In Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) the Enterprise’s navigator, Lieutenant Chekov, suffered serious burns to his hands from a sparking console when V’Ger probed the ship. A spray gun spritzes his hand with regenerative material, and the skin is healed. The same technology is newly developed, but still experimental, and is being used at our very own UPMC Mercy Hospital. The usual method takes weeks to grow the skin for grafts, and the skin is very fragile. That long of a waiting period puts the burn victims at risk for severe infection. The entire process of the “Skin-Cell Gun” takes 90 minutes. To prepare and apply the solution of the patient’s own stem cells is completely painless (4). Amazingly, the usual recovery time is reduced from weeks to days. The process proven effective for second-degree burns, although it is still too new to determine how the new skin will hold up.
Before the production of Minority Report (2002), Spielberg employed the help of John Underkoffler to act as his science advisor. He worked with a team of experts, and one of the futuristic technologies they dreamed up was a touch-less computer screen. A very similar technology appears in Iron Man (2008) and the video accompanying this citation will have to serve as a film example of such a screen (5). In this TEDtalks video, Underkoffler demonstrates the exact technology appearing in the film (5).
The Fifth Element (1997) features flying cars, flashy guns, and some seriously futuristic fashion (by Jean Paul Gaultier). But flying cars spell death for birds and power lines, our guns are far more compact than the ones the aliens wield, and those garments are still to haute couture for today’s city streets, so none of those ideas have yet to come to fruition. The world in 2012 will just have to settle with the film’s idea of organ printing becoming a reality. The Fifth Element, who after one serious reconstructive surgery is introduced to us as Leeloo, is ‘rebuilt’ from nothing but a heavily gloved hand (7). Although we cannot yet synthesize an entire human body, organ printing will eventually allow full generation, layer by layer, of organs (8). Once the size limitations are breached, the organ transplant waitlist will become obsolete. At the bottom of (8) there is CBS news story about a successful grown windpipe transplant in a tuberculosis patient. Because the organs are made of a patient’s own stem cells, there is no chance of the new organ being rejected.
The very first work of science fiction was a short story entitled Somnium (translation: The Dream) and written by Johannes Kepler and published in 1634 after his death. The story was about a dream about a book about Duracotus, whose mother tells him the secret of lunar travel. In this rendition, the trip was made possible, not by rockets, but by a bridge of darkness that occurred during a solar eclipse and a little help from demon friends. Kepler’s intention was to create a more accepting attitude toward the Copernican heliocentric universe by suggesting what movement would be seen by observers in the reference frame of the moon. No actual technology was suggested, as Kepler’s intention was not to create a new genre. He was, however, the first to predict the phenomenon of ‘weightlessness.’ “…For, as magnetic forces of the earth and moon both attract the body and hold it suspended, the effect is as if neither of them were attracting it… (9) “It is easy to imagine that readers of this story would be inspired by the seemingly impossible idea of space travel. Perhaps it roused the interest of Jules Verne, who wrote the first novel about space travel, From Earth to the Moon (1865). The concept of weightlessness appearing in the novel is evidence of his familiarity with Kepler’s work. The three main characters are shot to the moon from a cannon in a projectile called the Columbiad from a base in Florida. The first real trip to the moon was the Apollo 11 command module was called the Columbia and was launched in 1969 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. An obvious parallel to Verne’s book.
Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction television show, features a humanoid alien, his sentient, telepathic, time traveling space ship, and his sonic screwdriver. This device has the ability to open locks, perform diagnoses, and reveal hidden information. These uses are numbers 11, 9, and 6 in the list that appears in this citation (10). Scientists at Dundee University have engineered an ultrasonic device that is capable of exerting rotational force (11). This technology could be used to guide drugs to a specific area of the body. It is already being used to perform targeted cellular surgery and diagnose prostate cancer.
Isaac Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man (1976) first told of a completely automated robotic surgeon. “Andrew Martin studied the robot’s right hand, his cutting hand, as it lay motionless on the desk. The fingers were long and were shaped into artistically metallic, looping curves so -graceful and appropriate that one could imagine a scalpel fitting them and becoming, temporarily, one piece with them. There would be no hesitation in his work, no stumbling, no quivering, no mistakes.” While robotics have not yet advanced to this point, there is a di Vinci® surgery device offers minimally invasive procedures through a supervised robotic platform.
These and many more examples were first introduced to the world in works of fiction. Clearly, ideas that were once thought impossible or ridiculous can become reality through the innovative minds of scientists, engineers, and doctors. Although the ideas were already there, the development of real world functionality and applications are a testament to the great minds of today. As Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.”
- “Spray-On Skin Cells For Burn Victims.” Discovery News. .
- Dongwork. “Iron Man (Hand Gesture Interface Holotable).” YouTube. YouTube, 09 Jan. 2010.. .
- TEDtalksDirector. “John Underkoffler Points to the Future of UI.” YouTube. YouTube, 01 June 2010. .
- “GetDefault.” The Fifth Element Movie: Full Regeneration of Lost Organs and Bodyparts. .
- Kepler, Johannes. Kepler’s Somnium; The Dream, or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy. Trans. Edward Rosen. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1967.
- “Doctor Who’s Top 11 Sonic Screwdriver Scenes.” BBC. YouTube, 15 Apr. 2011. .
- “Dr Who’s Sonic Screwdriver ‘invented’ at Dundee University.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Apr. 2012. .
- Asimov, Isaac. The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
- “Surgery Enabled by Da Vinci.” Da Vinci Surgery. .