Cool Science Fiction Concepts That You Don’t Really Need to Understand To Use

Hello all! I have a slight tendency to go on and on about science-related stuff, but I do my best to only explain things in detail if:

  1. Having a decent understanding of the workings is important to using the concept believably in your story.
  2. It’s really just that interesting.
This week I’ve come accross a few neat emerging technologies that only kinda/sorta meet those criteria, but still have a lot of potential as world-building elements in your science fiction. While I myself have a just a smidge more exposure to the science behind some of these technologies than the average person, I am in no way qualified to give a full lecture on the inner workings of these very complicated sciences.
Luckily, sometimes it’s really not all that important to understand. You don’t have to be an expert in Quantum Mechanics to be able to write science fiction that uses quantum technologies in it (and in many cases having that much back knowledge makes it hard to keep from Info-Dumping like crazy), but as long as you have a grasp of the terms and what they mean, you can make intelligent references to cool tech that can make your world feel that much more real. So, with that disclaimer/excuse rendered, here are this week’s cool sci-fi concepts that you don’t really have to understand to use:


I’ve already talked about metamaterials as a component in cloaking devices, but what I didn’t talk about is their general usefulness due to their optical properties. For those who haven’t read my post on Invisibility and Cloaking (hint hint), metamaterials are these weird, nano-scale (that’s one one-billionth of a meter) shapes made out of different types of interlocking metal alloys that for some only partially-understood reasons have very unique effects on light. Depending on the particular shapes and particular metals, metamaterials can be used to alter the way light bends around its field, potentially rendering something invisible. These sub-molecular shenanigans could also possibly be used to make specialized imagers for looking at molecules and other atomic stuctures, for electronics applications, or data storage.

Metamaterials are pretty arcane even to the guys who discovered them, and are so adaptable you can almost apply them to any sci-fi situation. I’m not telling you to throw the term around constantly, but practically any super-high tech dealing with things on the nano-scale could make use of metamaterials, and you have a lot of freedom in what they could be applied to. Just keep in mind that these are very intricate and specifically designed; they do not occur naturally (as far as we know).

(For a more in-depth article and the source of the above image, head over to

Graphene-based Electronics

Graphene is an atom-thin latices of carbon atoms that has some really neat conductive properties that makes it very attractive as a potential material for extremely fast electronics. The problem they’re currently working out is that they can’t easily make transistors out of it, which act like tiny switches that carry data in microprocessors. It carries elecctrons “ballistically”, which basically means that instead of having to deal with clouds of electrons in metals, Graphene could be much simpler to deal with, and much more compact. It’s also extremely durable as a material (just like those carbon nano-tubes you keep hearing about), and very flexible, so it has tons of other applications as well.

There’s more to it than that, but mentioning that components are made of graphene meshes both sounds high-tech and references what could be the future for micro components in computers and electronics.

(For a more in-depth article about graphene, head over to Ars Technica.)

Quantum Computers

D-wave quantum chip

Image: Copyright © 2005 – 2008 D-Wave Systems Inc.

Quantum computers are built on chips that use “qubits” (quantum bits) to handle data. Instead of having millions of tiny transistor switches like we use in standard computers, quantum computers utilize freaky quantum magical tricks to essentially fool two electrons into thinking that they are actually the same electron (called “quantum entanglement”), so that if one of the electrons is affected, the other is affected in exactly the same way, no matter how far away the two are. This could potentially make processes very close to instantaneous, and speed up computers extraordinarily. The issue right now is that qubits are very unstable, so researchers are trying to figure out the best ways to utilize them in a brief window of time, or else figure out how to make them  last longer.

I’ve already seen this concept used a lot in science fiction, as the basis for future computers as well as a nifty way to have almost instantaneous communication across huge distances. Just remember that these things are delicately produced; even if the technology is old hat by the time of your story, people can’t just make these anywhere; they have to have the right equipment.

(For a more in-depth article about quantum computers, head on over to Ars Technica.)

Alright, that’s it for today. Until next week, has anyone else come across these concepts in science fiction? Let me know in the comments below!


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on November 9, 2011, in Lantern Hollow Press Authors. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Sometimes a little understanding of the science is enough to make some wonderful applications. For example, I don’t have the foggiest how two electrons are entangled (ok, that’s not true, but it is pretty foggy to me), but I do know that, once they are, what happens to one instantaneously happens to the other. And only that other. That means that, if used for communications, they would be completely uninterceptable. Military or spy applications, anyone?

    Moreover, the writer should realize that, even in the far future where the application of this technology is commonplace, most people will only understand the basic ideas. For example, how many of you know the detailed inner workings of your microwave? Or how your computer finds and retrieves memory? Most of us don’t, because most of us don’t need to. We know a microwave uses microwave radiation to heat things up, and that computers store memory in magnets, that have a bunch of mini-magnets that can be set to plus or minus, but how it finds the right data, or how it switches a mini-magnet from plus to minus, is more than most of us need to know. It works, that this is the outcome, and that’s what matters. What the writer should realize is that, to some degree (and moreso as technology becomes more complicated), this also applies to many people who are inventing applications of the technologies. Do you know how the computer you play your flash games on works? How about all the people programming flash applications? How much do they know about how computers work? Probably more than you, but probably far less than the computer engineers at Microsoft. Technology as a black-box is workable in the real world, and in sci-fi, just so long as SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE knows how it works.

    • VERY good point, Collin. You’re exactly right that you don’t need to know how something works to use it in real life, but the difference comes with the double-standard of expectations we all have with fiction. No, I could not give you a detailed explanation about how my microwave works- I put food in, I push some buttons, and after a few turns around some sort of merry-go-round thing inside, my food is hot. I go on with my day.

      However, if microwave ovens did not exist, even if it was common knowledge that microwaves excite the water molecules in food and could thus be used as an effective way of reheating my General Tso’s Chicken dinner, if I read something about a guy putting his plate of food into a metal box and it was suddenly hot, in the way I described above, I would feel like the writer was being lazy and opting for a “high technology is basically magic” approach to his story.

      Even if I can reason out how the box could conceivably work, if the writer doesn’t at least hint as to how HE thinks it would, I feel cheated. In real life, we don’t need that, because we’re much more pragmatic about the fastest way to heat up a burrito, because we’re hungry and the magic box solves the problem. In a story, which already requires the imagination to be engaged in order to immerse its audience, you have to strike a delicate balance of giving the reader enough details so that they trust that your tech isn’t just magic without boring them with a lecture on quantum mechanics.

      • One of the greatest feats of sci-fi writing, in my mind, is not just predicting new and different technology, but rather predicting how that technology will change society. Predicting the internet in the 1940s is impressive, but much more impressive is predicting porn filters, computer viruses, spyware, cyber-warfare, internet addiction, chat forums, etc. To do that, you don’t need to know more than the basic principles of the technology (computers being linked to each other to exchange information), but understanding people is much more important. Knowing that sex will always sell, that humans tend to congregate in any forum possible, and that groups of humans will always descend to the lowest common denominator. That’s what makes writers like Asimov and Niven so impressive, more than their science degrees.

  2. The example that always comes to my mind is part of the transporter technology in Star Trek — specifically, the Heisenburg compensator, which of course, compensates for the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle.

    • Case and point! Anyone that has practically any exposure to sci-fi has heard of the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, and that there’s all kinds of erudite, cosmic mysteries involved with it. Star Trek makes a reference (without explaining the whole shpeal to you), and if you’ve heard of it, BAM. The neato teleporter-thing is now grounded in a concept from our own day and age.

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