic circles, until they could confirm that it worked as advertised. They all agree that it did, though none of them could understand how. Even when walking, we can only push ourselves forward by pushing our feet back against the ground. Action, reaction. This thing somehow manages to defy that basic law of physics. Or at the very least, find a loophole.

And now that it's patented, the race is on to build a 'next gen' version for actual use in space.

I've been geeking out about this for weeks. The EM Drive first came on my radar in 2013, and at the time I didn't believe it. The idea that we could now generate thrust without exhaust or using fuel? It was laughed at by most. Nothing humanity has created has been able to do this. To create motion in one direction without requiring force in the other direction? It, literally, disputed at least one of the concrete laws of accepted physics.

It underwent a ten week peer review already, and even NASA admits that it seems to work as advertised, though the science of 'how' eludes them.

I've been following this on and off for a while now, and they say that if it works like they hope it will, this kind of engine could reach Mars in ten weeks.

And that brings us back to the point of today's lesson, class. Because if this works, then the hard Sci-fi of our generation, including The Martian, and Interstellar? They just became old, outdated science fiction. Seriously. The whole plot point of The Martian was that the hero was a year from rescue at least. If they could have built a probe to get Mark Whatney re-supplied in ten weeks? Instead of a year? Whew.

The opening quote in today's post is direct from interstellar, and gave us the whole Climax of the film. If that crew had a space drive that didn't need fuel, the film would have turned out very differently.

This is not a new situation. This has been happening since the days of Jules Verne. We just keep lowballing our own future. Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about technology in fiction and I mentioned that in the early episodes of Star Trek TNG, the characters bragged that the Enterprise had two terabyte computer. And back when the early seasons of TNG were made, it seemed like a wide enough margin between fact and fiction. Surely it would take until the 24th Century before anyone needed a whole terabyte, right?

Hard sci fi has a special place for fans, because it is realistic, but at any second it could all become obsolete.

The reverse is also true. Hard Sci-Fi said that by 2001 we'd be at Jupiter.

Well, who knows? We might just have a shot. Another five years, we might have a whole new fleet of shuttles or space probes that don't need fuel. Science Fiction is always the precursor to Science Fact, so if the EM Drive works, we're effectively rewriting everything Arthur C Clarke came up with.