Inspec...The final frontier. When science fiction becomes fact

by Julian Richards, Information Scientist
(from Inspec Matters issue no.88 - December 1996) Updated by Chris Ware 2007

Many people in the fields of science and engineering have an interest in science fiction - to the point that a significant number of American engineers claim that their choice of career was influenced by the US TV series Star Trek. Arthur C, Clarke, the author of such prophetic sci-fi novels as "The Space Elevator" and "2001: A Space Odyssey", was an Inspec (then known as Science Abstracts) indexer in the years immediately after the second world war. Thus, it can be of interest to the sci-fi fanatic to see what is contained within the INSPEC database.

Aliens are an excellent place to start. Searches for aliens are carried out via the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) projects. Having found our aliens, we need a mechanism to reach them. Nuclear rockets are adequate for local trips around our own solar system, but to meet intelligent life we would need to travel interstellar distances, where the problem exists of journeys taking several lifetimes to complete under normal methods of propulsion.

To overcome this, the science fiction writer has the luxury of using exotic methods, such as distorting space-time locally, via the "warp drive" in Star Trek or by taking "short-cuts" in space through hyperspace, as seen in another popular US sci-fi show, Star Gate. Although these methods do seem far-fetched, papers by theorists, covered in the Inspec database have proved the mathematical possibility, but not yet the mechanisms by which these can be achieved.

A similar story applies to the theory of time travel, but as Professor Stephen Hawking postulates, if it were to be discovered, then we would all be aware of it by now! One short story has crowds of visitors from the future, crowding out the crucifixion until the future authorities can take action...there is also the famous paradox of what would happen if you killed one of your parents and thus prevented your own birth.

Quantum theory allows all possible outcomes to exist at the same time, but returning to your own time-line may prove difficult with so many possible futures. Again, these theories are contained within the Inspec database. Useful Inspec classification codes include:

A0420General relativity
A0460Quantum theory of gravitation
A2841Computer codes for fission reactor theory and design
A2850KPropulsion reactors
A2852Fusion reactors
A8790Other topics in biophysics, medical physics and biomedical engineering
A9590Other topics in astronomy and astrophysics
A9760LBlack holes
A9780MExtrasolar planetary systems
B6250ZOther radio links
B6260SFree-space optical links
B7640Aerospace propulsion

Useful Inspec subject headings include:

  • black holes
  • extrasolar planets
  • extra-terrestrial life
  • general relativity
  • optical communication
  • quantum gravity
  • quantum theory
  • radiocommunication
  • rockets
  • space vehicles