Explainer: Inspirations — from Tom Swift to tomatoes

Childhood interests may lead to a career imagining how the future could play out
Nov 26, 2013 — 4:00 pm EST

Even something as simple as farming tomatoes (that went into Campbell’s soup) helped Lester Brown learn to appreciate the importance of planning for the future. That was his first step toward becoming a futurist. 

Brown family photo

Brian David Johnson began writing science fiction when he was in fifth grade. That is also when he started taking college classes in computer programming. In middle school, Glen Hiemstra and Lester Brown each spent more time thinking about the future than most kids their age. All three took inspiration from what they saw and dreamed about.

A fictional hero named Tom Swift inspired Hiemstra. In books and movies, Swift created amazing inventions. These included a beam that could repel anything, a machine that could create materials from sunlight, and a device that could "photograph" what an old, worn object had looked like when it was new. Even the TASER — the name of a very real type of stun gun — is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, another of his inventions.

Tom Swift “was the original spark for my interest in all things future — particularly technology and how can things be really different than they are today,” says Hiemstra. By the 1960s, when he was in high school, the real space program was underway. President John F. Kennedy had set what sounded like an impossible goal: sending astronauts to the moon. From then on, Hiemstra says, the space program became a focus of nearly every research paper he wrote.

Brown meanwhile grew up on a working farm, growing tomatoes for use in Campbell’s soup. “If you’re a farmer, you have to anticipate the future,” he says. Every crop requires planning for a harvest months away. By the time Brown was in high school, he had put together his own farming operation with his younger brother.

“We grew tomatoes for seven years, and the last year we had 280,000 tomato plants,” Brown recalls. Those plants produced about 680,000 kilograms (1.5 million pounds) of tomatoes that year. “If you ate Campbell’s tomato soup back in the mid-1950s, you probably ate some of our tomatoes,” he says with pride.

Brown’s success as a farmer depended upon his ability to predict when the tomatoes needed to be planted and watered. By knowing when the tomatoes would ripen, he could ensure that he’d have enough people available to pick them and get them to the soup factory before they went bad.

The speed of change

Something called Moore’s Law inspires Brian David Johnson’s work at Intel Corp. The company’s cofounder, Gordon Moore, came up with the concept nearly 50 years ago. Basically, Moore’s Law follows the observation that electronics manufacturers constantly find ways to shrink the size of computer components, such as transistors. That allows engineers to roughly double the number of transistors onto a given sized computer chip every 12 to 18 months, Johnson explains. More transistors increases the performance of computers — their so-called intelligence and speed. It also helps reduce the price of electronic products.

Johnson’s job requires him to devise new and useful ways to harness the computer power and intelligence that should be available within the next decade, due to this ever-decreasing size of computer processors. The answers he receives from surveys of consumers also helps him determine in which directions his company might want to go as it designs new technology. And it steers Intel away from directions in which it might not want to move. Then his team begins what they call back-casting. That means first deciding where you want to end up, and then figuring out which steps must be taken (or not taken) today to reach that point.

“Ultimately, it’s our job to develop technology that makes people’s lives better,” Johnson says. As a futurist, Intel wants him to identify answers to the following question: “How can we make people healthier, happier, more connected, more entertained, more sustainable?”

Johnson readily admits that imagination remains a big part of answering that question. And some of that involves science fiction. As someone who’s been writing science fiction since he was 10, Johnson is fine with that.

Successfully predicting the future is “really science fiction based on science fact,” he says. For example, imagine standing on the street and seeing a robot walk past. “What would it be like?” he asks. “What would it smell like? What would it sound like?” Would you hear motors whir or wheels grip the pavement? Our knowledge of science, technology and engineering can help flesh out these details, Johnson says.

If this example fires your imagination, check out The Future Powered by Fiction contest. If you are between the ages of 13 and 25, you can submit a scientifically grounded science fiction story, comic or video. Ten winners will each receive $1,000 and have their work published. Society for Science & the Public, together with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and the Intel Foundation, all sponsor this contest.

Power Words

acronym  A term that represents the abbreviation of a phrase and usually is made from the first letters of the words in that phrase. STEM, for instance, is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

computer chip  (alsointegrated circuit) The computer component that processes and stores information.

electronics Devices powered by electricity but whose properties are controlled by the semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.

futurist  Someone who uses data, supported by science and engineering, to project what technologies, products or behaviors are likely to characterize society in the future (often a decade or more away).

Moore’s law  An oft-cited prediction of the exponential miniaturization of computer electronics. It is attributed to Gordon Moore, cofounder of the computer-chip maker Intel Corp. Moore originally predicted, based on past experience, that the “number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months." This increase in the complexity of circuitry on computer chips was also predicted to similarly lead to a rapid and continuing drop in the cost of increasingly complex electronic products over time.

processor (in computing) Also called a central processing unit, or CPU, it forms part of the computer that performs numerical calculations or other types of data manipulation. It can also be a type of software, or programming, that translates some other program into a form that can be understood by the computer running it.

science fiction  A field of literary or filmed stories that take place against a backdrop of fantasy, usually based on speculations about how science and engineering will direct developments in the distant future. The plots in many of these stories focus on space travel, exaggerated changes attributed to evolution or life in (or on) alien worlds.

TASER  A brand name of a version of a “conducted electrical weapon” used by police, the military, prisons, security guards and others. It sends out electrodes that deliver a discharge of electricity into a person. That discharge incapacitates its target. Such devices are popularly referred to as stun guns.

technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.

transistor A device that can act like a switch for electrical signals.

Further Reading

D. Heitman. “Tom Swift turns 100.” Smithsonian.com. July 1, 2010.

Learn more about Moore’s Law on this Intel Corp site