How Science Fiction Made Me Want to Be a Scientist

I got into this stuff because of science fiction. I was a huge nerd in high school. I remember there was a time that between UPN, TNN, and The SciFi Channel you could watch six straight hours of Star Trek on a Friday night. None of those networks exist anymore. I built a Stargate in my parents’ basement freshman year (see above)--though I never got it to send me anywhere. When my Junior English teacher told me to write a paper on John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or another famous American author, I wrote it on Phillip K. Dick.

As I grew older, and my knowledge of science fact began to catch up with my encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction, I realized that the fantastic science I had seen and read about matched up with actual science less and less. This semester, I took a class in Quantum Mechanics with Prof Brian Greene (If you’re on the World Science Festival website, you’ve probably heard of him). And I learned why all the cool utilizations of Quantum Physics we see on TV wouldn’t work with our actual understanding of the theory. The “spooky action at a distance” of Quantum Entanglement can’t send a message faster than the speed of light. Quantum Teleportation is light years—metaphorically—away from “Beam me up, Scotty” even if the news keeps on insisting otherwise every few months. And while the Many Worlds Approach may be a legitimate method for understanding the universe, we can’t jump to other universes like Quinn Mallory or Spock with a goatee.

In 1995, Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek. Over the past decade and a half, several other similar titles have been written, on topics ranging from Baseball to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The latter is a surprisingly good review for the AP Physics exam). These authors recognized that the ideas that fascinated us as children can help us to understand the physical world. In their own right, they may not be teaching methods, but they inspire us to learn.

It was never about how accurate the science was in science fiction.

It’s about the wonder and excitement of the unknown. It’s about the attitude of characters like Spock and Data, how they attacked problems head on and came up with creative solutions. It’s even about building a interdimensional portal in your basement. That’s what inspired me to want to become a scientist. And maybe this means we’ll never have warp drive or transporters like they have on the Enterprise. But we’ll create something better.

Michael J Kennelly is a Senior Physics Major at Columbia University, where he holds a I.I. Rabi Scholarship. He has completed research internships at Columbia, Rutgers University, The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratories, and The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. He suffers from terrible insomnia, which he treats by watching Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.

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The World Science Festival program I enjoyed was Hidden Dimensions:Exploring Hyperspace, which featured Linda Dalrymple Henderson the acknowledged expert on the history of modern artists' engagement with a possible fourth dimension of space. Brilliant segment on creative transformation.

I don't know which of us was luckier. When I was growing up, there wasn't science fiction on TV at all (although we had the original Don Herbert series, which was awesome.) Instead we had these things made of paper with stories that actually hinged on orbital mechanics, the twin paradox, made-up worlds which checked out to the best knowledge of the day, and other temptations to learn mathematics at an early age.

I do admit that watching the original Star Trek when it came around the first time was good, even if it did happen on Date Night.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

It was EE Smith and the Skylark of Space that did it for me; in the finale, when they teleported essentially an entire galaxy. But they only did it one star and one planet at a time, so no big deal.

Colonel Steve Zodiac and his Fireball XL-5 made me think of rockets and working as a scientist. Still perfecting that "oxygen pill". There's plenty of "better" works left to be done. Appreciate the Phillip K. Dick reference...The Man in the High Castle (1962) Check it out now.

By dcfivefan19 (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

Spock, evil-Spock, Data, Noonian Soong(?)...all very good role models for science types...but I also liked Dr. Katherine Pulaski, mainly because she was very intelligent, very independant, and didn't simply get along with everyone else. There were times TNG just seemed a little too much like one big happy family....she seemed to rankle everyone without losing her credibility or perceived competency.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

Yep, SF had a huge affect on my love of science as a youngster. Mainly SF books, but some TV - Star Trek, UFO, Space 1999, the Tomorrow People, Dr Who.

Yes, I'm old!

I do hope that you went back and read some Steinbeck, though. Simply beautiful writing, and my all-time favourite.

In Sweden, we also got some excellent translations of Eastern European science fiction (Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatsky brothers). Tv also showed some non-anglosaxon SF. In the sixties (yes, I am that old) the German Raumpatrouille (intermediate in sophistication between Space Patrol and star Trek) and the French film Aplhaville. Solaris was shown in Swedish TV the year it was made, and so on.
The Swedish physics Nobel laureate Hannes Alfven also wrote SF under the pen name Olof Johannesson.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

"Itâs about the wonder and excitement of the unknown."

I was more into fantasy than sci-fi I must admit, but the excitement about amazing other worlds stayed with me right up until I looked down a microscope and saw an exciting alien world right there in front of me.

There was tv scifi in the Don Herbert era:
Flash Gordon--Steve Holland
Tales of Tomorrow
Science Fiction Theater

And many Scifi movies on Tv.

Check out YouTube.

penny, I agree (although much of it was at bad times for me at that age.) You also forgot what may have been the most seminal TV science fiction of all [1]: The Twilight Zone.

Oh, and as for Don Herbert: I was delighted to see Nickelodeon pick up his short-lived second series just in time for my kids. His estate has put all of the shows from both eras on DVD and you can order them on the Web.

[1] Yes, that's a reach -- but not all that much of one.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

Hey, I'm glad to hear so many other people have had similar experiences. The spark of curiousity is the most important part of scientific research.

Also, love that dcfivefan19 brought up Fireball XL5, I thought my dad was the only person who still knew that show.

I have a hard time even reading science fiction anymore because real science is so much more interesting and exciting than sci-fi science and technology could ever be.

I'm just glad my sons obsession with legos will hopefully lead him to be a great American scientist! And of course now his obsession with the show "through the wormhole" with Morgan Freeman.

ben samet benim bilim hakkın da bir sürü düÅüncelerim ama kimseyle paylaÅamıyorum biri bana yardım etse çok sevinirim

I'm just glad my sons obsession with legos will hopefully lead him to be a great American scientist! And of course now his obsession with the show "through the wormhole" with Morgan Freeman.

It got better later in the broadcast (maybe less people logged on then, not sure if that could have been influencing it

09:12 BJT
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By è¶æååæç¢åº (not verified) on 17 Aug 2011 #permalink