We're All Living In A Sci-Fi Movie

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Does anyone else have the impression that science fiction is becoming science fact faster than it used to? It certainly seems that way when every other day brings news of impossible discoveries and exciting new developments. Phones we take for granted pack in more computing power than the entire Apollo mission that landed men on the moon and, frankly, knock Star Trek’s tricorders in a cocked hat. But read on and discover a few more sci-fi concepts that are approaching reality…

*As seen in:* Practically every sci-fi movie ever.

What’s The Science? Physicists like Einstein would have us believe that the speed of light is some sort of universal speed limit beyond which one cannot go. Why, the whole of modern sci-fi has had to get around this with the creative use of wormholes, space warping, hyperspace and occasionally “ludicrous speed”. But soft! What faster-than-light from yonder CERN breaks? Why, tis a neutrino that appeared to travel a fraction of a second faster than it should have done. While the experiment is about to be repeated to verify those results, the first go-round suggested that there may be some wiggle room in that theory of special relativity after all, which is pretty darn exciting if you’re one of those boffin types. Read more here.

So how long until we have some practical results? Oh, forever: this is physics, after all, and there’s a hell of a long way from “this neutrino can travel faster than light” to “Welcome to Enterprise”. But if those particles did indeed beat light, we’re going to see lots of academic papers reassessing the entire universe, and as those filter down to popular science publications they may inspire sci-fi writers and screenwriters to follow suit and try something new. At the very least, someone will surely dress a superhero in a suit made of these neutrinos (yes, we know that’s not possible, but we’re talking comics and movies) so he can do Super-feats of some sort. As and when these things are confirmed to exist, we’ll surely see someone ret-con The Flash and Supes to explain that they’ve been using these things all along.

Which films might this change? The Superman movies, any films involving extra-solar system travel (except a few like Silent Running, Alien and Avatar, which always honoured the light-speed barrier) and who knows what else? It’s a game-changer, people!

As seen in: Back To The Future Part II & Part III; Star Wars; Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi

What’s the Science? Wheels are for losers. Whether it’s Back To The Future’s hoverboard or A New Hope’s speeder (or Jedi’s speeder bikes), the discerning sci-fi approach has always been to hover or fly over the ground for maximum cool. And it looks like we might be one step closer to a working hoverboard as scientists develop “levitating quantum superconductors”, which stay “locked” at a certain height and angle over a magnetic track. Combined with the news of a new electric DeLorean and those limited edition Nike Air Mags (still no word on the self-lacing shoes though) it’s all looking promising. Read more here.

So how long until we see practical results?** **Well, there are a few problems: there’s the inconvenience of keeping them mega-cold, and you’re limited to the track like one of the already-extant magnetic trains. Both mean that we’re a far cry from outracing bullies by hoverboarding through the centre of town in our holographic caps. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s still three years until 2015 when we know that any science problems will have been ironed out and EVERYONE will have one.

Which films might this change? Anything involving “yoot” would naturally be affected by the advent of hoverboards, so think Attack The Block and amuse yourself with a vision of Harry Potter, where the wizards may be on brooms but the Muggles are on hoverboards.

As seen in: Star Wars; Star Trek; most space movies

What’s The Science? NASA has started work on a way of using lasers to move things around in a vacuum, which might one day be used to clear debris from orbit (there’s a lot of it up there) and in the meantime is pretty darn cool. A team at NASA has just landed $100,000 funding (which should just about pay for pencils and lab coats) to investigate three types of laser beams that might work. The most exciting is, at present, only on the theoretical drawing board, but this “Bessel beam” would indeed draw objects towards the source of the beam. OMG like the Death Star pulling in the Millennium Falcon! Read more here

So how long until we see practical results? Well, it’ll be a while before we’re using these to move spaceships, but NASA does have a storied history of actually accomplishing amazing things, and tests on the first two types of lasers have already had some success on a very small scale: the team can already use “optical tweezers” and the optical solenoid beam to move particles around.

Which films might this change?** **While Star Wars and Star Trek can consider their science vindicated by this, Armageddon and other space movies set closer to home would see their plots changed dramatically were tractor beams available.

As seen in:** **Minority Report, among others

What’s The Science? Using “functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models” researchers have “decoded and reconstructed” images that people have seen – so far, largely in film trailers and YouTube clips. The images so far are blurry and indistinct, but they’re recognisably related to the clips shown and therefore pretty gosh-darn significant. Read more here.

