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See Inside April 2008

Future Facts

Extraordinary developments spring from the intersection of science and fiction

The symbiotic relation between science and science fiction is so tight that in some instances it is hard to tell which inspired the other—or whether both grew from the same seed. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea stirred generations of submariners, and the U.S. Navy named its first nuclear sub, the USS Nautilus, in tribute to fictional Captain Nemo’s vessel, although Verne himself was enthused by the submarine that Robert Fulton designed for the French in 1800. Legendary paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote a short novel, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder (from which Scientific American posthumously published excerpts—see the September 1999 issue), to help the public understand scientists’ reconstructions of life in the Cretaceous. Many roboticists credit Isaac Asimov’s imaginary Three Laws of Robotics with influencing how they thought about their field.

In this issue, at least two feature articles are all about cutting-edge science yet also describe the stuff of science fiction.

Nancy Y. Kiang, who studies how ecosystems and atmospheres interact for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has rendered a service to future science-fiction writers everywhere with her article on “The Color of Plants on Other Worlds”. In most stories, alien flora receive only a sliver of the creative attention lavished on extraterrestrial beings or animals. That problem is particularly evident in science-fiction films, where, for understandable budgetary reasons, the plants on other planets often look distinctly like those found in the deserts near Los Angeles. (I have faint memories of reading decades ago that set designers on Star Trek sometimes created alien vegetation by turning potted plants upside down and exposing their roots.)

In reality, the equivalent of plants on other worlds may still possess something like stems and leaves as efficient structures for collecting solar energy, but whatever they use as a photosynthetic pigment may be a far cry from chlorophyll. Just as famed robber Willie Sutton quipped that he stole from banks “because that’s where they keep the money,” Earth’s plants rely on chlorophyll because it efficiently absorbs red and blue light, and those are the parts of the spectrum where our sun invests most of its photonic energy.

Yet the sun’s emissions are far different from those of many stars with planets; hence, any plants under their distant rays will need different color pigments. Kiang’s essay is a fascinating guide to what we may someday find flourishing on those other worlds. (And let us  recognize the spectacular job of artists Kenn Brown and Chris Wren in bringing that strange vegetation to life in their accompanying illustrations.)

Science fiction also sometimes holds out a promise that future medicine will be able to regenerate lost limbs. Biologists Ken Muneoka, Manjong Nan and David M. Gardiner are one team of investigators working to realize that dream, as they explain in their article. The encouraging results of their experiments to date should be inspiring to their fellow scientists and science-fiction writers alike.

 

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