Science: Fact or Fiction

 As we have had some excellent talks on heavy subjects, the one I’m giving tonight will have a lighter, more relaxed theme.

 In the past, experts in factual subjects, using the knowledge of their time, considered that almost all fiction would forever remain fiction. It was as if the scientists of the day could not comprehend the acceleration to which their researches would  be subjected.

 For instance, the best known science fiction writer of the 19th century was probably Jules Verne. Among his numerous works were such classics as :-

                   From the Earth to the Moon

                   Round the Moon

                   20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

                   Journey to the Centre of the Earth

                   Five Weeks in a Balloon      

                   Master of the World

                   Propeller Island

 All these books were absolute science fiction in, say, 1860, but many have become fact to a greater or lesser extent. For examples, From the Earth to the Moon, and Round the Moon. Both these trips have been done many times with all astronauts returning safely. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea : Present day nuclear submarines could easily cover that distance today in circuiting the world two and a half times. Journey to the Centre of the Earth is very much science fiction, but present day knowledge of the Earth’s centre is science fact. Our own Bristol based John Cameron can decide whether Five Weeks in a Balloon could be factual. In Master of the World a scientist tried to achieve world domination by means of a heavier than air flying machine, impossible at the time of publication, but the Axis Powers relied heavily upon air power in their attempt towards world domination. Propeller Island featured a man made island, miles across, driven by propellers. Today’s supertankers, cruise ships, and aircraft carriers are almost miniature propeller islands, and the idea of towing icebergs to areas of water shortage comes near to the idea.

Another well known writer, H G Wells, has had less than a century for some of his science fiction to become science fact. The First Men in the Moon. This entailed a lunar landing by two men, sampling, and exploring, with return to Earth. The anti-gravity material invented by Wells is still fiction, but the Apollo programme certainly wasn’t. Now, has anyone here seen the film War of the Worlds ? Those who have will remember the pure science fiction super technology death ray used by the Martians. No human invention is ever likely to match it. But today we have lasers that can slice through metal, destroy satellites, and could be beamed down from satellites ( available but not launched ) which could destroy human life but leave buildings intact. The last of  the H G Wells books I’ll mention is The Shape of Things To Come, published in 1933 and made into a film in 1936. It prophesied war in 1940, thereafter plague, rebellion, a new glass based society, and a rocketship to the moon.After World War II science fiction expanded from books to films, radio and TV programmes. “Journey into Space” was a radio serial, with rocket sound effects and  dramatised space ‘aggro’ in which the ‘goodies’ side always managed to come on top.    


By today’s standards most of the 1950’s and 1960’s science fiction films were absolute rubbish. At the upper quality end of this rubbish pile was The Forbidden Planet, with a miracle worker called Robby the Robot who could make or do anything, even offering to make 50 gallons of whisky when the supply ran out !

In the early 1960’s things improved a bit, especially with Quatermass and the Pit. During tunnelling operations for extending London Underground a startling and terrifying series of discoveries was made. A buried spacecraft of ultra-hard metal, skeletal remains of creatures, and crazy visions and developments such as heavy tools taking on lives of their own. Professor Quatermass deduced that the spacecraft was Martian and millions of years ago had crash landed on Earth and sunk in a marsh. Then, in 1969 came “2001, A Space Odyssey”. An outstanding film about Man evolving  from apes to space explorers by the mental powers given by a celestial monolith. The climax of the film was a manned space probe to Jupiter, initiated after the monolith had been found during an earlier lunar project. On arrival at Jupiter one of the astronauts passes through the ‘Star Gate’, and returns to Earth as the ‘Star Child’.

Some of the earlier post war fiction is now as much fact as the Jules Verne and H G Wells science fiction. Journey Into Space described men on the Moon as well as in Earth’s orbit. The Apollo landing involved men on the Moon, the Russians did lunar soft landings. Gemini, Soyuz, and Skylab were all manned missions in Earth orbit. As for Quatermass, we can travel on the Underground without bumping into buried Martian space craft, and the Viking probes have included experiments aimed at establishing if there ever was, or is, life on Mars, so far inconclusive.

Looking to 2001, we have not discovered any monoliths or associated radio signals, nor carried out major lunar excavations. What has been achieved is the Apollo manned lunar missions involving rock drilling , collection, and recovery. Additionally, the Russians, using unmanned rockets and robot landers, have also sampled Moon rock and brought it to Earth. We know it is not made of cheese ! The Jupiter mission in 2001 has its real life parallel in the Pioneer and Voyager space shots, and these did not confine themselves to Jupiter. All these craft visited Saturn, and it is intended that the Voyager will visit the outer planets. After that these probes will become starships, as they leave the solar system and travel forever through interstellar space.


