Science in Science Fiction

January 06, 2014
Jamshaid R. Choudhry '16

picture of spaceIn late November, the Society of Physics Students hosted a panel discussion in Crawley Forum, open to the students, staff, faculty, and the local community. The panel speakers for the night were Dr. Trey Thurman, Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy; Dr. Sarah Hardy, Elliott Professor of English, and Dr. Steele Nowlin, Elliott Associate Professor of English.  Dr. Nicholas Deifel, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, moderated the event. The over-arching question for the night was, “Should the science in science fiction be scientifically accurate?” And the overwhelming answer was yes…and no.

Dr. Hardy started the night off by talking about the beloved show Star Trek. She mentioned the psychological, sociological, economic, and political impacts that Star Trek has had on its viewers. She praised the all-encompassing storytelling that spoke on issues, present when the show first came out, to issues present now such as civil rights, women’s rights, war, etc. Dr. Hardy answered the question with, “it depends.” It depends on the type of story the author, director, or artist is trying to portray to the audience.

Dr. Nowlin then informed the audience of several different types of science-fiction genres - the romantic science fiction, detective science fiction, horror science fiction, among others. He continued by agreeing with Dr. Hardy, that it depends. His reasoning was that science fiction should be scientifically accurate only for certain genres. For genres like romance, scientific accuracy should not be the most important aspect of the novel.

Dr. Thurman took a stance on the question stating that if a science-fiction movie is made, then it should be scientifically accurate. His example was the new movie Gravity. In one of the trailer scenes, the title character, played by Sandra Bullock, has the visor to her spacesuit up so that the audience is able to see her face. In that scene, Sandra Bullock looks directly at the sun with her visor up and that is not scientifically possible. Movies that claim to be fairly accurate should be fairly accurate. Missing a crucial point, like the fact that one cannot stare directly at the sun when in space can upset a few people.

Throughout the night, there was debate about the question, but the answer everyone agreed upon was, “it depends.” After the speakers reached a consensus, Dr. Deifel let the audience take over the rest of the night. There were some questions about the impact science fiction has had on society. One question in particular was, “Does science fiction lead to new science, or does new science lead to science fiction?” Dr. Hardy provided a great answer, “It’s a loop.” Sometimes science fiction leads to new innovations, and other times new science gives new ideas to authors that they can implement into their science-fiction novels.

Another question, a member of the audience asked, was, “What about 'mad science'? Is there such a thing as 'mad science'?” Dr. Thurman answered that science can be terrible in the wrong hands, so yes there is such a thing as "mad science" however, science fiction also teaches us that science can also be humanistic. The prime example Dr. Thurman used was Spock from the series Star Trek because he is both, Vulcan and human; both, logical and humanistic. Spock progresses in the series from being completely scientific or logical to being more humanistic or emotional by his death. Spock was able to display that science can be humanistic.

It was a great night for a discussion. All of the members of the audience were very interested in the discussion and everyone had fun. Will Hudson, a senior and English major recalls, “I thought the speakers were just going to talk about science but it turned out to be a great night. I really liked how they talked about the many implications of science fiction and not just about the science behind it. ” Dr. Rebecca Jayne, a math professor, recalls, “I thought that the discussion would just be about literature but it turned that the speakers talked about multimedia science fiction as well and that felt fresh. I liked how the speakers drew connections between literature and popular TV shows and movies.”

It was one of the most successful events hosted by the Society of Physics Students. It was just a great night of debate, discussion, and opinions. Everyone learned a great deal about Star Trek, Star Wars, and other Sci-Fi literature or multimedia out there. If nothing else, it was a great way of finding out about some great Sci-Fi novels and movies.