Final frontier

11 Mar 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT has often been said that the science fiction of yesteryear becomes the real science of today.

Writers have dreamed up ideas and possibilities out of nowhere, and future scientists have again and again been inspired enough to look into turning them into reality. Thus it is that the handheld medical tricorder portrayed in the Star Trek series — you know, the one used by Dr McCoy to run non-invasively over a patient’s body to diagnose within seconds vital signs, damage, etc — is now almost a reality.

Initially worked on by the good people at the Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore, US, there are numerous accounts of other scientists and inventors currently working on its development. While the idea has remained intact, the development of the device itself has been gone in two ways, depending on the scientists involved. With a high level of sensors of various sorts, it will be either a standalone device that measures matters such as blood pressure and temperature, etc, capable on its own of analysing the data, or through a connection to a medical database through the internet.

While not yet available on the mass market, the very fact that some version of such a device has actually been invented is absolutely fascinating. From this to the idea of a ‘space cable’ — a line strong and flexible enough to link the moon/ satellites to the earth so that payloads can be ferried up and down, originally dreamt up by Isaac Asimov — which is also being worked upon at Nasa, the very idea of science fiction becoming reality is utterly beguiling. In a world beset with war, poverty, the fallout of pollution and climate change etc, it is a rather beautiful thought that there are, to borrow the title of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s book, in other rooms, other wonders.

The very idea of science fiction becoming reality is utterly beguiling.

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the Star Trek series will have recognised the title of this humble piece of writing, taken as it is from the text prologue that has preceded every episode and film for decades. (The only change to this prologue came as a nod to feminism, when in the context of the exploration of space, the phrase ‘where no man has gone before’ was changed to ‘where no one has gone before.) What is encouraging is that space exploration continues to be worked upon, and we seem to be closer than ever to breaching the final frontier.

Back in the 1980s, Douglas Adams famously conceived of the Earth as a backward planet in an uncharted corner of the galaxy — a galaxy otherwise filled with far more advanced and varied life forms, cultures, and civilisations. In his ‘trilogy of five parts’, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he postulates that humanity has not yet managed to contact/ detect any alien life forms because they are waiting for us to get over petty issues such as war and famine and grow up a little.

But to my mind, the most interesting observation of all came from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer, futurist and inventor who was amongst the giants in his field. He commented that “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not; both are equally terrifying”. (For the riposte to that, by the way, one must turn to astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who remarked that “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space”.)

We may be tantalisingly close to finding out, though. Research on astrophysics, satellite technology, and space exploration, etc, has never really ceased (though funding cuts have occurred), and the big minds that walk amongst us have doggedly gone on with their work. Recent events give hope that humanity may yet breach the final frontier.

Last February, Elon Musk’s research/ exploration company SpaceX sent up – just because it had the capability of doing so – to orbit hopefully near Mars, a Tesla Roadster, the payload carried by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, now the world’s most powerful rocket. It’s a seductive image, a cherry red battery-operated sports vehicle floating in the darkness of space, its glossy paint reflecting the Earth, a gloved mannequin seated behind the steering wheel and with the words ‘Don’t panic’ (from the Hitchhiker, which Musk has said directly inspired him to go into space research) emblazoned across its dashboard. The playfulness of the exercise really must be admired.

Then, in November, came Nasa’s InSight spacecraft touchdown on Mars, unmanned and rendered historic by the fact that the landing was achieved with scientists’ hands off the controls, with no real-time input from Earth. Behind it were decades of complex mathematical and technological calculations, from the macro to the micro, and strings of coding and pre-programming.

Far from our world of war and unease, dizzyingly exciting things are happening. To put it in Douglas Adams’ words, “Resistance is futile”.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2019