Friday, September 18, 2015

Science Fiction Can Make You Smarter

It is no secret that many people find scientific concepts hard to understand. If you say “alternate reality” or “wormhole” or “gravitational time dilation,” they will shake their heads and throw up their hands because those concepts are entirely alien to them. On the other hand, science fiction fans can easily pick up on these ideas because they have seen some kind of representation of them in science fiction.

Take the Stargate SG-1 episode, A Matter of Time, where the stargate connects to a planet falling into a black hole, and the black hole’s gravity comes through the gate to earth. The details of what happens in the episode aren’t physically accurate, but it used the general idea of time dilation such that someone could spend hours outside the base while only a few minutes would pass inside. Now suppose I was explaining to someone who had seen A Matter of Time how our GPS satellites need clocks that run a tiny bit slower than the clocks on earth, because time passes a little bit slower on the surface of the earth than in orbit. The other person can ask, “like in Stargate?” to which I’d reply with a nod and a grin, “like in Stargate.”

Unfortunately, the fiction does not always get it right. In fact, most of the time popular science fiction gets something so utterly, fundamentally wrong that it is obvious that the writers did little to no research, nor did they consult an expert. One of the most common examples of this is using the word “dimension” to mean another universe of some kind. But a dimension is a direction, not a place. We do not live in a dimension, but in four: up-down, left-right, fore-back, and past-future. If we want to get to another universe, we might travel through another dimension or two—just like I travel through the fore-back and left-right dimensions to go between my home and school—but not to another dimension.

The counter to problems like this is to keep in mind that fiction is by definition not real. If one wants to know the actual theories of reality, one must look to science fact. To my great satisfaction, there are many scientifically knowledgeable people who counter sci-fi’s many mistakes by discussing the actual science behind the concepts. These discussions can be found in books like The Physics of Star Trek and Physics of the Impossible, and documentaries like BBC’s The Science of Doctor Who and Stargate SG-1: True Science. There is also a growing unification of geekdom and science on youtube, including channels like SciShow Space and PBS Space Time. These people have recognized that science fiction can be used as a learning gateway for science, and are taking advantage of the fact.

I chose to pursue a career in astrophysics because of science fiction. I have little trouble understanding concepts like relativistic time dilation, the various multiverse hypotheses, quantum tunneling, higher dimensions, and so many more. I believe this is in part due to how much science fiction I have seen and read, and the examples of these and similar concepts described and shown in these stories. There is a common conception that nerds are smart, and I, for one, believe it is no accident.

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