These Science Fiction Novels Got the Science Very, Very Wrong

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas[.]” He may have been biased, but he wasn’t incorrect. There are two genres of science fiction. Hard science fiction is usually scientifically rigorous, while soft science fiction uses elements of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. World building in science fiction is often creative, but  it doesn’t always reveal humankind’s future. Here are 10 inaccuracies found in science fiction.

1. Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity says time is relative, and one’s perception of time varies based on how quickly one is moving. Since general relativity and special relativity are theories, their applications are less concrete than the uses for technology in some science fiction on this list. We use special relativity to explain why astronauts living in space are moving more quickly — and aging more slowly — than people on Earth. Special relativity is important to the plot of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Heinlein also uses the Twin Paradox as a plot device.

The Twin Paradox is a thought experiment that is only made possible because of the theory of special relativity. Imagine two identical twins. One remains on Earth, while the other travels to a star six light years away using a rocket that travels at six times the speed of light. Before the traveling twin leaves Earth, both twins reset their watches to zero. When the traveling twin reaches the star, her watch says eight years have passed. When the twin on Earth reads her watch, she will find 16 years have passed by the time the traveling twin reaches the star. From the perspective of the twin on Earth, the traveling twin’s rocket takes 10 years to reach the star. The light that will show the traveling twin at the star will take an additional six years to return to Earth, making the trip to the star take 16 years. To the traveler, whose rocket moves at six times the speed of light, the star she is traveling to, which seems six light years away to her twin sister on Earth, is only 4.8 light years away. It takes another 4.8 years for light to travel from Earth to her rocket, so she perceives the trip as taking roughly eight years.

Robert A. Heinlein is respected as a gifted science fiction writer. He was named the first Science Fiction Writers Grand Master in 1974. He also pursued graduate degrees in physics and mathematics at UCLA. Because of his scientific knowledge, his explanations of special relativity and the Twin Paradox are mostly correct. He applies the theories correctly, with one minor inaccuracy. In his novel, the traveling twin and the twin on Earth are communicating in real time via intercom. Once the traveling twin is moving at the speed of light, he hears the twin on Earth as though he is speaking more slowly. By contrast, the twin on Earth hears the traveling twin as though he is speaking more quickly. In fact, each twin would only be conscious of his own perception of time.