Science Fiction in the 21st Century: Helping Science Celebrate the Fringe Genius

Thursday, 25 August 2016 - 10:31AM
Thursday, 25 August 2016 - 10:31AM
Science Fiction in the 21st Century: Helping Science Celebrate the Fringe Genius
< >
Science fiction portrays the development of breakthroughs in a sort of folk-historical way-the lone madman in his garage, disheveled, half-drunk in a town where nobody really understands what he's doing, or else thinks he's completely crazy. The Wright Brothers must have been at least partially the inspiration for the fictionalized inventor of warp drive, Zephram Cochran, whose post-apocalyptic lab in a rural nuclear missile facility made for an unlikely venue for first contact with an alien species. We read with intrigue, amazement, and sorrow the stories of real-life inventor Nicola Tesla, and his struggles with his own genius. 
Guglielmo Marconi developed the radio in his secret workshop in Italy, not in a government or university laboratory. Indeed, Marconi was not even a good student-a description which is almost worn as a badge of honor by countless "misunderstood" geniuses whose names have survived their far more officially decorated contemporaries who sought approval more than achievement, inclusion more than truth, and whose safe path to respectability led them away from the frontiers.

Historic photo of the Wright brothers' third test glider being launched at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on October 10, 1902.

The mythology of the lone genius captivates the public imagination, and yet we fail to realize that such geniuses could never have succeeded in their achievements had they been constrained to teaching schedules, journal publication requirements, or wasted their prime years checking off boxes to attain a PhD. While many revolutionary achievements have been made by thinkers with traditional education and careers, there are many great minds whose work ethic and mode of thought thrives in a non-traditional environment. In spite of this, we have made little place in actual society for these fringe geniuses, their bizarre hunches, and their willingness to make messes, even endanger their own lives, in pursuit of the possible. 
Of course, we only know about the ones who did eventually manage to bring one of their inventions into the public eye. We can only guess the number of brilliant minds obscured by their circumstances. Not all geniuses are born the sons of Italian nobility like Marconi. If we look merely at the distribution of IQ in the world, we would quickly realize that the vast majority of the world's greatest minds are almost irrevocably lost in the throes of poverty in some nigh-unpronounceable provincial city in Asia or Africa destined to be undiscovered by their global peers and forgotten by history. 
Of all the science fiction possibilities we read about in novels or see in television and film, the primary barrier to seeing them become realities in our daily lives is that not enough people are given the opportunity to explore with intellectual and financial freedom. Too few thinkers have the chance to try to build a warp drive, or find the cure for cancer, without the outside pressures to produce arbitrary results for the sake of academic rankings publications, or create specific applications of technology for his or her employer. 

The 21st century and the internet age have seen Tesla, and his contributions to science, looked upon in a whole new light.

The explosion of hacker spaces and maker spaces in the last decade has begun the process of mainstreaming citizen science and independent technology development, but in order to transform our visions of the future into present reality, we must go much further, much faster. We must reform our institutions in society and our cultural expectations to empower those with the energy and curiosity to invent and create, and to value and respect them before they succeed. 
We must build mechanisms to identify talent and potential while it is still rudimentary and unformed, with all of the accompanying rough edges, and showcase these people's processes to the world. 
This is the driving reason I founded Exosphere. We are laying the foundations of this social and cultural framework, and we are excited about bringing the stories of our crazy geniuses to you here at Outer Places. In the coming months, you will see the stories of science fiction becoming science fact as they unfold, from styrofoam-eating bacteria to the development of drone games to simulations of Mars colonies.

More science, less fiction!

We are going to show you everything, from the hints of success to the catastrophic failures-because that's what real science is about, the thousand failures that might, just maybe, lead to something that works. And we hope that you will join in on the fun, whether by coming to see the action in person or supporting the work from where you are, interacting with our scientists, sharing our stories with your friends, and promoting the love of knowledge and discovery so that we can build a world where science and scientists are revered more than wealth, and our society's resources are directed towards those whose work benefits all of humanity.
This post by Skinner Layne is part of an ongoing series from our partners at Exosphere, a learning and problem solving community based in Brazil. To find out more and be a part of their cutting-edge educational programs visit them at
Science of Sci-Fi