By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


2021. It sounds so futuristic, doesn’t it? We’re living in a time six years after ‘the future’ as Marty McFly and the Doc knew it, two years after the events of Blade Runner, and a mere eight years away from what the Terminator would call the present. However, the future doesn’t look quite how some science fiction screenwriters of the 1980s imagined it would. Where are our self-lacing shoes, flying cars and cyborg assassins?

But the present-future is a little brighter than it might at first appear, depending on your perspective. Science fiction and real-world science have something of a symbiotic relationship, predicting, inspiring and drawing inspiration from each other. The result is a real world filled with gadgets and inventions first seen as imaginative flights of fancy in sci-fi.  


The release of the Apple iPad in 2010 marked the first time that a tablet device was embraced by consumers. A proud accomplishment for Apple to have invented the first popular tablet, it could be argued. Or perhaps not. In 2011, rival tech company Samsung claimed in a court battle that Apple had no right to patent the design of the iPad because the tablet wasn’t their original invention, but rather that of American filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick. Samsung’s lawyers argued that, because Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey showed characters using ‘Newspads’ – devices which bear a strong resemblance to Steve Jobs’ gadget – Apple’s patent was invalid. This evidence did not hold up in court, but the appearance of handheld, flat-screened electronic gadgets in the sci-fi world, long before they became a reality, can still be seen on Blu-ray and DVD.

3D holograms

As any Star Wars fan will remember, the 3D hologram that Luke Skywalker sees of Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope is integral to the plot of the saga. Holograms feature multiple times throughout the Star Wars films, but how close are scientists to achieving similar results in the real world? In 2019, researchers at the School of Engineering and Informatics at the University of Sussex created Multimodal Acoustic Trap Display, otherwise referred to as a 3D projection, which conjures floating images that can be touched and even emit sound. Dr Ryuji Hirayama, one of the lead scientists on the project, said in a press release: “So even though we have yet to match the Rebel Alliance’s communications capability, our prototype has come the closest yet and opened up a host of other exciting opportunities in the process.”

Digital billboards

Take a stroll around London’s Piccadilly Circus, New York’s Times Square or the centre of many cities around the world and you are likely to notice the many vibrant adverts beaming out from ever-changing electronic billboards. But did you know that Ridley Scott, director of the 1982 film Blade Runner, foresaw the ubiquitous presence of digital-out-of-home advertising, first installed in the US in 2005? He subjected the inhabitants of his imagined version of 2019 Los Angeles to giant light-up displays encouraging them to drink Coca Cola, among other things, which they saw from the comfort of their flying cars.

But don’t forget – some sci-fi films also like to draw on existing science to give an other-worldly story a touch of reality.

The Martian

Based on Andy Weir'd 2011 book of the same name, 2015 film The Martian has been derided by some for its lack of scientific accuracy. However, some of the tactics that astronaut Mark Watney uses to stay alive once he finds himself abandoned on Mars are based on fact. Mark sets about growing potatoes in the soil, which Dave Lavery, a NASA employee and consultant on the film, told IFLScience is conceivable. The mineral and chemical content of Martian soil means that it could be fertile ground. Mark’s inflatable habitat is another aspect of the film that isn’t entirely out of this world. In 2016, NASA attached an expandable module, not dissimilar to Mark’s dwellings on Mars, to the International Space Station and it has been cleared to remain there until 2028.


In the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film Contact we see Jodie Foster play Dr Eleanor Arroway, a SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) scientist who is chosen to make first contact with an alien civilisation. Of course, Earthlings have so far not been able to achieve this feat, but that’s not to say there’s no accurate science in the film. SETI scientists do exist, and in fact, in 1992, NASA set up a SETI programme. Due to federal budget issues and a lack of support from the scientific community the programme was eliminated within a year, but the search for alien life continues at the SETI Institute, a non-profit organisation based in California. The truth is out there…

The relationship between science and the world of sci-fi is a fun one to explore. We can never truly know how much scientists are influenced by the imaginations of sci-fi filmmakers, but if these examples are anything to go by, perhaps we’ll get our flying cars one day.