Interview with Kevin Berger of Nautilus
The term science fiction is described in the Oxford dictionary as “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes.” There are examples throughout history of how sci-fi has impacted science.
H.G Wells’ classic, The War of the Worlds, inspired Robert H. Goddard, the American scientist to build the first liquid-fueled rocket, which was successfully launched in March 1926, and triggered worldwide interest in space flight. Martin Cooper, the director of research and development at Motorola, credited the “communicator” from Star Trek as his inspiration behind the design of the first mobile phone in the early 1970s.
In recent times, the media has been flooded with prophetic visions of the future. Many are dystopian, like in Ex Machina and Westworld, but all signal alternative futures. The common thread between the past and future of sci-fi is the opportunity of this genre to transform science and technology.
There have always been questions around how much of the inspiration for scientific and technological advances comes from science fiction, especially as it impacts human life. To answer some of those questions, I reached out to Kevin Berger, editor of Nautilus, a science and culture magazine, based in New York. We conducted our interview over email.
To what extent can science fiction affect developments in science and technology in human life?
To a big extent. Scientists, from archaeologists to quantum physicists to zoologists, invariably tell me that they were first inspired to go into science by science fiction. And not just inspired. As they became established in their fields and labs, science fiction helped them imagine problems — and solutions — outside textbooks and their own limited minds. Science fiction gave them vision.
Is it right to say that science fiction can change what human life looks like in the future?
Sure. Science fiction is not just all apocalypse. It can picture an ecological harmony among all species that gives innately destructive humans a world to strive for. Science fiction is, after all, created by humans, so it shows us what’s humanely possible.
Do you consider science fiction to be relevant to science in any way?
Absolutely. Great contemporary science fiction writers like Ted Chiang are incorporating the best leading-edge science, in physics, biology, and artificial intelligence, into scenarios that are 100 percent relevant to modern life and culture. He shows us how our hubristic embrace of science for science’s sake can go so very wrong, and so right. He does what good philosophers of science and the best scientists themselves do, which is get the rest of us to think about science’s repercussions in society.
Looking at frontier technologies, which one do you see making the biggest impact and how?
Well, right now, who wouldn’t think the biggest impact would be a breakthrough vaccine for COVID-19? Maybe it will be CRISPR gene-editing to the rescue. Or maybe not. Whichever method prevails will do just fine.
Who will be the superheroes of science 20 years from now?
Those, with their eyes on the ever-warming planet, who figure out how to feed and house and ensure health and longevity for the many more billions of people on the planet who won’t live in the affluent West.
How often are societal benefits a big factor in the success of a particular technology?
Often, but they are never just benefits, right? Cars revolutionized society, connected people, allowed family ties, friendships, and businesses to stretch across continents. Cars freed people to travel, to stretch their experiences and imaginations, and provided a world of fun and good feelings. They also killed and continue to kill tens of thousands of people every year, devour our diminishing wilderness and landscapes, and pollute up a storm. The Internet? Cell phones? Also great, also not great. All the good things that cars have done, they have undone. They have made the world more lonely. As long as bottom lines are the sole drivers of technology, societies will suffer.
What is the most exciting scientific research/invention that you are currently following?
Geochemistry. The genesis of biological life on Earth from its geological origins is endlessly fascinating.
Nautilus combines the sciences, culture, and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers. Nautilus is a partner of the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform.
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