Science fiction predictions resemble reality 36 years later

As demonstrators throng Tehran's streets, cellphones, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as key players in the political battle there.

"Flash mobs" organized by such "social networking" tools have also played into political unrest in Estonia, and even in the U.S. presidential election, in which candidates' fans triggered turnout for events from their computer screens, rather than from old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.

Who saw it coming? Well, the best candidate may be science fiction author Larry Niven, 71, whose 1973 novella Flash Crowd foresaw riots self-assembling thanks to brand-new technologies. Since it's a science fiction novel, Niven wrote about the unintended effects that discovering teleportation (the "beam me up, Scotty" deal) would have on society, but he says he readily sees the connection, one he saw coming with news reports feeding riots in Los Angeles in the Vietnam era.

"Flash mobs are an artifact of the Internet, yes, but also of easy travel," says Niven, by e-mail. "Without modern roads, cars and motorcycles, flash mobs would not happen. With instant travel (teleportation) they would become even easier; and that was my point."

At least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, authors have foreseen new technologies reshaping society, but Niven has a rare track record as a sci-fi author whose predictions have — sort of — come true:

•In 2004, NASA announced the discovery of a possible "Ringworld" planet orbiting a nearby star, a planet 18 times heavier than Earth, that may have a habitable ring circling its poles. Niven's 1970 Ringworld novel was about something much grander, a solid ring orbiting a star at habitable distances, but NASA appropriated the term for the discovery.

•Many of the stars that Niven foresaw as possessing planets in his books, like Epsilon Eridani, have indeed shown signs of doing so in recent planet searches. None look too friendly to life, but astronomers have found about 350 planets orbiting nearby stars in the last two decades, something Niven told USA TODAY he found "mind-blowing," in 2004.

•Ringworld also foresaw widespread use, and abuse, of brain implants, a technology starting to blossom in the real world with cochlear implants for the hearing-impaired and experimental work on implants for paralysis patients.

Sadly, teleportation shows no signs of becoming a reality, although physicists have started experimenting with something called quantum teleportation, in which the characteristics of light particles appear to transfer instantaneously across great distances, a phenomenon that cryptographers have proposed for impossible-to-eavesdrop communications.

In 2007, University of Vienna physicists described sending messages this way using telescopes 89 miles apart at an American Physical Society Meeting. Because the phenomena transfers the characteristics of widely-separated physics particles, but not any of their mass, across great distances instantaneously, it doesn't violate Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, which sets the speed of light as the top speed for anything in the universe.

If scientists someday use quantum teleportation to create a faster-than-light speed communications, we luckily already have a name for it, an "ansible" described by another science fiction author, Ursula Le Guin, in her 1966 novel, Rocannon's World.

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