The distant thing imagined

The title of this post comes from a 2016 item on Paul Gilster Centauri Dreams blog, in which he discusses some of the unexpected discoveries about the former planet Pluto coming from NASA’s New Horizons probe, particularly its atmosphere and its geological activity. Gilster writes of “that interesting interplay between the distant thing imagined and distant thing observed, that generative place where our preconceptions are transformed by the incoming flow of data”. He refers to science fiction writing, which, at a time when science regarded Pluto as an uninteresting inert ball of deep-frozen rock, described an active geology, an atmosphere, and even a form of life. The recent suggestions that Pluto, like other outer solar system objects, may harbour an interior ocean of liquid water, show that the science is seemingly catching up with the imaginative fiction. The NASA images below show Pluto’s ‘blue haze’ atmosphere, and remarkable Earth-like surface.

Pluto’s ‘blue haze’ (NASA)
The surface of Pluto (NASA)

The ‘incoming flow of data’ is, to a quite remarkable and largely unremarked extent, transforming our view of what science can tell us about the universe, and to an equally remarkable degree replacing the science fiction with the science fact. I remember one of my school teachers, not that many decades ago, telling us that however much science advanced there were two things we would never be able to do: see atoms, and see planets around other stars. Taking a liberal understanding of ‘see’, we have been able to do both in the past few years.

The infrared image below shows two gas giant planets of the star TYC 8998-760-1, 308 light years distant, taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

Image of exoplanets TYC 8898-760-1b and -1c (ESO)

At the other end of the scale the atomic force microscope has been used to provide direct images of atoms in molecules. The images below show the atoms in the pentacene molecule, and the graphene molecule undergoing reactions, in each case compared with the conventional chemical structure diagrams, whose validity can now be seen directly

Pentacene image copared with model (IBM)

Graphene reactions compared with structure diagrams (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

An earlier post has expressed praise of some of the virtues of the science fiction genre, but we should not exaggerate its predictive powers. Most of it is not intended to be scientific prediction, and judged in those terms most of it is wrong; the way in which fiction adapts to new data has been discussed in a 2020 blog post by James David Nicol on Tor.com. Nonetheless, we might remember, when we think about what counts as information and knowledge, that imaginative fiction would have taught us as much about the outer planets as would rigorous science until the flow of data caught up. Perhaps the same may be true now of other topics, and perhaps that should give is cause to think about what we want to include in our information systems. The data, of course, but and, and should, we not also include some imagination.

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