Why should inventors read science fiction?

A new course at the MIT Media Lab infuses science fiction into the design process.

October 18th, 2013

Photo via jonny2love/flickr

Photo via jonny2love/flickr

Science fiction and science have traditionally had an uneasy relationship. Often thought of as fantastical and unrealistic, sci-fi literature tends to get a bad rep.

Yet, many innovations have roots in science fiction. A passage in Ralph 124C 41+, published in the 1920s, suggests that “a pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light-ray is reflected from a bright surface or from a mirror..” — a technology later developed in part by MIT, known today as radar.

MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner believe there is great value in studying science fiction while designing for the real world. “These authors do more than merely prophesy modern technologies – they also consider the consequences of their fictional inventions in great detail,” explains Brueckner.

This fall, Novy and Brueckner are teaching a new course entitled “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication: Pulp to Prototype”. Their goal is to introduce students to the genre while designing physical prototypes of the technologies depicted in texts.

>>>>More from Novy and Brueckner on why inventors need to read more science fiction.

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Radar isn’t the only invention that was predicted in a work of fiction. A few more real-life technologies with MIT ties that sprang from the pages of books:

320px-IPad_2_Smart_Cover_at_unveiling_cropThe iPad and the Kindle: In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Arthur C. Clarke describes a “newspad“, 8.5″ x 13.5″ in size, that allowed the user to browse newspapers from around the world. Today, portable touchscreens are nearly ubiquitous. E-Ink was developed in part at the MIT Media Lab.

First_Web_ServerThe Internet: This global system of interconnected computer networks, developed in the 1960s, led to the World Wide Web, email, and more. In 1898, Mark Twain had already imagined a “telectroscope”, a kind of “limitless distance telephone” that made “the daily going of the globe visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too.” Tim Berners-Lee is known as the inventor of the internet.


320px-Earphones_BW_2011-12-10_15-49-08Earbuds: Headphones have been around since the early 20th century. Over time, they have been transformed from over-sized, weighty headgear into elegant devices that fit comfortably inside our ears — not unlike the “little seashells” used to listen to music in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (1953). Amar Bose is remembered for his innovations in acoustics and speaker design.

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