12 Of The Coolest Theoretical Ideas From Science Fiction

By: Wes Walcott

For generations science fiction writers have helped to shape the future with their imaginations. In his classic novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne wrote a fictional account of traveling to space nearly a century before it actually happened. What’s more, radar, geostationary satellites, and powerful computers that fit in your pocket were all once solely the domain of science fiction until a few visionary people took it upon themselves to bring them into reality.

Nevertheless, not every futuristic gadget or concept dreamt up by sci-fi writers is destined to be actualized. In fact, some of their notions are deliberately meant to be laughable. But be they plausible or preposterous, the 12 theoretical ideas presented here are undoubtedly some of the coolest ever conceived.


12. The Infinite Improbability Drive (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the infinite improbability drive is exalted as a wondrous new method for crossing interstellar distances in a very short time without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. It works by using an infinite improbability generator to move a group of atoms to infinite probability — allowing a spaceship to be everywhere simultaneously and instantly arrive at a point anywhere in the in the universe. And not just one universe. As the improbability drive reaches improbability, it passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe. Meaning that you might not even be the same life-form upon arrival at your destination.


11. The Origin of Species (Battlestar Galactica)

While Darwin’s theory about humans slowly evolving from single-celled organisms over the course of millions of years seems pretty scientifically sound, it sometimes just isn’t mind-bending enough for science fiction. Which is probably why the writers of Battestar Galactica thought they could spice things up a bit by making modern humans out to be the product of some alien/organic robot sexy times.

Though the old school Battlestar only dropped vague hints concerning any connections between the 12 Colonies and Earth, contemporary BSG states outright that Earth humans are actually descended from a combination of Kobol and organic Cylon lineage. Supposedly this makes Hera, the human/cylon baby of Helo and Sharon, the Mitochondrial Eve of the human race.


10. Invisibility Cloaks (Star Trek/Harry Potter/Predator)

In the fictional worlds of both Star Trek and Harry Potter, the power of invisibility or cloaking is shown to give users an immense tactical advantage as far as espionage and exploring restricted areas is concerned. But in terms of making this technology/magic a reality, science still has a lot of work to do. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a lot of progress made though. In the past several years, partial cloaks that work like very sophisticated camouflage (kind of like the shimmering distortion pattern seen on the Predator in the 1987 movie of the same name) have shown that the concept is indeed possible.


9. Dark Matter Engines (Futurama)

Fry, Bender and the rest of the Planet Express crew are able to zip around the Futurama galaxy at faster-than-light speeds thanks to the special dark matter engines created by Professor Hubert Farnsworth. Although he has no memory of how they operate, his clone, Cubert, discovered that the dark matter engines works by keeping the starship stationary and moving the universe around it. The concept actually sounds quite similar to theoretical warp drive engines that traverse distances by contracting the space in front of the vessel and expanding the space behind it. But in order to create and maintain that warp bubble you would essentially need the mass-energy equivalent of the planet Jupiter. Despite this limitation, there are physicists who believe that such energy supplies could be obtained from some of the universes more mysterious elements, such as dark matter, which is thought to possess a number of properties scientists would describe as “exotic.”


8. Intergalactic Transportation Machines (Contact)

Unlike the spacefaring vessels that typically make interstellar voyages in many popular sci-fi tales, the alien-tech contraption used to transport Dr. Ealeanor Arroway to another world in Contact is mostly stationary. Somehow the rotating gyroscope and electrical fields create wormhole-like gateway through which a small pod containing a single occupant can pass. In the movie, it transports Jodie Foster to a surreal cosmic beach where she’s visited by a radiant version of her deceased father that she believes to be an alien entity. And even though she swears she was gone for at least 18 hours, for the observers in the control room, the journey was over in an instant as they only witnessed the pod dropping directly to the safety net below. This seems to suggest that there’s some sort of time dilation/compression thing going on that could be indicative of an actual trip to another solar system, but whether it was a physical transportation or just a journey of the mind is left up to the audience to decide.


7. Tractor Beams (Star Trek)

Handy in just about any space-based scenario, tractor beams are kind of like the futuristic duct tape of science fiction, only instead of using an innovative adhesive, they use all sorts of exotic-sounding particles and energies to hold objects together. But what a lot of people probably don’t know is that even in our seemingly simple world void of replicators and transporters, there are scientists working on making actual tractor beams.

NASA engineers have been experimenting with using regular light to hold and manipulate very tiny objects in a tractor beam-like manner. They think the method could be used in the future to collect large dust particles on Mars or from the tail of a comet. And if improvements continue, perhaps one day our tractor beams won’t be all that dissimilar to the ones deployed on starships.


