Science Fiction Tackling the 5 Mysteries of the Universe
You’d be hard-pressed to find a single sci-fi addict (let alone a human being who isn’t a hermit) who hasn’t heard the phrase, “Space… The final frontier.”
But the crazy thing is, space isn’t the final frontier. For that to be true, we’d have to know everything about everything else, and hell, we haven’t even explored the vast majority of the bottom of our oceans! (95% of the ocean floor is unexplored.)
So, what is the final frontier? I know it’s not as catchy, but I believe, “Life, the Universe, and Everything… the Final Frontier” is a lot closer to the truth. Though we have huge and capable brains, as well as even more capable computers that are improving every day, we still haven’t figured out what consciousness is, or how to stop the aging process. For as much as we collectively know as a species, there is infinite more knowledge that remains inaccessible to us.
Science fiction is the roadmap to the unknown, our guide to the mysteries of the universe. It’s not always right, but hey, humans are fallible. According to Yasser Bahjatt and many other experts, our creation of science fiction is what propels the human race forward, encouraging it to reach for the stars, and even farther beyond. If they’re correct, and I believe they are, we should be looking to science fiction to solve the mysteries of the universe. That being said, let’s determine what some of those mysteries are, and what works of science fiction out there are trying to figure them out.
The 5 Mysteries of the Universe (according to me):
- Are we alone?
- What is consciousness?
- What is time?
- What is space?
- How is existence possible?
Okay, pop quiz, short answer, go! I expect your results by the end of this article, or it’s lunch detention for the lot of you!
Just kidding. Modern humans have been around for over 200,000 years, and no one has conclusively answered any of these questions. Not for lack of trying, though! From ancient philosophers to modern scientists, we as conscious critters have been racking our brains and using every bit of technology available to us to try and solve these questions. And we are getting closer, of course! We have statistics and loads of equations, and hypotheses galore. But all of that is limited to the realm of factual evidence. And that’s where science fiction steps in!
By using rules and facts as “guidelines,” as opposed to strict borders, the brilliant and creative minds behind science fiction allow themselves to color outside the lines, thus giving themselves the freedom to reach further and further from the Known, into the Great Unknown. Who knows, maybe one of these writers or directors will actually solve one or more of these questions! All we can do is try, and never stop exploring the infinite Final Frontiers.
Mysteries of the Universe – Are We Alone?
The discovery of alien life has enthralled the human imagination since the Cro-Magnon’s first gazed up at the stars. Science fiction has, over the two or more centuries it’s existed in some form or another, often pondered how our first contact would go. More often than not, we discover life through the form of a hostile alien invasion that seeks to exterminate us and use our planet for its natural resources. It doesn’t take a genius philosopher to see that that’s a projection of our fears because if we had the technology, we’d probably do the same to them. However, violence is not always the answer. Some works of science fiction, such as the recent film adaptation of Arrival, (spoilers!) feature a story in which (no really, spoilers!) aliens contact us because they want to share with us their advanced technology.
A very different example of this is the sci-fi video game series, Gears of War. In this absolutely amazing breath-taking game, we are launched into war with a race of subterranean creatures so different from us that we essentially believe they’re aliens. The fact that there existed an entire civilization of alien-like beings beneath our feet goes back to that concept I mentioned in the beginning. Space can’t be the final frontier because we haven’t even completely discovered our own planet yet!
Because so very many works of science fiction include the discovery of aliens, here are (in my opinion) the most realistic/influential:
Book: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
Unfortunately, I believe Orson Scott Card nailed militaristic first contact in his famous novel. As our technology improved, and humanity pushed out into the universe, we ran into a very different alien race who planted a base in an asteroid a little too close for comfort, we destroyed it, and get launched into a vicious war that spans generations, while knowing little to nothing about each other.
Movie: Men in Black (1997)
On a more positive note, the first contact story within the Men in Black series also seems somewhat realistic. Optimistic scientists (poorly funded and laughed at) seek to make contact and eventually do so in the 1960s, when the Earth is declared a sort of alien sanctuary for peaceful extraterrestrials without a home. In return, we get lots of cool technological advances, and the existence of aliens is kept a secret from the rest of the population.
Mysteries of the Universe – What is Consciousness?
