Carnegie Mellon University
Science Goes PopPhoto of Barry Luokkala in his office

Science Goes Pop

Luokkala Melds Science and Science Fiction

by Susie Cribbs

With childhood role models like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and marine biologist Jacques Cousteau, there was no doubt that Barry Luokkala (S’01) would become a scientist. But what sets the teaching professor of physics apart from his peers is how he’s combined his passion for science with his other great love—science fiction.

Luokkala’s interest in sci-fi “goes way back to childhood,” he says, with the premiere of the cartoon series, “The Jetsons.” But while the space-aged family’s adventures piqued his interest, he attributes his lifelong sci-fi passion to his seventh grade history teacher, who made all the students in his class watch an episode of the original “Star Trek” series as homework.

“We were studying World War II, and there was an episode of the original series called ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ involving time travel back to Earth in the 1930s and interfering with the events of history—seemingly insignificant events that had an incredible impact on the flow of history,” he said. “Our discussion was about how history would have unfolded if the U.S. hadn’t been the first to develop the atomic bomb. I thought that was brilliant, and I will never forget that teacher.”

He also never forgot his high school physics teacher, especially after a C in honors chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh prompted him to rethink his biochemistry major. Recalling that the high school physics teacher was “one of the best I ever had,” he switched majors and earned a degree in physics that led him to join the staff in Carnegie Mellon’s Physics Department. For three years he designed lecture demonstrations and cared for the undergraduate lab equipment. In 1983, he added teaching experimental physics to the mix. He also decided to pursue a Ph.D. part-time while he worked and taught full-time—a feat that would have been impossible without his wife, Janet.

“Earning my Ph.D. wouldn’t have happened without my wonderfully supportive wife, who would bring me tea and cookies while I was doing my homework and did everything she could possibly do to help me,” Luokkala said. “It was not easy, but I don’t regret having done it.”

In 1999, then-MCS dean Susan Henry posed a challenge to faculty that gave Luokkala the idea of melding science with science fiction.

“The dean encouraged faculty to create mini-courses for our first-year students to keep them interested in and excited about science,” he said. Luokkala’s wife had recently given him a first-edition copy of “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence Krauss, and he felt like it would be an excellent idea for a college course— but only if it looked at a broader range of sci-fi film and TV, and expanded its technical view beyond physics.

“I proposed a course on science and science fiction where we would look at film clips and television episodes and, in parallel, read current science articles about cutting-edge research and analyze the science content of the movies in terms of what we know about science.”

And like that, Science and Science Fiction was born. The course, now both an MCS-only first-year mini seminar in the fall and a full-semester class open to the entire campus in spring, comprises eight units that begin with the most impersonal subjects (e.g., the nature of space and time) and progress to more complex issues, like what it means to be human. Throughout, students study clips and episodes from sci-fi movies and television shows, and explore science through that lens. They may watch James Bond cut his way out of a metal train car with his laser-embedded watch in “Golden Eye” and do the math to determine if it’s really possible. (It’s not.) Or examine clips of Commander Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and, after studying data storage technology and processor speeds, perform calculations to predict when machines like Data could exist. (As soon as 30 years from now.)

Science and Science Fiction has surpassed Luokkala’s expectations on every front. “The mini-course is small and the quality of discussion is a delight, as is seeing excited first-year students engaging with the materials and sharing their ideas about the articles we read,” he said.

The full-semester course, with equal parts technical and non-technical majors, offers its own rewards.

textbook“The real joy is interacting with students from the humanities, arts and business who are excited to have the opportunity to think in ways they’ve never thought before and to write about subjects that really interest them,” Luokkala said.

Luokkala’s reach will extend beyond CMU later this fall, when his textbook, “Exploring Science Through Science Fiction,” is published. It’s a compilation of references he’s used in the past 10 years, complete with media suggestions, problems, calculations and answers. And while he knows there’s a market for the book at campuses across the globe, he thinks that CMU’s distinct personality helped make his course a success.

“What CMU has that other universities may not is world-class technical departments and world-class non-technical departments on one campus,” he said.

He envisions doing this for years and years to come. To explore strange new worlds, like the heroes of his childhood. But from a classroom, using science and science fiction.