Barry Luokkala's 33120 Science and Science Fiction is a popular mini-course for science majors.-Dept of Physics - Carnegie Mellon University

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Barry Luokkala's 33120 Science and Science Fiction is a popular mini-course for science majors.

What do Scientific American and The Jetsons have in common? They're both on Barry Luokkala's syllabus for this summer's Science and Science Fiction course.

Luokkala (S'01), a Carnegie Mellon physics professor, has been teaching the popular mini-course for science majors since creating it 10 years ago. With a continual waiting list and high-demand from students across campus — including the aides in Hunt Library who helped Luokkala check out his materials, the course is being offered for the first time this summer to all students and for a full-semester.

Through journals like Scientific American and film clips spanning 100 years, students explore and discuss cutting-edge scientific principles. They start as far back as film itself, as Luokkala points out the first film of significant length was based on Jules Verne's science fiction.

Many of the clips demonstrate impossibilities that the class can prove scientifically. For example, the popular Star Trek transporter is entertaining but implausible, as the computations necessary would take more than 3 million years. On the other hand, the original Star Trek communicators are eerily similar to today's cell phones.

"We're also seeing many advances in terms of non-invasive, medical diagnostic tools," added Luokkala. "Hospitals are looking more and more like the sick bay on the Enterprise."

A teacher at heart, Luokkala has been at Carnegie Mellon since 1980, drawn by the opportunity to interact with students.

"It's exciting to see the light bulbs go on when students suddenly discover that they understand something they didn't understand before," he explained.

While working full-time, it was Luokkala's students who inspired him to pursue his doctorate, and he delights in furthering their work.

"The biggest thing for me at Carnegie Mellon is the environment that really encourages students to get into research," he said. "The willingness of the faculty to work one-on-one with students in their research labs, to get them actually involved and not just sitting in a classroom listening about the ideas, but actually doing things with their own hands."

Summing up the connection between science and science fiction, Luokkala said it best, "It's all about imagination."

CMU Homepage story.

YouTube interview with Barry.