Good and Bad Science in Science Fiction | Cosmic Variance

Spent a day last week at the bacchanalia of imagination that is San Diego Comic-Con. Really an amazing experience, anyone who gets a chance should go at some point. My own excuse was appearing on a panel sponsored by Discover and the Science and Entertainment Exchange, on Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi. I was joined by Jaime Paglia, TV writer and creator of the very charming show Eureka; Kevin Grazier, JPL scientist, blogger, and science advisor to both Eureka and Battlestar Galactica; and Zack Stentz, writer for Fringe and the upcoming Thor movie. We were ably moderated by Phil Plait, and Tricia Mackey provided technical wizardry behind the scenes. We packed the room to bursting, with a long line of people who unfortunately weren’t able to fit inside. There’s a huge demand for this kind of discussion. See also reports here, here, here, here, here.

And yes there is a video record of the whole event! (And other Discover videos.)

The rough idea was to point out examples of good and bad science in science fiction on movies and TV. Phil scored the best example of bad science, finding a brief clip from Armageddon where Bruce Willis is doing delicate work on the surface of an asteroid — in the rain. Jaime and Zack, who actually work in Hollywood, wisely foresaw the pitfalls of holding up someone else’s stuff as an example of badness, and graciously both chose examples from their own work. Sometimes the science must take a backseat to the story.

But not usually. In my own presentation I tried to move beyond the model of scientist as copy-editor, running through stories and films looking for violations of the laws of physics, wagging the finger of shame with ill-concealed glee. I think scientists should take a more creative role, helping fiction writers to develop consistent rules for their fictional worlds and extrapolating the consequences of those worlds, even if those rules are not the rules of our real universe. We should be more than scolds.

Update: since the two clips I showed were apparently missing from the video, I’m linking to them here. The first was a forward-looking philosophy of the proper relationship between science and narrative, and the second was an example of carefully exploring the logical consequences of an imaginary world.



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