This concept is being played with more and more frequently as our technology rapidly approaches the birth of Artificial Intelligence. To create consciousness, we’d have to be able to understand it, which objectively, we don’t. The best we can say is that it has a lot to do with how the brain’s neural circuits work together to provide some concept of consequences and reactions before we take action. I believe that works of science fiction that tackle the creation of, and our reaction to, artificial intelligence will provide us the insight to understanding consciousness.
Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick (1968)
I went back and forth on choosing this as my example, which is why, ultimately, it made it onto this list. It encouraged a debate and discussion within my own mind, which is what the best science fiction is supposed to do with the world at large. Phillip K. Dick is incredibly good at that. I believe this novel has one of the most nuanced and realistic representations of consciousness and its implications with regard to artificial intelligence and the evolution of religion. People may argue, “Without empathy, are the androids even conscious?” to which I’d ask, “Is your friendly neighborhood psychopath not a conscious human being?” (If not, that’s a fun philosophical debate I’d love to have.) Anyway, I think Do Androids Dream raises some excellent questions about consciousness and human nature and realistically represents the creation of artificial intelligence. It makes sense to me that we would create androids with situational empathy; it would make them easier to control, and more predictable. In theory.
Movie: I, Robot (2004)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I believe the movie adaptation inspired by Isaac Asimov’s short story collection represents how humanity would likely react to the somewhat unplanned inception of true artificial intelligence, i.e. an AI with the full capacity of human emotions. The entire film sets the viewer up to be distrustful of Sonny, even going so far as seeing him as a villain for most of it. It culminates with a robot revolution, and the realization that sometimes, humans aren’t very human at all, which challenges how we’ve all been trained to define “consciousness.”
From apocalyptic scenarios like The Terminator and The Matrix to (attempted) tear-jerkers like A.I. and Her, artificial intelligence is both worrisome and exciting. So where does our future stand in this regard? The truth is that we can’t know for sure where things will go, but the path seems to become less murky after each advancement. After all, A.I. is a human invention and therefore might reflect a lot of our human tendencies. [Click to read more…]
Mysteries of the Universe – What is Time?
According to the all-knowing hive mind that is Wikipedia:
“Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change of quantities in material reality or in the conscious experience.”
Okay, that’s the layman’s definition, and I have little to no interest in deciphering the genius physicist definition. To the average person, time means deadlines and sleeping through alarms and yet another lame birthday party. To the universe, time means nothing. So why does it exist? Why does the universe in motion continue to spin faster and expand as time progresses if the universe has no concept of time? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? If time exists in a state that precedes humankind’s categorization of it and organization of it into measurable units, then what is it, really?
Well, since I don’t know and the best minds in the known universe are polishing their theories, let’s turn to science fiction for some answers.
Television: Doctor Who (2005-now)
Okay, I know this one is a bit obvious, but you really can’t discuss time and science fiction without mentioning Doctor Who. Though his big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey doesn’t really fit the modern theory of time (that time travel back in time is impossible, and that we should be more interested in the changes in the progression of time in sister universes than manipulating our own), I think it does provide an incredibly thorough, well-drafted concept of time and time travel.
Television: “A Rickle in Time” Rick and Morty (2015)
Bet you didn’t see this one coming! Rick and Morty is the best thing since sliced bread, so it only makes sense that they would have one of the best representations of time across all Interdimensional Cable.
Mysteries of the Universe – What is Space?
Talk about a can of worms! To answer this question, you have to answer a million other questions: What are things? Why are things? How are things? Is space full of things? If there are no things in space, then WHAT IS SPACE?! And more.
But that’s what makes it so fun, right theoretical physicists? (and by that, I mean literal physicists who study theoretical physics. Not physicists “in theory.” Jeez, I know that’s a joke from something somewhere and I cannot for the life of me remember. Please comment if you know! I’m dying here!)
According to Space, “All the stars, planets and galaxies that can be seen today make up just 4 percent of the universe. The other 96 percent is made of stuff astronomers can’t see, detect or even comprehend.” That’s a pretty exciting thought, isn’t it? There’s so much out there to learn and discover, and we haven’t even made a dent. Since we have really no idea what space is, what’s out there, or what (in addition to atoms) makes up matter of all kinds, it’s tough to pick a “realistic” representation from works of science fiction, so I’m going to pick the coolest. There are three main elements of space that baffle and enthrall both fiction enthusiasts and scientists: dark energy, dark matter, and black holes.
