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Science of TRON

Listen to audio from the "Science of TRON" panel, featuring director Joe Kosinski, producer Sean Bailey, and science consultants Sean Carroll & John Dick. Learn More

Sidney Perkowitz

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Forget Warp Drive and "Faster-that-light" Space Travel: "Slow Light Is" Where It's At

Despite the fact that the speed of light is an absolute upper limit, faster-than-light space travel is deeply embedded in science fiction. Einstein showed that any object with mass cannot reach, let alone exceed, the speed of light. But science fiction tends to overlook this very inconvenient truth simply because the universe is so big. To reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star after our own Sun, would take more than four years for a spaceship moving at the speed of light, and a jaunt across the full diameter of our galaxy would take 100,000 years. Knowing this, script writers imagine solutions like Star Trek’s “warp drive” that allow the Enterprise to travel around the galaxy at multiples of light speed, or “worm holes” that provide cosmic short cuts.

My Favorite Cyborgs

Some of the most popular characters in science fiction are its artificial creatures: the robots like R2D2, the androids like Commander Data. I like them too, especially Data, but there’s another type of artificial creature I find more interesting. Or I should say semi-artificial, because I’m talking about cyborgs – cybernetic organisms: half living organic beings, half cold, dead steel, plastic, and computer chips.

 What is intriguing about cyborgs is the tension between the two halves. In the 1987 film RoboCop, the level of crime in Detroit requires a new kind of policing. Enter RoboCop, a metal body with super physical capabilities that’s given intelligence and personality by an implanted brain from a dead policeman. RoboCop is an outstanding law officer, but inside that casing is a mind that yearns for the warm human connections it once had but can never recover.

Aliens: Love Them, Hate Them, or Relate to Them?

What with black holes, dark energy, and so on, it’s a big strange universe out there. Science fiction films add more strangeness when they include weird and wonderful aliens. The closest we’ve come to real aliens so far is evidence of water that could support life, past or present, at a few sites in our solar system. But we have recently found lots of extrasolar planets and that helps fuel a long tradition of speculating about life in the universe.

Science Fiction Covers the Universe, And Also Our Own Little Globe

Ever notice how often the alien spaceship lands in Washington, DC, or New York City rather than Paris, Beijing, or Rio de Janeiro? Since the big science-fiction blockbusters are Hollywood products, it’s not surprising that these films are U.S.-centric and it’s also true that Washington and New York are major world cities. Even if the aliens want to reach Earthlings via the United Nations that too requires a stop-off in Manhattan.

But CNN headquarters might be a better choice, because there’s a whole big globe out there becoming increasingly interconnected by more than the UN International Telecommunication Union, Internet, and 24-hour news cycle. International trade and finance, terrorism, global warming, job outsourcing, immigration – all of these are linking people and nations more closely. Like any other cultural product, science fiction must reflect this reality sooner or later.

Updating Those Classic Science Fiction Films

Hi everybody. This is my first posting here, and I’m excited to write about science in film, a topic important for both scientists and film people. I’m a physicist who’s also a lifelong science fiction and movie fan. That helped when I wrote a book about science in film called Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, & the End of the World. In the process I watched a lot of films and that has given me plenty to write about.