"The 100 Year Starship Mission will transform 20th century Star Trek science fiction into 21st century fact!"
Star Trek's Lt. Uhura
"Houston, we have a problem: The Hyatt Regency is overflowing with geeks*!"
I have been to a lot of conferences, but I have never been to any meeting that is quite like the 100 Year Starship Symposium. 100yss is taking place even as we speak (from Sept. 9-13, 2012) in Houston, Texas. Just a stone's throw from Mission Control.
Interestingly, it turns out that a surprising number of breakthrough scientific achievements got their start as nothing more than storybook fantasies. Take Jules Verne, for example. That guy was a wacky-idea factory. In the 19th century, Jules Verne dreamed up one preposterous fantasy after another, such as: fully electronic submarines, a manned-moon mission that Americans launched from--of all places--southern Florida (Verne was a whisker off in predicting that the launch would take place outside of Tampa rather than Cape Canaveral), talking newspapers, spacecraft that are powered by solar sails, video conferencing, etc. Truly, Verne had an inspired imagination and although the future never unfolded exactly as he predicted, in lots of cases Verne's 19th century fantasies became verisimilar 20th and 21st century realities. How could one man be so amazingly prescient?
As it happens, Jules Verne is not the only science fiction author who has had an influence on the future. Others, including Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clark, Gene Roddenberry, and George Lucas have had striking and unanticipated influences on the evolution of social reality. For example, in the 2000 census, literally hundreds of thousands of people on multiple continents (the USA, UK, New Zealand, and Australia) reported that their religion of choice was "Jedi." Also, Martin Cooper has admitted that he was inspired to invent cell phone technology after watching Captain Kirk use his (fictional!) wireless communicator on Star Trek .
All this is meant to say is that tomorrow's realities are often woven out of the gossamer of today's delightful dreams. Thus, 100yss may seem a bit wacky to outsiders, but it's deadly serious business to its Star-Trek-dreaming participants. If we have any hope of protecting the earth from imminent destruction by Klingons, Vogons, The Empire or a bazillion other extra terrestrial beasties, then we've got to start dreaming about phasers, photons and force fields today.
Open all hailing frequencies, Lt. Uhura!
*Under no circumstances should this term be interpreted as a denigration of 100yss attendees. Far from it. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for geeks. What's more, if attending and presenting at 100yss defines one as a geek, then I must admit that I am a geek through and through. I am delivering a paper tomorrow morning that goes by the title, "The Future is a Fantasy." (In case you might be interested, I will post an update tomorrow to let you know how it goes.)
Three cheers for geek pride! It takes one to know one--and I ought to know.
Tim McGettigan is a geeky professor of sociology at CSU-Pueblo.
Special thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the fantastic photo: