History is filled with dreamers and visionaries such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Marie Curie, and others who saw things differently than their contemporaries. Libraries and bookstores also contain healthy collections of science fiction books written by men and women who looked ahead to a time when their fiction would become everyday facts of life.
"Prophets of Science Fiction," a new series on the Science Channel, honors those authors whose writings predicted and influenced modern technologies. A recent episode on H.G. Wells, for instance, explored his classic novel "The War of the Worlds" in depth, showing how his vision of alien weapons predicted the development of laser defense technology.
The latest episode focuses on Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific author whose novel "Childhood's End" looks at mankind's first contact with an alien race. Unlike Wells' Martian invaders, Clarke created a race of beings who spent more than a generation hovering above the world before revealing themselves and their ultimate mission to humanity. Clarke's novel makes the reader reexamine mankind's place in the grand scheme of things.
Through a combination of inspired vision and a gift for the written word, science fiction authors tend to inspire others. As "Prophets of Science Fiction" points out, Clarke's writings about satellites helped inspire the development of high-speed communications. By using a combination of computer animation and interviews with contemporary scientists, this episode shows how Clarke's futuristic visions led to cellphones and GPS technology.
The 1960's saw the era of space exploration and the transformation of Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" into the epic movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." The film shows passengers on a Pan Am Space Clipper heading to an orbiting space station, a futuristic vision that Virgin Airways is working towards making an economic reality. The movie also explores an artificial intelligence that became smarter than its human creators. That possibility became reality thanks to the Watson supercomputer on the television game show "Jeopardy."
This episode also points out that Clarke viewed rocket travel as outdated technology. The author proposed that another way to leave the Earth would be through a series of space elevators that convey people and cargo up long processed carbon cables. The elevator concept has inspired some researchers who have dedicated years of their lives to making it a scientific reality.
The Arthur C. Clarke episode of "Prophets of Science Fiction" debuts on the Science Channel on Wednesday, November 30 at 10 p.m. ET.