Science fiction is known for having weird, far out technologies. But sometimes what was once fiction becomes reality1. I have never been completely sure whether it's the fiction influencing the science, or whether a science fiction writer, presumably well versed in science, can see possibilities that someone immersed in science cannot. I found both possibilities intriguing. If fiction influences reality, than that is a clear demonstration of how we Humans are capable of creating just about anything that we can imagine. It basically getting together and thinking logically about a concept until it becomes real. And that's essentially what's going on in this situation. Someone dreams up some crazy technology, maybe to resolve a plot point or maybe just because the idea is really cool. A scientist reads it, and then sets about trying to make it real. Some one imagines a concept, and someone else creates it. Or maybe a writer can see new possibilities. Sort of like thinking outside the box, or how an outsider sees more of the game kind of thing. An intelligent, thoughtful person who dedicates themselves for a time to learning about a subject can sometimes have amazing insights into the subject. Since your average person is quite capable of being thoughtful and intelligent (though they don't always realize this potential) this would be a clear demonstration of how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. A scientifically literate society which happily funds scientific research would likely give gains in both situations. Which ultimately is the answer to the question, does science fiction influence science, or does science fiction see what science can't? It's a little bit of both. Science fiction can feed the imagination of a scientist. That scientist then produces results. A fan of science, who possibly writes science fiction, may be able to make the subtle connections between the results, thus pointing the way to further scientific breakthrough.
Of course, some things in science fiction are more likely to generate a real world analogue. And some things in science fiction, while not having a true analogue, will have certain striking similarities. Generally the names for things in science fiction can have striking parallels in reality. Conversely, some real science can sound like fiction. I can easily imagine a writer somewhere utilizing Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices to get the hero out of a pickle. It sounds like something straight from Star Trek, like the Heisenberg Compensator, or bio-mimetic gel, or transparent aluminum2 (Which is a direct translation from fiction to reality). Which I don't think is really all that amazing, since most of the names for things in science fiction use real world concepts. However, SQUIDS3 are completely real, and while not acting as a suitable plot device, they do serve several functions in medical and biological contexts.
I think there are a number of scientists, such as Michio Kaku, who treat science fiction as a wildly game of "Can I make that real?" There may be no real intention of creating a Batman-style grappling hook4, or a suit like Iron Man's. But to try and create something like that anyway is just plain fun. And fun is half of science. A scientist loves to connect the dots, a scientist enjoys immensely put the pieces of a puzzle together. A scientist has fun doing their job. So science is just as much about random association as it is about logical thought. Attempting to create something from science fiction can highlight previously ignored facets of science or inspire ideas for new and innovative technologies. Working on something like force fields or light sabers, while not likely to come to fruition, can often still yield interesting and useful real world applications of science.
Incidentally, Michio Kaku wrote a book and subsequently hosted a show on the science channel call "Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible" wherein he tried to create science fiction realities such as force fields and light sabers. One episode of the show was dedicated to creating a suit like Iron Man's, though he did add one capability to this suit: Mind reading. He figures that one could use atomic magnetometers5 to passively read someone's mind. Interestingly enough, these devices, as he points out, can also be put to use imaging someone's brain or other body part in a way that is far more compact than current imaging machinery, and would likely be cheaper than current methods. You can see the development of this technology here6, here7, and here8.
What really gets me about this is the time frame in which the technology has had to operate in. I'm not thrown so much by the progress and duration of its development as I am by the political climate that was in place during its development. The first two papers come from 2004, and the last from 2008. With all the talk of health care last year, and with all of Obama's pre-presidential campaigning for scientific development (of which some measure has been seen during his presidency9), one would assume that this technology would have been brought up, discussed, and made generally known. I would imagine that a strong candidate for future medical technologies, such as these atomic magnetometers, technologies that not only makes health care cheaper but also makes certain medical treatments more accessible and spurs on new medical technologies would have been used as a poster child for the need for health care reform and scientific research.
The medical field is currently burdened with drug and technology companies fighting for the greatest profit margin. This tends to make these companies more cautious, repressing the risk taking that could generate a new technology. This also tends to force a company to defend its profit margin by any means necessary, such as preventing other companies from developing new technology. These companies have a vested interest in maintaining the superiority of their product. Lobbying on behalf of these companies hampers scientific research by forcing politicians to restrain new developments, new lines of research, new technologies. Repressing scientific research severely constrains the potential of a society. We are a culture of visionaries. We can see new possibilities, and work to achieve them. Scientific research can have direct and profound impacts on our living conditions.
This one specific technology, or even a handful of others such as low intensity MRI scans10 or interferometric synthetic aperture microscopy11 would have lent weight and credence to both arguments, that our health care system needs reform (Our money hungry system denies the citizen of promising technology as a byproduct of that hunger) and that pure scientific research is important (As evidenced by these technologies)
Which brings us to the big questions: Why haven't these technologies seen more government funding? Why haven't these technologies seen more media coverage?
1 John Blodgett, Continuum, "When Science Fiction Becomes Reality", University of Utah (2009)
2 Live Science Staff, Live Science, "Military: New Aluminum Windows Stop .50-Caliber Bullet" (2005)
4 Gizmodo, "MIT student creates real life Batman utility belt"
5 Wikipedia, "Magnetometer"
6 I.M. Savukov, M.V. Romalis, Physical Review Letters, "NMR Detection With An Atomic Magnetometer", Princeton (2004)
7 P.D.D. Schwindt, S. Knappe, V. Shah, L. Hollberg, J. Kitching, L. Liew, J. Moreland, Applied Physics Letters, "Chip-scale Atomic Magnetometer (2004)
8 A.S. Levitt, The Future Of Things, "Atomic Magnetometers to shrink MRI" (2008)
9 D. Vergano, USA Today, " Scientific Climate Is Changing As Obama Takes Office" (2009)
10 E. Rotman, The Future Of Things, " First Low-Intensity MRI Scan Of A Human Brain" (2007)11 G. Molho, The Future Of Things, "ISAM - Computed Image Revolution"