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Exploring Science Through Science Fiction

on Wed, 10/15/2014 - 00:00

Exploring Science Through Science Fiction
“I define science fiction as the art of the possible,” author Ray Bradbury once remarked. “Science fiction is the history of ideas, and they’re always ideas that work themselves out and become real and happen in the world.”

For Barry Luokkala, a teaching professor in the Physics Department of Carnegie Mellon University, those words ring especially true. Shortly after the turn of the Twenty First Century, Luokkala began using science fiction to explore the “history of ideas” in actual science, from Newton’s Laws of Motion to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the very nature of the universe itself. What started out as a mini-course consisting of six sessions over a half-semester eventually evolved into a full-fledged class that was not only popular with science majors at the Pittsburgh-based CMU but students enrolled in other curriculums as well.

“To my great delight, I got everybody,” Luokkala explained at a panel discussion during the 2014 edition of Confluence, a Pittsburgh-based science fiction convention. “I got people from drama and music and art and history and English and business as well as computer science and biology and math and physics, which was the crowd I was used to having. So it was tremendously successful and the evaluations were everything that I hoped for. They said this made science accessible to them, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do—to create a course that could make non-technical people excited about exploring science.”

The success of Barry Luokkala’s experiment led to a paperback textbook version of his course available to the general public as well as other universities interested in designing their own syllabus around it. Exploring Science Through Science Fiction—released in October 2013 by Springer Publishing—follows the same format as the class that Luokkala has been teaching at Carnegie Mellon University for over a decade, with discussions on science fiction concepts that are “plausible (solidly grounded in real science), possible in principle (but beyond our current technology), or total fantasy (impossible by any science we know),” in addition to “things that were purely science fiction at the time when the movie or television episode was produced, but are now reality, thanks to recent breakthroughs in science and technology.”

A full array of science fiction movies and television shows, with a small handful of literary works thrown in for good measure, are referenced within the pages of Exploring Science Through Science Fiction. The list includes such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, Forbidden Planet, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Given the multitude of television series and movies spawned by the original show, Star Trek—in all of its formats—likewise plays a dominant role in Exploring Science Through Science Fiction. A Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, in which Lieutenant Commander Data uses the holodeck to play poker with Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, even serves as an introduction to three of the greatest figures in the history of physics.

Star Trek is also indicative of the various ways that science fiction concepts can be possible, plausible, fantasy and current reality. According to Barry Luokkala, warp engines are actually plausible but outside our current technological abilities, while an android such as Data is becoming more and more within the realm of the possible—at least in terms of computers that can simulate the memory storage and processing power of the human brain.

Another popular Star Trek device, the teleporter, falls into the fantasy category as far as Luokkala is concerned. For starters, the amount of computer memory needed to store a detailed “map” of any single human body at a single moment in time is immense, as is the processing energy necessary to create such a map. Furthermore, the mapping itself is problematic, something that the producers of Star Trek themselves acknowledged.

“When it comes to measuring the properties of extremely small particles, such as the atoms that make up the complex biological molecules in the human body, there are fundamental limitations on the precision with which such measurements can be made,” Barry Luokkala writes. “The quantum nature of matter forbids the simultaneous measurement of both the position and the momentum of a particle with arbitrary precision. In other words, if you want to know precisely how fast a particle is moving, you cannot simultaneously know exactly where the particle is, and vice versa. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and it presents an enormous roadblock to the idea of teleportation. The writers of Star Trek, recognizing this problem, have invented devices, which are aptly named Heisenberg Compensators, in order to get around this fundamental limitation on quantum measurements.”

In addition to dividing science fiction into “good science” and “bad science,” Exploring Science Through Science Fiction likewise contains mathematical problems that are left for readers to solve on their own. For example, enough information is provided by Barry Luokkala in order to calculate “the power involved in a human teleportation event, in units of watts,” and readers are then encouraged to do so.

In the film Back to the Future, meanwhile, Dr. Emmett Brown initially demonstrates the time-traveling capabilities of his DeLorean by placing his dog Einstein into the vehicle with a stopwatch around its neck while holding a similar stopwatch himself. When Einstein finishes his one-minute trip into the future, the stopwatches differ by one minute.

Earlier in the chapter, Luokkala used the real Albert Einstein’s concept of time dilation to calculate the speed that Charlton Heston’s spaceship was traveling at the beginning of Planet of the Apes, based on information relayed by Heston in a verbal log entry and also contained on the ship’s chronometer. Using the same set of equations, Exploring Science Through Science Fiction asks the reader to calculate how fast the DeLorean in Back to the Future would have to be going for the canine Einstein to have traveled one minute into the future, as well as how long the trip would have taken if the DeLorean had actually been traveling at 88 miles per hour, as the film suggests.

“A major goal of the present work is to increase public awareness and appreciation of science, but the approach is somewhat unorthodox,” Barry Luokkala writes in the opening pages of Exploring Science Through Science Fiction. But as he also observes near the end of the book, “a good case can be made for the influence of science fiction on the development of science and technology.”

In reality, science fiction and science fact are complimentary to each other, as one field would not necessarily exist without the other. There could be no science fiction, after all, if it wasn’t for real science, and where would our understanding of science be without human imagination?

By bringing the two together—first through a course offered at Carnegie Mellon University and then through a paperback textbook offered to the general public—Luokkala has shown exactly how intertwined real science and science fiction actually are, while teaching his students and readers a little something about both fields in the process.

Anthony Letizia

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