Science fiction can be a powerful genre. In books like “1984,” “Brave New World” and “Fahrenheit 451,” we can consider the dangers we face if we put too much power in the hands of the government. These books also stress the importance of individuality and critical thinking. While the setting may be futuristic and even fantastic, the themes are relevant to how we live our lives. Don’t dismiss a tale just because it has robots and rockets in it — there may be more going on under the surface of the story.
But apart from deep social commentary, science fiction has given us other gifts: amazing inventions that we’d love to possess. Some gadgets from science fiction became reality. “Star Trek” introduced the concept of a universal translator — a gadget capable of making communication possible across language barriers. Today, you can use a smartphone and Google Translate to have a conversation with someone else even if you don’t share a common language. There are thousands of examples of real-world gadgets and inventions that were once just the stuff of dreams.
1. The Hoverboard
“Back to the Future 2″ had a lot to live up to. The first film was a runaway success. It introduced the flux capacitor — a component we’ll visit a little bit later. It also created a market for DeLorean cars, a vehicle that by 1985 was on the road to oblivion. And while you might argue the second film lacks the charm and pacing that was present in the original movie, it did capture our imaginations with the hoverboard.
Simply put, a hoverboard is a skateboard without the wheels. It defies gravity, allowing the rider to zoom above the ground. To turn on a hoverboard, you simply lean as if you were on a normal skateboard. And as we learn in the film, hoverboards don’t work on water unless you’ve got power.
How do they work? It beats us! The film never really attempts to explain what makes hoverboards tick. We know we’d love to own one and swoop around the office. Shortly after the film hit theaters, a myth circulated that the hoverboards in the film were real products — they even had the Mattel logo on them. But the myth said that consumer groups and concerned parents pressured Mattel to pull hoverboards from production out of fear that the boards would cause countless injuries. In truth, there never were any working hoverboards — all those effects came from movie magic. But we’re still holding out hope that one day we’ll get to glide along with Huey Lewis music blasting in the background.
2. The Neuralizer
For those of us who suffer from foot-in-the-mouth disease, no gadget would be handier than the neuralizer. An important gadget in the arsenal for the Men in Black, this gadget lets you zap away the memories of those who stare at the flashing red light. With the click of a button and a few soothing words, you can wipe out a memory and replace it with something else.
For the characters in “Men in Black,” this device allowed human agents to meet, negotiate or combat aliens without alerting the entire Earth that we are not alone. But in the HowStuffWorks.com office, we’d probably use this in other ways. Need a little more time on that deadline? Just zap the site director and say that the assignment is due next week. Accidentally spill coffee on the general manager? A quick zap and the suggestion that one of the Stuff You Should Know guys did it and you’re good to go.
Zapping people to alter memories might not be the most responsible option. Maybe it’s a good thing the neuralizer doesn’t really exist. But if you see a HowStuffWorks.com writer walking around wearing sunglasses, you might want to avert your eyes — just in case.
3 . The Lightsaber
Putting aside the legitimate argument that the “Star Wars” series is really more of a fantasy than science fiction, we come to the lightsaber. It’s an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. The final part of a Jedi knight’s training is the construction of his or her own personal lightsaber. The films taught us that these magical swords could cut through nearly anything and were capable of deflecting blaster fire. Plus they make that really cool voom-whoosh sound.
If you explore the expanded universe — that includes the various novels, video games, comic books and other media that relate to Star Wars but aren’t part of the official story — you’ll learn that a lightsaber consists of a handle, a power source and some crystals. The crystals give the lightsaber its color as well as other attributes. Those who use the light side of the force tend to rely on crystals they find in natural settings like caves and caverns. Dark side force users tend to use synthetic crystals, which always seem to give a lightsaber an ominous red glow.
While we don’t foresee the need to put a lightsaber to any sort of combat use here at HowStuffWorks.com, we admit it would be really handy for yard work. With a couple of quick swipes, you could cut down trees, bushes and any plastic pink flamingoes that are between you and the perfectly manicured lawn.
4. The Electronic Thumb
Legend has it that Douglas Adams thought up the idea for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” while lying in a field, recovering from drinking a bit too much during a trip through Europe. It wasn’t uncommon for students and other travelers to hitch a lift now and then as they crisscrossed the continent, visiting new cities and phoning home for more money. What if, thought Adams, the same thing happened on a universal scale? He constructed a tale of a befuddled human named Arthur Dent and an alien in disguise with the vehicular moniker of Ford Prefect and the rest is history.
But how do you hitch a ride with an alien? You use an Electronic Thumb. Adams explains that there is a communications channel called the sub-ether network. The electronic thumb taps into this network and signals nearby spaceships to hitch a lift. Adams wrote multiple versions of his story and no two are exactly alike. It’s not entirely clear that the thumb requires the spaceship’s driver to give permission before the hitchhikers zap aboard using a matter transference beam.
It’s true that for the electronic thumb to really be useful we’d need to have some aliens flying around first. But even if there aren’t any bug-eyed monsters in the nearby galaxies, it would still make a lovely paperweight. Fusion takes a lot of energy — a real reactor would be enormous
5. Mr. Fusion
We’re going back to “Back to the Future” for this one. The trilogy introduced lots of cool gadgets: time machines, flying skateboards and self-tying shoes are just a few examples. But Mr. Fusion could revolutionize everything.
It’s a throwaway visual gag at the end of the first Back to the Future film — Doc hurriedly sorts through Marty’s garbage can, pulling out banana peels and beer. He feeds it into the Mr. Fusion port on the back of the time machine. The big joke is that this relatively tiny device can generate the awesome power — 1.21 gigawatts’ worth — that the flux capacitor needs in order to make time travel possible. Throughout the entire film we’ve watched Marty and Doc try to harness lightning to get Marty back to 1985 and by 2015 the same power can be generated by an off-the-shelf appliance.
But imagine how different our world would be if Mr. Fusion were real. We could generate all our power needs just by feeding in some garbage. A couple of nuclear reactions later and we’d have plenty of juice to run our homes and vehicles. It solves recycling problems and energy conservation all in one fell swoop! Sure, there are lingering concerns about using a nuclear reactor in such a casual way, but without risk there’s no reward, right?