Saturday, September 17, 2011

I'm a Huge Nerd :D

Because I loved writing this way more than I should have, here is the blog post for my SciComm Media class.

Science Fiction and Space Travel: When Media Boldly Goes Where No Science Has Gone Before

In this class so far, we’ve talked about how to create media (like podcasts, movies, and blogs) that better communicate science to the world. For us Science Communicators, science begets media; someone has to discover new ideas before we can say or film or write anything. But what about when this process is reversed? What happens when the media brings up innovative concepts before science does?

Well, we usually call that “science fiction,” and often we cringe or rant at just how bad some sci fi can portray science. But some fiction has accurately predicted, inspired, or effected real science.
Jules Verne Wasn’t All Bad
Okay, so Journey to The Center of the Earth hurts me in my physics (and geology!) too, but Jules Verne also wrote a novel called From the Earth to the Moon in 1865. In it, three men build a giant canon to shoot a small vessel (with themselves inside) into space and land on the moon. Now, “shooting” people into space turns out to not be feasible, but Verne did some actual calculations and got some other pretty important things right.  The dimensions and material of the vessel, the best location from which to launch, and even the cost of the venture were shockingly close the reality of the Apollo missions, especially considering he was writing a hundred years before science finally achieved space travel.

Star Trek: The First Frontier
If you’re as much of a nerd as I am, you’re already familiar with the 1960s original Star Trek series. Like all the best science fiction, Star Trek was set in a future chockablock with sweet gadgets, but think for just a moment about all the things this television show “invented” that you own today: data pads (iPad), portable computer memory (USB sticks), remote location devices (GPS), huge flat screens (plasma screens), tricorders (PDAs), even automatic sliding doors were all unheard of at the time! Martin Cooper directly credits the classic Star Trek communication device for motivating him to build the world’s first cellphone. By sharing concepts for useful, really cool devices, Star Trek inspired people to bring to real life the next generation of consumer technology.

Everyone Knows Astronauts Wear Silver
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in space, and he did it in a shiny silver suit. The Mercury mission suits were just slightly upgraded versions of high altitude pressure suits designed by the U.S. Navy –which originally came in military olive green. Why the change in color from green to silver?
The common-sense “concerns about reflecting heat” don’t quite cut it; the green color worked perfectly fine in all the near-orbit flights, and, according to the historian quoted at the end of this discussion thread, the silver color was just that: a silver “spray” on top of the nylon material.
But the silver color made sense on a cultural level: everything from the gleam of metallic ship hulls to shiny aliens-are-reading-my-brain-waves tin foil hats were used by writers to convey a sense of the futuristic. And it worked. Science fiction taught even the scientists at NASA to associate the color silver with space.

The color silver was so important, you can see that the two astronauts in the center -John Glenn and Deke Slayton- are actually wearing military boots that were spray painted for this infamous photo because the real boots weren't finished being made yet!

Telling Stories
So, fellow Science Communicators, we’ve already talked some about whether we count movie makers and their ilk among those of us trying to effectively communicate scientific ideas to the public. Is there an important difference between telling a story with science and telling a story about science?
If there is an important difference, what about when the fiction gets it right, like in the examples above? And how do we work with fiction creators like Isaac Asimov or George Lucas who have universally impacted the way people (including scientists) view science and technology?

p.s. Hugehugehuge thanks to Emil for telling me the NASA stories! <3


  1. I was just watching a pbs special on Watson the Jeopardy playing robot. "We were trying to make a computer that worked like the one on Star Trek."

  2. Haha, that's awesome! I <3 Star Trek. I'm looking forward to the transporter beams.