Science fiction or science fact? Take our quiz and test your knowledge

Technology |  6 min. read

Science fiction (sci-fi, for short) has a long history (back to 2000 BC, if you’re in the camp that counts the Epic of Gilgamesh).  And over the years, what we read (or saw) in sci-fi often later turned into sci-fact.

The first actual rocket that reached space, for instance, was in 1942.  But the first story about traveling by rocket into outer space, goes back to at least the 1890s.

The first picture phone, that let you see who you were talking to – that made its first call in 1964, at the World’s Fair.  The first stories (or in this case, cartoon) about it?  The 1870s, not long after the original telephone made its debut.

So we thought we’d take a look at some other “science fictions”, and give you a chance to guess which ones have turned into “science facts”.

The term “science fiction”, by the way, came into mainstream usage in 1929.  Hugo Gernsback gets the credit for that (the “Hugo”, that science fiction’s Hugo Award is named for).

But in this case, before there was “science fiction”, there was a science fact that was essential to all those dreams of the future.  That was the invention of a new miracle material in 1907:  the first entirely synthetic plastic, called Bakelite – and among the plastics that follow, are materials essential to our survival in outer space.

Plastic fantastic science 101:

What makes plastics (or polymers) such miraculous materials?  “Polymer” means something made up of long chains of molecules – and those long chains can be linked up to make materials that are strong, lightweight, flexible.  Today’s polymers, or plastics, mostly begin with petrochemicals, “building block” chemicals made from petroleum or natural gas.

And now, let’s get started with…

The Jetsons, and their robot vacuum:  Sci-Fi or Sci-Fact?

That would be Science Fact! 

Now we’re not saying that the Roomba people copied the Jetsons, but (animated) science fiction certainly had the idea down long before the first Roomba bounced off its first chair leg.

…the hoverboard from Back to the Future?  Sci-Fi or Sci-Fact?

Science Fact.

Partially yes, because that IS a hoverboard up there, the Lexus SLIDE.
Partially no, because it only works where it’s hovering in that picture – a track with permanent magnets built in (the “smoke” coming off the board, is actually vapor from liquid nitrogen in the board).  And Lexus isn’t selling it, at least not yet.  So don’t let your inner Marty McFly get too carried away.

Now, how about Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor.   Sci-Fact or Sci-Fi?

Science Fact.  Soon.

that suit is still in the development stage.  But it will be powered, and armored.  It will make the soldier wearing it stronger and more mobile – and the helmet which goes with it, will be loaded with communications and sensor gear.  And if all goes well, maybe later this year, U.S. Special Operations will be testing it out.
(By the way, we’re going to say that the REAL science fiction prototype for this, is actually Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  The book, not the movie.)

Remember the speeder bikes from Star Wars?  Sci-Fact or Sci-Fi?

That would be Science Fact (though you won’t be flying them on Endor.  Unless you know where Endor is.)

…but you could buy an Aero-X here on Earth.  We’ll let them tell you about their “speeder bike”:  “Flying up to 10 feet off the ground at 45 miles per hour, the Aero-X is a surface-effect craft that rides like a motorcycle –an off road vehicle that gets you off the ground … Because it responds to your movements just as a motorcycle would, the Aero-X is intuitive to fly.”
Even an Ewok could do it.  (No blaster cannon though.  Sorry.)

Ok, let’s try Wonkavision (as in Willy Wonka) – the TV camera/shrink ray.  Sci-Fact, or Sci-Fi?

Science Fact! Well, kind of.

You can’t shrink a person, but now, you can shrink a robot.  The wonks (no relation to Willy) at MIT have come up with a shrink technique, and it even uses a “ray” – in this case, a laser.  So you build a small robot, encase it in a gel, turn that ray on the gel to shrink it – and your small robot becomes a very tiny robot.  Very tiny – as in you could shrink something a thousand times, down to one millimeter (that’s about .04 inches).  Tiny, as in, you could use it to deliver drugs to a specific spot in the body where treatment is needed.

Ok, last one, The Star Trek Replicator: Sci-Fact or Sci-Fi?

This was the device that uses energy to turn matter, into other kinds of matter – making food, clothing, drinks, tools.  (On the original Star Trek, it was a “synthesizer” and  only made food.)

That one, would be Sci-Fi.

That’s why we can’t show you a picture of a replicator today:  there isn’t one.  If you want to press a button and get a slice of pizza, you’ll have to use the microwave.

But without the futuristic materials (aka plastics, and fuels) that are made possible by petrochemicals, none of these ideas would have moved from science fiction to science fact.  And, don’t bet against the replicator either.

Plastic Fantastic Facts

Plastic fantastic fact 1: “You are not going out dressed like THAT!”

No, if you’re stepping out into outer space, you’re not.  You’re going to be wearing your space suit.  And your space suit is made up of layers of protective materials, much of that made from petrochemicals.  (Your helmet too, for that matter).

Read more about the dress code for outer space:  here.

Plastic fantastic fact 2: “What a dump!”

That would be the condition of outer space these days, at least outer space around the Earth.  There are about 20,000 bits of space trash whizzing around the Earth, any one of which could damage or destroy a space craft.

Find out how plastic is helping to clean up the “final frontier”:  here.

Plastic fantastic fact 3: “3 2,1, we have ignition.”

If “infinity and beyond” is in your travel plans, don’t forget the kerosene.  Not the stuff in great great grandmother’s oil lamp (the one she used to study by at night, before walking 10 miles to school each day, barefoot) – today’s kerosene, which is used to power rockets into space

See how yesterday’s reading light became today’s rocket fuel: here.

Plastic fantastic fact 4: “Got anything to eat?”

After month five of your voyage to Mars, protein pills for dinner – again – is going to look pretty unappetizing.  Same thing with months aboard the space station – for health and sanity, you need a little variety in your diet.  

So how do you grow vegetables in space? Find out here