6. Space Madness (Firefly)

Though they were mostly the stuff of myth and legend in the Firefly TV series, the ferocious group of animalistic space pirates known as the Reavers were featured prominently in the movie capstone Serenity. In it, they’re seen as body mutilating savages, who revel in torturing people to death and displaying mangled corpses on the hulls of their ships. As Zoe so vividly puts it, “if they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing — and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

But the Reavers weren’t always that way. The theory presented in the series would have you believe that they were once human explorers who traveled to the edge of the solar system and were driven to madness by the open vastness of space. As the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche once stated, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” The Reavers seemed to echo a literal iteration of this statement until Serenity came out and their true origins were revealed as human test subjects for the chemical agent G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate. The chemical was added to the planet Miranda’s air processors in order to calm the population and weed out aggression. The agent showed promising results, effectively pacifying 99.9 percent of the population to the point that they would barely eat or move. However, for the remaining 0.1 percent of the population (roughly 30,000 people), the chemical had exactly the opposite effect, transforming them into extremely aggressive killing monsters.


5. Teleportation (Star Trek)

Although teleportation might seem like one of those catch-all futuristic gimmicks originally developed for movies and TV as a way to help save time and cut production costs, it’s actually theoretically possible in the realm of real world science.

No, we can’t teleport whole humans to the surfaces of unexplored alien worlds like in Star Trek. So far scientists have only managed to transport quantum particles, such as a photon, over the a distance of about 10 miles. But even so, these achievements could be the first steps towards creating other breakthrough technologies, like quantum computers, that have the potential to revolutionize other fields of study and might help us to improve our teleportation technology to the point that we can transport complex macromolecules across vast distances.


4. Sentient Planets (Green Lantern/Avatar)

In biological terms, Earth could be considered a “living planet” because living things can be found on every layer from the trenches of the ocean to the clouds in the sky. But if you’re talking about a planet-sized being that is wholly conscious and self aware, like Mogo from the Green Lantern comics, well, we don’t really know if anything like that actually exists in the real universe. Nevertheless, if it does, it might look a little something like Pandora from the 2009 film Avatar. A lush moon world where the flora and fauna have evolved tentacle-like organs that enable them to form neural connections with the other living things on the planet. While it may still be science fiction, it’s interesting to think that a neural link between all the the living things on a planet could conceivably give rise to a type of global consciousness with trillions of interconnected plants and animals all acting like the cells and synapses in some sort of gargantuan brain.


3. Warp Drives (Star Trek)

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, one of the pillars of modern physics, no object can travel faster than the speed of light. However, there’s nothing in that theory that places a limit space itself expanding or contracting at speeds greater than light. And that’s precisely that loophole that physicists and science fiction writers feel they can exploit with warp drive technologies that would essentially create a “warp bubble” capable of contracting the space-time in front of a ship while simultaneously expanding the space-time behind it. According to Gerald Cleaver, a professor of physics at Baylor University, the warp bubble is a volume of space that might be able to move at speeds faster than light as measured by space surrounding the bubble. “Objects inside the warp bubble would be at rest with regard to the warp bubble but would also be moving faster than the speed of light with regard to the surrounding space outside the bubble,” says Cleaver.

Not surprisingly, a massive amount of energy would be required to power such a device so we’re still holding out for the discovery of those dilithium crystals.

2. Humanlike Intelligent Machines (Star Trek/Blade Runner)

Research into artificial intelligence is one of the most exciting academic fields of study to emerge in recent years. Before shows like Star Trek and movies like Blade Runner gave us the idea of sophisticated androids that are nearly inndistinguishable from humans, computerized machines had already demonstrated that they were far more reliable and proficient than us at carrying out specific tasks, such as crunching numbers and assembling products. Yet there are lots of things we would consider basic that today’s machines still can’t handle very well, including tying shoe laces, and running on two legs.

It would seem as though we don’t have much trouble when it comes to making machines that surpass human intelligence in a very limited scope, be it playing chess, building a car, or searching a vast database, however, when it comes to making machines that function using what we would call “common sense”, it’s proven very difficult to create something that might be deemed smarter than a three-year-old.

However, given the rate of progress, many scientists believe highly intelligent machines will be available in the coming decades. Whether or not those machines will be capable of achieving human-like “sentience” where they form their own opinions and do things in their own self-interest is another question entirely. Hopefully one that the A.I. researchers and roboticists are giving careful consideration.

1. Instant Subliminal Learning (The Matrix)

“I know kung fu.” Anyone who has ever seen The Matrix knows that’s what Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, says seconds after the martial arts program is “uploaded” to his brain via a futuristic computer jacked directly into his skull.

If mastering new techniques was that easy in real life we wouldn’t have to pour thousands of hours into diligent repetitive practice. And while we might still be a long way from that sort of instant subliminal learning, there is evidence that the time it takes to learn a skill can be boosted by technology. Maybe one day, after a few major advances in several fields, the acquisition of knowledge will occur at broadband-like speeds across surgically implanted hardware in our brains. If that happens, perhaps learning a new skill will become akin to downloading a new app.