Last night during a zoom meeting I heard that someone claim that mathematicians can see a hundred years into the future, certainly far better than scientists, technologists or engineers. If true, that’s a stupendous super-power.
The example was cited of a French mathematician, Laplace, predicting the existence of black holes in 1796. Yet in 1939, Einstein was trying to prove they could not exist.
Science fiction is supposed to add to the debate of how progress in science will affect the future. That means is too has to predict what could happen in the future.
Where is the link between mathematics and science fiction?
There have been science fiction stories about mathematical concepts like the Moebius strip and tesseract – geometrical figures where the protagonists can have fun or be in trouble with exploring or using. There have been fun logic problems to solve in the postulated futures. There have been maths wizards that magic up answers to the protagonists’ problems.
But as far as I’m aware there has never been a prediction about the future of predicting futures. This covers both science fiction and mathematics. It’s like asking, ‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’, a conundrum the Romans were well familiar with.
So how can the future, or to be more precise, aspects of the future be predicted now?
There is identifying a pattern using information about the past and following that pattern into the future. The big word for this is extrapolation. Except people have found in some cases that extension into the future cannot continue indefinitely. Take miniaturisation of computer cores. What happens when the component size reaches molecular limits? The improvements come to an abrupt halt and a new technology must be sought to continue this trend. In this case one was found in quantum physics. But, as it turns out, a new type of algorithm becomes available in this technology that will change certain aspects of our prediction capability and eventually bring online a whole new types of products, which will in turn modify societal behaviours. Predictions here worked the extrapolation correctly, but did not anticipate the disruptor capability of the new types of algorithms.
Most science fiction writers who are trying to discuss the future based on technology development use extrapolation as their main tool for world-building.
[Note – the caveat on science fiction writers here is to distinguish them from the writers who use known science fiction tropes to discuss political issues or to give more sense of reality to fantasy tales.]
There are other prediction tools in the science fiction writers’ armoury. Some of them happen due to luck e.g. serendipity. Others can be worked on. It is the use of this set of tools that distinguishes a great science fiction writer from one that follows what is considered normal science fiction. Some writers do not know they are using them, more they are following some in-built instinct. Others actively look for what has not been written about before.
Where does this leave the predictions of predictions? Extrapolating the extrapolations is the easy bit, relatively speaking. It is these other tools that are causing the problems. They are not so easy to predict how and when they are going to be used. Some take effort on the part of the writer. When will a writer come along and make that effort, especially when you consider our society is built on the premise of producing as cheaply s practicable and acceptable to customers?
Which brings me back to the question of how mathematicians do their predictions. They observe and then build their mathematical model around what they see. They do not assume a model is to hand that will do the job. Yes, they may use standard models, but only after they have checked the assumptions behind those models hold true for what they have observed. In other words, they start from scratch with every new problem.
Most science fiction don’t that. They cannot afford to because it takes extra work, the readership want some familiarity with what is in the story and well, to be blunt, most people are scared of stepping into the unknown including writers.
Mathematicians are trained to take the unknown in their stride. They can and do tackle the unknowns. Occasionally they get interesting answers. Isn’t it time science fiction writers did the same? That includes predicting the predictions in science fiction.