If you see someone in a cafe with vampirically pale skin, out of fashion T-shirt, and a volume from the Star Wars extended universe, you’re probably going to assume that person is a nerd. If you write for Hollywood, you are going to assume that person is a misunderstood computer science genius. If you do not do of these things, you might hypothesize that you’re seeing someone proficient with technology. The long line of people waiting for the Avengers premiere? Engineers. The Red Shirt you met at that fan convention has a day job researching solar flares. Accuracy of these assumptions aside, it isn’t too far a stretch to say that the people who like stories about science and technology generally tend to work in science and technology. I’m in engineering, and I happen to be a fan of Firefly, Superhero comics, and Bones. Many of my friends’ favorite genres are sci-fi.
However, we have all had that moment watching a show or reading a book, where the quality of science exhibited made us want to throw things and send the writers/creators/actors/everyone involved back to high school science. The most blatant disregard generally featured is explosions in space. Because there is no oxygen, or any other gases, outside of the atmosphere of planets, all of those glorious explosions in Star Wars are horribly wrong. There is no sound in space, so that BOOM? Not a real thing. I know, it’s sad. I wanted there to be large WOOOSHing noises every time I narrowly avoid grazing a TIE fighter in the Falcon. A parsec is a measure of distance equal to approximately 19.2 trillion miles, not of speed. And don’t get me started on the nuclear testing scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (For more examples of the bad science in movies, see links below!)
Even though these things make us weep and despair for the future of humanity, we line up again and again to see the latest and greatest that Hollywood has to offer us. We read things about time travel, nodding and smiling whenever someone tries to explains how they made it happen. We love it, even when it’s wrong.
Why? I think it’s because science fiction does something that reality can’t generally do for engineers and scientists and others who are bound by physics and so forth: it says, “Screw rules, what if you built REALLY COOL stuff? What kind of awesomeness would happen?”
People keep telling us that science and technology should save the world, give the scientists and technicians a bunch of problems complicated with socio-economic and people factors, and say, “Have fun, kids.” Rarely does anyone say, “Oh here, let us give you infinite resources to build whatever craziness you’ve got in your head.” Even more rarely: “Have the money, time, people, and other resources you need to solve this actual problem that really needs to be fixed.”
Films give us a space where that is possible. We can fantasize about playing with the best and most interesting technology mankind can come up with. (As an aside, the hoveraircraft carrier in the Avengers isn’t completely impossible. We so need to make it happen.) That guy who wrote a petition to congress to build the USS Enterprise? Visionary. He took something from fiction and figured out what technology, funding, and time we would need to complete it. Furthermore, he even justified its building with real logic! (http://www.buildtheenterprise.org/)
Stories make us more creative, and help us push the bounds of possibility. So even though the accuracy is off, the dreams are still there, inspiring scientists and engineers to build REALLY AWESOME stuff.
I conclude with this graphic representation of the effect of science fiction on engineers:
Bad Movie Science Links:
(^ this one also has accurate science films!)