More Sense of Wonder Than Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 20, 2017


For the first two-thirds of my life sense of wonder mostly came from science fiction, but in the last third science is supplying more wonder. I have theories as to why. First, aging is making me more fascinated with reality. Second, I’ve lived long enough to feel the real world is science fictional. For example, my science fiction book club is reading Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, a 1962 novel about the discovery of cute creatures on a distant planet that might be sapient. As a kid in the 1960s, that was an exciting idea. But in 2017 we know animals are far more intelligent than we thought and in ways far more exciting than an old science fiction novel. Learning how and why has a great sense of wonder.

The dimensions of sapient behavior have become far more fantastic than fiction, including old stories about robots. For example, The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1957, and first read by me in 1964. Heinlein’s character Dan Davis built household robots – which dazzled me back then. But today I could build my own robot with a Raspberry Pi kit, producing a completely different kind of sense of wonder. I could also download open source machine learning toolkits. This era of Makers and DIY produces a different kind of wonder. Science fiction is great, but I believe I would now give a kid a subscription to Make Magazine before telling her to read science fiction.

More and more when I watch a great documentary I want to know the details about how things are actually done. I don’t want to just be an observer. Last night I watched a wonderful episode of NOVA on PBS that has more sense of wonder than any science fiction novel I can remember reading in a very long time.

It was about origami.


Yes, origami. You know, paper cranes…

It was titled “The Origami Revolution” – about how the art of folding paper has inspired scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The producers completely blew me away. Origami is a fascinating craft, even an art form, but not one I ever paid much attention to. The program began by reporting the latest developments in the art, which go way beyond making simple paper cranes. Using a single sheet of paper, it’s possible to make very elaborate 3D shapes by just folding paper (and without cutting).


Cranes are simple, requiring about thirty folds. Modern advanced origami art like above requires hundreds of folds involving very complex geometry. This is where the excitement started for me – because they brought in mathematics. The program introduced Erik Demaine, showing him working on a 60-page mathematical algorithm with Tomohiro Tachi for computerized origami folding. Can you imagine the mathematics of creating the above work of origami? I can’t, but I wish I could. Tachi has developed a software program Origamizer that the two of them hope will eventually be able to create any 3D figure from a 2D piece of paper. Their theorem should prove it’s possible.


“The Origami Revolution” then goes on to survey wide-ranging work in biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, astronomy that have been influenced by what we’re learning from folding. This has been happening for decades, so I feel a little left behind. The program generated a tremendous sense of wonder in me, probably because this new research offers so much far-out potential, including building robots and spacecraft, and even claiming that dark matter theoretically reveals folded shapes in the structure of the universe.

Here’s a 2008 TED Talks by Robert Lang which give more details than the episode of NOVA, including some examples that are more impressive than shown in the TV show. Follow the link in his name to his website for even more information.

Understanding how modeling 3D structures from a 2D source teaches us about nature, because once the mathematics of folding were revealed scientists began seeing folding in nature, including plants, insects, and even the cosmos. From there it goes into applied engineered structures.

(This isn’t folding per se, but I think it’s related. See SmartFlower Solar.)

If you watch “The Origami Revolution” count all the far out bits of technology. You’ll realize that many of them were never discussed in science fiction. When I was young, I thought science fiction explored ahead of science, but after all these decades I’ve learned something different. Science fiction trails science. This show could inspire countless science fiction stories. Even while watching the TV show I imagined other folks seeing it and thinking up science fiction stories as they watched. They will magnify the demonstrated concepts, extrapolate, speculate, imagine, and come up with possible future scenarios to dramatize. I’m sure they will create far-out tales.

But I think getting older is making me both more patient and less patient. I’m becoming impatient with fiction. It’s easier to skim over the drama, and just zero in on the current science. Now that I’m retired, I have more time to fool around with tech toys. I spend less time reading about imaginary futures, and more time trying to figure the details of now.

You can also watch the full episode of “The Origami Revolution” on YouTube.


7 thoughts on “More Sense of Wonder Than Science Fiction”

  1. Hi James

    That was a great program, it was nice to see science and wonder so beautifully linked as you say. I will have to take a look at the link you supplied.


  2. I find it interesting that you choose two works that are over half century old when you dismiss SF. What you are “celebrating” here is today’s technology, and I wonder how much of that came about from people whose imagination was stirred by SF years ago. I read SF today to get some idea of tomorrow’s technology and advances, as well as visiting the past..

    An attack on SF because it didn’t predict something is another example of setting up a straw man in order to put it down.

    1. Good point Fred. I reference 50-year-old science fiction because that’s what I read when I was growing up. I’m comparing what I read as a kid that gave me a sense of wonder, to what gives me a sense of wonder at 65.

      But you do bring up a good point. I should compare today’s science fiction to today’s science to really compare apples to apples. The trouble is I don’t read enough modern SF to know what’s really the best science fiction of today. Most of what I do read is about adventure and not science. I have read some of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest books, like 2312 and Aurora, which I greatly admire, but they don’t provide much sense of wonder for me. I think they would have when I was a kid, but now that I’m old, they seem too far out to relate to.

      That’s why I compared current science to older books – those are the ones that inspired me.

      Fred, what modern books would you use to showcase a modern sense of wonder in SF?

      1. Jim,

        Why limit it to modern books and authors? Following is a list of books I read this year which gave me that sense of wonder: some are modern, others are classics, and others are in between. Everyone of them made me think of something I hadn’t considered before, or made me think about something in a new way.

        Richard Schenkman: Script for Man of Earth, adapted from Bixby’s screenplay
        Sylvain Neuvel: Sleeping Giants
        Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
        M. John Harrison: The Pastel City
        M. John Harrison: A Storm of Wings (a Viriconium novel)
        Dan Vyleta: Smoke
        Roger Zelazny: The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth
        Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
        Lawrence Schoen: Barsk: The Elephants’s Graveyard
        Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness
        Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas
        Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games
        Thea von Harbou: Metropolis
        Olaf Stapledon: Odd John
        Dan Simmons: Hyperion
        Dan Simmons: The Fall of Hyperion
        Gene Wolfe: A Borrowed Man
        Kevin J. Anderson/Gregory Benford: Mammoth Dawn
        Kim Stanley Robinson: Aurora
        John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar


        You said, “I think they would have when I was a kid, but now that I’m old, they seem too far out to relate to.” Your comment needs thinking about.

        I don’t think the ‘sense of wonder’ has disappeared from SF. And, I don’t think age has anything to do with it, since I’m probably as old as you are.

    1. Fred, I didn’t think your comments rude. You were making a point. We just need to work out our differences. I like feedback. Often I write essays where I think my intent is obvious, but other people take it in new directions. That’s helpful. I didn’t mean to demean science fiction at the expense of science, and you are right, those science fiction books are powerful.

      Science fiction is a generator of wonder. But so is science. I’m slowly realizing that I read too much science fiction when I was young. I should have read more widely. But there’s another issue. I wonder if the love of science fiction diverts us from studying science.

      When I was young I didn’t have the opportunities to study science like children do today. I was in science clubs, but they were lame compared to science fairs of today. I guess I got my science fix by reading science fiction. And I’m not saying kids today shouldn’t read science fiction, but I am wondering if they shouldn’t try to read more science.

      From your blog, I know you read widely now. I do too. Did you read so widely back in the 1950s?

      1. Jim,

        Probably not. I read a lot of SF and, of course, books assigned in class, and also books that friends had to read for their classes. I only occasionally read non-fiction, but mostly fiction–mostly SF. It was in college that my reading expanded, and it kept on expanding as something I read would lead to something else. I’m sure you know the story.

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