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Science of TRON

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Sidney Perkowitz

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Installment 1: Accidental Painting, Flatland: the Movie, and Flatland 2: Sphereland

People love science fiction and Hollywood loves the piles of money these films make. The record holder for worldwide box office proceeds among all films is James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar (2009), coming in at a cool $2.8 billion. Other science fiction films have also done well. When paired with the related category of superhero films, the science fiction genre makes up nearly a third of the 60 all-time highest grossing movies, with The Hunger Games (2012) number 60 at $691 million.

Representing Robots: Theater First, Film Later

When I made a list of the all-time ten best science fiction films for my book Hollywood Science (2010), I was surprised to find that three of them feature artificial creatures: machine-like robots in Metropolis (1927) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and human-like androids in Blade Runner (1982). Artificial beings are big in other science fiction films too. A keyword search on “robot” in the Internet Movie Database yields hundreds of feature films, from The Master Mystery (1920) through Westworld (1973), RoboCop  (1987) and A. I. (2001) right up to Real Steel (2011) and this year’s Prometheus, with more in production.

Fantasy into Science, or Realizing the Impossible: Interstellar Travel

Some things are impossible because they violate fundamental laws of the universe, as far as we know. The theory of relativity says that neither matter nor information can travel faster than light. Matter because an object reaches infinite mass at the speed of light. (Though the recent measurement of neutrinos apparently traveling faster than light remains to be explained, most physicists suspect it reflects a subtle error, not an overthrow of the theory of relativity.) Information because that would reverse the order of cause and effect for some observers, effectively enabling time travel and violating everything we think we know about how nature operates. Other things are impossible, or at least extremely difficult, because of practical or engineering limitations rather than fundamental ones.

Fantasy into Science, or Realizing the Impossible: Tractor Beams

Short of destroying a whole world with planet-breaking weapons, the most action-filled moments in science fiction come when opposing spacecraft clash. As phasers fire and missiles launch, ships frantically maneuver, attack, or spectacularly explode. But sometimes the aim is to capture a spaceship intact, or if she has superior speed, to grab and hold her while battering down her defenses. That is the space version of a fighting technique from the days of wooden sailing ships, which is to pull an enemy ship close and hold her with grappling hooks and ropes, then board her, or pound her into wreckage at point-blank range.

Fantasy into Science, or Realizing the Impossible: Teleportation

During the years, we have watched Captains Kirk, Picard, and others in the Star Trek universe step onto a transporter platform, fade into shimmering motes of light, then instantaneously reappear on the surface of an unexplored planet. This is teleportation, surely the coolest possible way to travel through space – no need to squirm into a spacesuit or navigate a spaceship; just step up and away you go!

Fantasy into Science, or Realizing the Impossible: Invisibility

Fantasy fiction is about magic, science fiction is about … well, science. People who believe in one do not always buy into the other, yet the two can merge. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, a sufficiently advanced technology cannot be distinguished from magic. Besides, some magical visions represent such deep human yearnings that we ardently wish they were real. 

These visions often appear in fantasy, myth, and legend, where they are “explained” simply as being magical. They might reappear in the newer genre of science fiction, justified by more or less credible scientific explanations. And sometimes, if we are lucky, there’s a third step where the idea moves out of fiction altogether and becomes real.

The Chemical Formula: Successfully Combining Chemistry, Science, and the Media

It’s hard to know what some 500 chemists were expecting when they filed into a ballroom for an event called Hollywood Chemistry this past March 27, at the big annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Anaheim, California. What they got may have been a surprise: a 2-hour session that indeed covered some traditional chemistry, but mainly presented more drama, special effects, and laughs than the standard ACS scientific session, while making important points about chemistry and science in the media.

Food for (Future) Thought or 'Star Trek: The Menu'

Ever wonder how science-fiction heroes, busy hurtling through space or battling evil robots, find the time to eat nutritious meals so they can keep going? The classic science-fiction solution is that in the future they’ll take in a day’s nourishment by popping a pill crammed with the RDAs (recommended dietary allowances) for all the food groups, along with a pleasing taste and a satisfying sense of fullness. One little tablet and your favorite hero is good for another 24 hours of action.

Zap! Or, Where Would Science Fiction Be Without Lasers?

It’s hard to believe, but 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the laser. In 1960, Theodore Maiman, at the Hughes Research Labs in California, first applied a 40 year-old theoretical insight from Einstein to produce an intense beam of red light from a chunk of solid ruby. Einstein’s idea was used in the 1950s to make powerful microwaves with a device called a maser, for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” When Maiman similarly made visible light, his device became the laser, with “light” replacing “microwave.”

Will A Science Fiction Film Ever Win "Best Picture" On Oscar Night?

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey started a trend that eventually brought science fiction films from low-budget “B-movie” ratings to the big-budget status we now take for granted. As presented by Hollywood (and on television), science fiction today reaches far beyond mere respectability to real cultural and marketplace power. Its characters, settings, jargon, and fictional science have become recognized parts of popular culture the world over. Science fiction wields enormous commercial clout, too. Although James Cameron’s Avatar stands out as the highest grossing film ever at $2.6 billion, it’s not alone. At last count, 19 of the 50 all time top-grossing films – nearly 40% – are science fiction in one form or another.

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