Science Fiction As Prophecy

Isaac Asimov was one of the most important science fiction writers of the 20th century. He believed science fiction was the best way to see what the future might look like. First broadcast in 1975, Isaac Asimov, David Suzuki and others consider the power and prophecy of science fiction.
Dr. David Suzuki in his lab, early 1970's. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

The CBC Radio program Quirks and Quarks celebrated its 40th anniversary last fall. To mark the occasion, some prominent scientists talked to its host Bob McDonald about changes they've witnessed in their fields over the years: from AIDS to climate change, evolution to space exploration. After that program aired, Rewind heard from Diana Filer, who used to work at CBC Radio. In 1974 she produced a CBC Radio program called Concern. It was about religion, but what interested Diana was was the possibility of show about science. 
Quirks & Quarks first host, David Suzuki, addressing students in 1972 at University of Manitoba
 She asked a young Canadian scientist by the name of David Suzuki to go to the AAAS- the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's an international non-profit group, formed in 1848 and dedicated to the advancement of science "for the benefit of all people." Suzuki went in search of stories to put on air. He did that and more. After the show aired in April 1975, the CBC's Director of Radio immediately agreed there should be a science program on the air. That fall, Quirks and Quarks, hosted by David Suzuki, came to life. 

On that episode of Concern, host David Suzuki was especially interested in discussing how society has evolved in reaction to the revolutionary discoveries made by humans. However, he was also made the point that we seldom consider the long term effects of those discoveries.

In 1975 when David Suzuki attended the annual conference of the AAAS, he spoke with Ed Edelson, Science Editor of the New York Daily News. Edelson won dozens of awards for writing about science throughout the course of his career. He had a special knack for making the most complex scientific concepts accessible and understandable to his readers. On this occasion, Edelson spoke about the necessity for pure and unbiased truth in scientific exploration. He said the better the scientist, the more uncertain she will be, so that while the hallmark of a good scientist is rigorous testing, he will always be beholden to economic realities. It's one of the challenges of scientific study that exists to this day.

"Any discovery of science can be used for the benefit or detriment of humanity. The military and industry are the main users of science, and their concerns are with power and profit. The concern for the health or safety of the average person doesn't come into it."- David Suzuki

The book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov was the first to outline the author's "three laws of robotics" meant to keep humans safe from AI harm. (Wikipedia)

On the floor of the 1975 AAAS conference, they also talked about nuclear disarmament. It was on the minds of many people at the time. Physicist Marvin Goldberger gave a lecture on arms control, reporting on the astounding number of nuclear weapons existing in the world at the time. He argued we've become numbed to the existence of nuclear weapons, and that we don't properly grasp their potential disastrous effects. Golderberger argued that it was the responsibility of the scientist to educate the public in clear language and drive home the implications of nuclear weapons.

David Suzuki interviewed Prudence Emory of the newly opened Metro Toronto Zoo about that exciting new place.

David Suzuki launches the 47th season of The Nature of Things. (CBC)

Then it was Isaac Asimov, one of the most pre eminent science fiction writers of the 20th century. He was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, but it's his popular writing about science that made him famous. Asimov was prolific and profound, and through his writing he made a lot of people become interested in science. One of his most famous is a collection of nine science fiction short stories that he called I, Robot. Isaac Asimov went on to become a regular guest on Quirks and Quarks in its early years. At the 1975 AAAS conference, Asimov gave a feature lecture on the topic of science fiction writer as prophet. He believed people inherently resist change, no matter what it is. And since most of the changes in society in the past couple of hundred years have been scientific or technological, people tend to mistrust it. He argued that this attitude and fear is what makes science fiction so relevant. The science fiction writer looks back at societal patterns to predict what the future will look like.

"Science Fiction is the one branch of literature which preaches that things won't be the same. That tomorrow will be different from today. Why is it so amazing that science fiction predicts it and for people to see it?" - Science Fiction Author Isaac Asimov