So how long until we see practical results? Well, we’re going to need considerable less blur, considerably more calibration and some psychics before we can set up a pre-crime division in New Scotland Yard, and there’s the matter of the machine so far only being able to decode things the person has watched rather than, say, dream images. Still, give it another decade or two and you’ll be able to tape your dreams and bore everyone with the recordings instead of the half-remembered account. The potential for scaring away all your friends and romantic interests is HUGE.

Which films might this change? Being able to extract memories would change all courtroom dramas; being able to see dreams would be handy for all filmmakers as a form of pre-viz they could pitch to studios. Except for Michel Gondry, who already can.

*As seen in:* Soylent Green (only, well, not); sort of in The Matrix; numerous other sci-fi books and movies (implicit)

What’s The Science? Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University uses stem cells from cows to grow skeletal muscle (i.e. meat) in laboratory conditions. Why bother unless you’re on a spaceship, you may ask. Well, the idea is that this cuts down on the massive inefficiencies of meat production and its significant role in contributing to global warming. It’s a long way off from replacing your neighbourhood dairy farmer, but it might one day help to feed the world and any spaceships we produce. Read more here.

So how long until we see practical results? It’s quite a long way off: the mysterious interplay between flesh, fat and weird other factors that produce the taste of meat is still to be nailed down in the lab. Professor Post reports in the video above that he’s just been given funding to start work on a hamburger, which will cost E250,000 to produce and be the world’s most expensive food. Once the formula’s nailed and the costs reduced by large-scale production, however, there’s still the tricky matter of proving it’s all safe and nutritious for human use, and getting past all the hysteria that surrounds engineered food and/or stem cells (not that these are human stem cells, but we doubt the naysayers will pause to distinguish the two).

Which films might this change? Lots of post-apocalyptic stories already see characters living on artificial meat of some sort (Delicatessen is a notable exception) and this might make their lives a little easier. It could also transform the landscape in future-set films that we see: fewer grazing livestock and more fields for crops.

*As seen in:* The Terminator; Star Trek: Generations

What’s The Science? Researchers have already built a proof-of-concept contact lens that carries nano-technology capable of allowing you to watch readouts of data or even – one day – surf the web or play computer games. They’ve already found out how to place the tiny nano-components in the lens so they don’t block your normal vision; they’re now working on making sure the image appears far enough away to allow you to focus on it, and will be making sure it can be used safely. After that, we can turn ourselves into less metallic Terminators! Read more here.

So how long until we see practical results? Well, so far the nano-components have been added to lenses and lab rabbits have worn them, (yes, animal testing; keep calm), without any data being switched on, for 20 minutes with no adverse effects. That’s a big step from humans wearing them for any length of time, and the things then have to be powered up and put into use. After that, it will be a little while longer before they carry enough information for you to play Modern Warfare 3 in the streets around your house or hunt down John Connor.

Which films might this change? Well, war films could be transformed, and chances are we could see them replace mobiles in everything from cop thrillers to rom-coms. But it’s hard to say at this point.

*As (not yet) seen in: *Foundation

What’s The Science? Isaac Asimov invented 'psychohistory' in his Foundation series, describing it as a mathematical model capable of predicting the course of human civilisation. While not able to predict the actions of individual human beings, it could predict big events – in particular, the downfall of a galactic empire into millennia of barbarism. The creation of the Foundation was designed to safeguard civilisation during this time and shorten the interregnum. But enough sci-fi! Back here in the real world, the Nautilus SGI supercomputer crunched 100 million news articles, analysing mood and location to assess events worldwide, and is said to have predicted the Arab Spring and even picked up clues to Osama Bin Laden’s hiding place better than US government intelligence. Read more here, via this link

So how long until we see practical results? So far, the analysis has been used retroactively and has picked up on events on such a large scale that it is sometimes indistinct. It will take a while, and more supercomputer time, to see if it can spot things reliably in advance and prove its real-world usefulness. Once it can ferret out a country’s mood reliably and bring us news of big changes, all it needs is a taste for martinis and an insatiable libido and we can retire James Bond for good.

Which films might this change?** **You could build any number of political thrillers around it and lots of scary, oppressive government dystopias. And hey! If the oft-mooted Foundation film ever happens, it could even be set more-or-less in the present day instead of in a future galactic civilisation. Last we heard, in 2009, Roland Emmerich had it; let’s hope he’s paying attention.