Novels as Prototypes of the Future

Via Robin Rendle’s blog, I found this quote from Jack Cheng (emphasis mine):

A novel…is a prototype of the future. And if the ideas that the tech industry is pursuing feel stagnant…maybe it points to a shortage of compelling fictions for what the world could be.

I love that phrasing: novels as prototypes of the future.

Last summer I read Richard Rhodes’ book The Making of the Atomic Bomb (great book btw) and I remember reading about how influential some novels were on the physicists who worked on the science which led to the splitting of the atom, the idea of a chain reaction, and the development of a bomb.

For example, H.G. Wells’ read books on atomic physics from scientists like William Ramsay, Ernest Rutherford, and Frederick Soddy which cued him in to the idea of harnessing the power of the atom. In 1914, thirty one years before the end of WWII, Wells coined the term “atomic bomb” in his book The World Set Free which was read by physicist Leó Szilárd in 1932, the same year the neutron was discovered. Some believe Szilárd was inspired by Wells’ book in envisioning how to tap into the power of the atom via neutron bombardment to trigger a chain reaction.

Perhaps it did, perhaps it didn’t. Or perhaps it was a little bit of fact, a little bit of fiction, and a little bit of contemporary news that all led Szilárd’s inspiration.

In this way, it’s fascinating to think of someone without extensive, specialized scientific training being able to influence scientific discovery nonetheless — all through the power of imagination. Perhaps this is, in part, what Einstein meant about the power of imagination:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

For me personally, maybe my own work could benefit from more novels. Maybe a little less “latest APIs in ES2024” and a little more fiction. A little less facts, a little more fancy.