Exploring the Science in Science Fiction-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, December 22, 2003

Exploring the Science in Science Fiction

The scene: a micrometeorite crashes through the hull of a spaceship traveling to Mars. The crew members panic. According to the ship’s computer, they have only five minutes to find and repair the breach in the hull before the air in their ship escapes. Working furiously, they determine the extent of the damage and apply a temporary patch with just seconds to spare.

Does this scene from Brian DePalma’s 2000 film “Mission to Mars” sound plausible? Barry Luokkala, a principal physics lecturer at the Mellon College of Science (MCS), doesn’t think so. In fact, after estimating both the size of the hole and the volume of the spaceship, then applying some basic concepts of the kinetic theory of gases, he’s absolutely certain the filmmakers have it wrong. While it makes for exciting film, Luokkala estimates that it would take the air more than 10 hours to escape.

In an MCS course entitled Science and Science Fiction, Luokkala teaches first-year MCS and Science and Humanities Scholars (SHS) students about the actual science that underpins events in science-fiction films such as “Mission to Mars.”

“I’ve found that it helps to teach complex scientific concepts by using examples from sci-fi films that students already may be familiar with and that are ingrained in popular culture,” said Luokkala.

The six-week course, developed by Luokkala and now in its fifth year, examines such topics as robotics, teleportation, genetic engineering and time travel using examples from popular films and television shows like “Star Trek,” “The Matrix,” “Metropolis” and “Jurassic Park.”

Luokkala says that students seem to enjoy poking holes in the science of their favorite films. He is quick to point out, though, that not all science-fiction films contain exclusively bad science. He offers the 1968 original “Planet of the Apes” as an example of a film that gets its science mostly right. The treatment of special relativity and time dilation at the beginning of the film is done quite well, Luokkala says, but the writers attribute the theory of relativity to a fictional person instead of Albert Einstein.

Most science-fiction films get it wrong. In a recent class, students watched the opening scene of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” in which Spock, wearing jet-propelled hover boots, rescues Captain Kirk from a freefall by grabbing his ankle. After estimating Kirk’s velocity, the time it took Spock to slow Kirk’s fall and (after much heated discussion) Kirk’s mass, students used laws of natural physics to determine that Spock would have had to exert more than two tons of force on Kirk’s ankle to stop his fall, an amount that likely would have ripped Kirk’s leg from his body.

Students in the course don’t just talk about films, though—they also read about recent scientific developments and complete final projects that move beyond analyzing film science into theorizing solutions for real scientific problems.

Bridget Lewis, a first-year SHS student, did her final project on fictional representations of invisibility. After debunking television representations from the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Invisible Man” and an episode of “The Avengers” entitled “See-Through Man,” she developed her own theory of how simulated invisibility might actually be feasible. She theorized that a coating containing millions of nanobots could make an object appear invisible. While nanobot technology is nowhere near the stage where such a thing is possible, Lewis came up with a tentative design consisting of three superimposed layers of nanobots. The first layer would absorb and emit light, the second would facilitate communication among the first layer’s bots, and the third computational layer would process all the environmental information needed to enable light absorption and emission to simulate invisibility.

Such forward thinking and innovation is one thing Luokkala hopes to encourage with his course.

“By looking at improbabilities in fictional examples of science, students may be motivated to pursue possible real-life scientific solutions,” he said.

Science and Science Fiction will be offered again for first-year MCS and SHS students in the fall 2004 semester. For more information on MCS or the SHS program, please visit www.cmu.edu/mcs or www.cmu.edu/shs.

By: David Platt