Now we come to the modern science fiction, often called ‘SciFi’. We have had authors such as Arthur Clarke,  Doc. Smith, Isaac Azimov, Heinlin, and Douglas Adams, who wrote an outrageous book that will never become science fact for the benefit of some addicts here in this hall - namely, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. There are dozens, even hundreds of these books, often written as series, and set in the science fiction futuristic space travel scene. That is instantaneous hyper space travel, inertia drives, tracter beams, cosmic energy drives. These are combined with the inevitable battles, star and planet destroying energy pulses, so far undiscovered mental powers, and many forms of intelligent alien life.

My personal view or prophecy is that mankind will eventually leave his present stage of existence with endless wars, arrogance, permitted poverty and destructive disunity. We cannot properly go forward until the current misuse of intelligence and technical progress is harnessed to a common united and constructive purpose. The final destination of Man is the stars, but only after he has cleaned up his own back yard.                                               

On a lighter note we come to the modern science fiction movies. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Battlestar Galactica, Battle Beyond the Stars, Black Hole, Star Trek, Superman, and Alien.

Star Wars. This featured a struggle between an imperialistic empire, led by Darth Vardor, and the usual human based ‘goodies’ who, in this example of fiction, only wanted to live in peace.

The Empire Strikes Back. A sequel to Star Wars, and a similar type of space war, but with the ‘goodies’ driven out of the galaxy.

Close Encounters…A film for the UFO fanatic and an answer to those who refuse to believe intelligent life is ‘Out There’. An ordinary family man manages to break into a heavily restricted area despite a military presence, to find and enter a UFO he suspects exists there. He finds a UN UFO section welcoming the main extra terrestrial Mothership which measures 3miles by 2. He is invited on board and takesoff into space.

 Battlestar Galactica shows the cosmic struggle between humanoid and non humanoid life forms. The humanoids have their home planet destroyed and take to space in convoy to try and reach their ancestral planet called Earth.

A.L.I.E.N. This SF film shows mankind actually trading between the stars, but gives a warning about Man’s dangerous inquisitiveness which leaves him with egg on his face and Alien in his air ducts. Not all extra terrestrial life is as benevolent as in Close Encounters. The Alien ended its meteoric career being kicked out of The Shuttle by having the door slammed in its face, and finally being cremated by the rocket’s exhausts.

Battle Beyond the Stars was another space war film with fine effects and non stop action., much like the down to earth Magnificent Seven. A light hearted excuse for a chase through space. The good guys and gals ranged from humans to lizard type aliens, and a  feral humanoid who kept her weapons on show, especially her natural ones. The bad guys were mutants, made up from parts cannibalised from captured prisoners.

Black Hole. A great idea but it mostly consisted of the build-up to entering the black hole, and only the last few minutes were devoted to travelling within it. Also, the film producers vision of a black hole and that of an astronomer were wildly different. The plot was similar to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Star Trek. A newly rebuilt and commissioned Enterprise. Captain Kirk bludgeons history onto the bridge and takes the spaceship out to face the menacing cloud approaching Earth. He finds that inside the cloud is a gigantic ship with a Voyager spacecraft forming part of its control brain, returning to report accumulated data. The robot brain requires a human side and two of the Enterprise crew members, male and female, volunteer to integrate with it. Whereupon the ship transports itself into another dimension……

Every TV edition of Star Trek had the same introduction by Captain Kirk, ending with the phrase “and go where no man has been before”. If, 300 years ago, a book had described planetary probes, an Atlantic crossing at twice the speed of sound, men in orbit, speech across the world by radio and telephone, the book would be aptly introduced by Kirk’s words.

Similarly, in 300 years time, the surviving remnants of space films will be treated with mild derision. Fancy having to build up to warp 8, the most the Enterprise could do, while now even our lousy Earth - Andromeda service can do warp 500,…. when it turns up !

Finally, before we start the music tapes and the slides begin to roll, I will mention one more film. It features an heroic character who can hold up trains with one hand, catch falling lifts in the Eiffel Tower and act in the manner of science fiction. Let me introduce you to Superman !

[ There is a sheet of 46 numbered and described slides which were obviously shown at the end of the talk. Some are of film titles but most are of scenes - The Enterprise in dry dock - or people, - the Klingon Commander watching the giant cloud, etc. The whole talk must have taken an hour and a half.]