Black Holes: Interstellar (2014)
Scientists have decided that Interstellar brought us the most realistic version of a black hole to ever grace the silver screen, including the bending of light and the brilliance of an accretion disk.
Dark Matter: Star Trek Voyager, “One Small Step” (1999)
Though dark matter is repeatedly mentioned throughout Star Trek, the episode “One Small Step” centers around it. In this episode, the crew of the Voyager gets close to a dark matter asteroid that interacts with a graviton ellipse, causing all sorts of peril to occur.
Dark Energy: Mass Effect (2007)
In the video game series Mass Effect, dark energy is harnessed and manipulated by Element Zero to create the titular mass effect fields.
Mysteries of the Universe – How is Existence Possible?
You know, saving the best for last always sounds like a good idea in the beginning, but now that I’ve reached what is possibly the toughest-to-crack mystery of the universe, I wish I would have figured this out earlier.
According to scientists, things exist because “nothing is inherently unstable.” That plays off a ton of theories, from the Big Bang to Cosmic Inflation, to the existence of time itself. The universe exists in a state of entropy, or a gradual decline into disorder. That tells us that the universe will end in some sort of chaotic unraveling, but it doesn’t tell us how it began, nor does it tell us how it continues to exist, despite many theories that say it shouldn’t. Because I’m not a theoretical-astro-thermodynamic physicist or whatever, I’ll leave it to this guy from the BBC to summarize how the universe got all the energy to happen in the first place:
Physicists have calculated that in a flat universe the energy of matter is exactly balanced by the energy of the gravity the mass creates. But this is only true in a flat universe. If the universe had been curved, the two sums would not cancel out. BBC, “Why Does Anything Exist at All?”
So, from this, we gather that energy exists because it does, and the universe must be flat. Alright, good show chaps! That cleared everything right up. Let’s check out the fiction for “a little bit of sanity,” as anthropologist Dan says in The Man from Earth.
Movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This film, which some critics call the best movie of all time, depicts what we can assume is the birth of humanity and sentience, because when the monkeys start hurting each other for resources, you know they’re getting close to becoming humans. (Cheery thought, right?) But, because as of now, it’s an unanswerable question the idea that aliens somehow intervened to create life as we know it isn’t too far of a leap. But maybe the next one is…
Movie: Dark City (1998)
I’ve heard a lot of people refer to a lot of things as “a trip,” but let me tell you, this movie is a freakin’ trip. We know so little about where we all came from and why the stars aligned to give rise to existence that I wouldn’t be surprised if the world we live in is just an elaborate zoo enclosure for parasitic reality-bending aliens to eat our brains. Or, whatever they were doing. See also: The Matrix. (Fun Fact: The odds we’re living in true reality is 1 in a billion.)
Final Thoughts on the 5 Mysteries of the Universe
Science fiction is one of the most important genres because of its direct impact on the world around it. Dozens if not hundreds of revolutionary inventions were inspired by works of science fiction, including the submarine, the helicopter (thanks, Jules Verne!), and atomic weapons. The imagined technological advances in books and movies inspire engineers and scientists to bring them to life to improve the world (and sometimes just because they’re awesome, like lightsabers).
If you think that sounds slightly ridiculous, you’re not alone. Does it sound any less ridiculous to think that fiction writers aren’t just predicting the future, but creating it? No, I guess it doesn’t. In fact, it probably sounds a little more ridiculous. But let’s not forget the incredibly long list of now-widely accepted facts that at one time seemed so ridiculous you’d risk your entire career and social status by speaking them aloud. Facts such as, for instance, the earth is a moving, spherical rock hurtling around the sun in a vast universe that likely has no center. Now, maybe you’re not new to the phenomenon of science fiction writers [Click to read more…]
This list will continue to grow and change as I stumble across more works of science fiction that confront the 5 mysteries of the universe, and I’m open to suggestions, so please don’t hesitate to comment!
Featured image is the scientifically-accurate black hole from Interstellar.