Q&BA: The Science of Science Fiction

By Phil Plait | February 27, 2012 2:17 pm

On Sunday, February 26, 2012, I did one of my Q&BA live video chats on Google+. This one was a little different than usual: it was part of the online convention Dot Con Fest 2012, celebrating geek life. In honor of that, the topic was "The Science of Science Fiction". I talked about time travel, faster-than-light travel, Star Trek, Contact, Ringworld, Dyson spheres, artificial gravity, and a lot of other fun nerd topics. I got a lot more comments than usual, which was fantastic! I’ll have to do more themed chats in the future, I suppose.

And if you missed it, never fret: the entire chat is now on YouTube:

If you like it, please give it a "Like" on the YouTube page, and also take a look at the Q&BA archive for other videos.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Q & BA, Science, SciFi, TV/Movies

Comments (18)

Links to this Post

  1. I Have A Pen » Why Polar Satellites? | March 2, 2012
  1. Elias

    Hey Phil, any chance you could make this available as an audio-only file / podcast?

    Thanks!

  2. Mikey

    Did a course on Science Fiction once. The course instructor (fusty old dear) made a point of telling us all that it’s only Science Fiction if it’s fiction about or based on actual provable science.

    Oddly enough, he gave me an F for my paper on RUR – more specifically how the version we were being taught was bowdlerized by Broadway. Apparently, one must be able to translate Czech and not refer to second hand reports in English to make one’s proof.

    Point being, he LOVED the Andromeda Strain. Absolutely adored it. Claimed it was one of the only examples of Science Fiction that was actually valid Science Fiction (riiiiiiiiight).

    So I’m looking forward to watching your vid all the way through.

    Win a prize folks, if you know what RUR is, and why it’s important.

    (And yes – I remember Star Lost, Phil. Thanks for that ~ shudder).

  3. Crux Australis

    Rossum’s Universal Robots. A play (1920s?) that introduced the word “robot”, from a Slavic word meaning “worker”.

  4. TSC

    Wow, this was great, Phil! Can you upload your full chats in the future rather than just snippets?

  5. Mikey

    I so wish I had caught this instead of the Oscars. Here’s a late one for you:

    I was a big fan of the cartoon “Star Blazers” when I was a kid, and having seen the live action Japanese remake last year, I wondered…

    a) Would aliens, bombarding the Earth with radioactive meteors (good tactic for obliterating a planet) actually be able to live in a highly radioactive environment? If all life on the surface of the Earth were wiped out by radioactivity, could another life form take it’s place?

    b) The Iscandarans (the good aliens) produce a cure for the radiation-saturated Earth. Is there any way to instantly negate radiation, even theoretically? Would it be possible to use scientific theory to ‘cure’ places like Chernobyl and the Japanese disaster of a few years ago? Is that just technology so advanced that it would seem like magic? Or is it just fantasy?

  6. Mikey

    @Crux – you nailed it.

    In the original (according to the articles I read 15 years ago) the Robot gets to speak, and is very active in the plot. The American translation took the voice away from the Robot (the worker), which is not surprising, considering the attitudes Broadway producers would have had towards anything that supported the voice of labourers (for further fun, find out about Cradle Will Rock).

    The prize is… my eternal admiration!

  7. Gary

    Phil, if you see this, could you answer my question (I’m sorry that I missed the live session). You’re a big Dr Who and Torchwood fan and a Galaxy-class skeptic, so how do you feel about the use of pseudoscience ideas in those shows? Examples; Dr Who met Charles Dickens and criticised him for his skepticism with spiritualism, saying that spirits were effectively ‘real’ and in Torchwood they had an episode saying Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘morphic fields’ were ‘fact’ and not ‘scientific theory’. Doesn’t these ideas encourage the woo-woo community and give them the false impression that their ideas are really scientific?

  8. Tara Li

    I am iffy on the acceleration/gravity equivalence – two pendulums settles the issue.

    Thrust is linear, so the pendulums will be parallel. Gravity is towards the center of mass, and so the pendulums will be (ever so minutely) non-parallel.

  9. Tara Li

    Red matter was just strangelet matter – which of course is highly theoretical at best… And perhaps they could have used it better… But that’s Hollywood for you!

  10. Tara Li

    Red matter was just strangelet matter – which of course is highly theoretical at best… And perhaps they could have used it better… But that’s Hollywood for you!

  11. Narvi

    @Gary: I’d like to add another example to your list of supported pseudoscience in the Doctor Who universe. In the Torchwood episode about fairies (“Small Worlds”), it’s revealed that the Cottingley Fairies were real.

    They also claim that Houdini believed they were real. In real life, he knew they were fake, and spent quite some time trying to convince his friend Arthur Conan Doyle of that fact.

  12. puppygod

    a) Would aliens, bombarding the Earth with radioactive meteors (good tactic for obliterating a planet) actually be able to live in a highly radioactive environment? If all life on the surface of the Earth were wiped out by radioactivity, could another life form take it’s place?

    Sure, why not? We know that there are extremophiles here on Earth that can survive even in cooling pools for spent nuclear fuel. So it is possible for some forms of life to colonize hypothetical irradiated Earth.

    b) The Iscandarans (the good aliens) produce a cure for the radiation-saturated Earth. Is there any way to instantly negate radiation, even theoretically? Would it be possible to use scientific theory to ‘cure’ places like Chernobyl and the Japanese disaster of a few years ago? Is that just technology so advanced that it would seem like magic? Or is it just fantasy?

    Well, not fantasy, but close to magic, imho. Problem with places like Chernobyl isn’t so much radiation itself but rather source of said radiation. It’s all about contamination and isotopes. For example, during Chernobyl steam explosion a lot of Cesium 137 was spread all around and now it’s everywhere – in dust particles, in the soil, in the groundwater. It’s there and still emits radiation with almost steady rate, and with half-life of 30 years it will take some time until it will reach background radiation level. The only conceivable way to stop it would be to bind it chemically (or, I don’t know – with nanorobots) and then remove mechanically. It’s conceivable, but needs a lot of work and much more advance tech levels than we have at our disposal – we are basically talking about terraforming here.

    Or, alternatively, we can summon our magic-level tech and transmutate Cs-137 into stable isotope.

  13. Gary Ansorge

    5. Mikey

    Staphylococcus radiofurans is one bacteria that not only survives hard radiation, but thrives in a radiation intensity about 5000 times more intense than what would kill an average human.

    “Cleaning up” cesium 137 would really only be useful at the source, before it had a chance to become diluted by the environment. Heavy neutron bombardment would then be one way to accelerate the decay process and make it harmless(more or less). Most of the radio nucleotides formed by such irradiation last only seconds to minutes,,,

    Side note: We are already experimenting with micro organisms that concentrate heavy metals at toxic dumps into insoluble forms. Combining these organisms with the radiation resistence of radiofurans would potentially allow us to clean the environment of such contaminants. Someday,,,

    Gary 7

  14. Gary

    @Narvi, thanks, those are also very good examples. I love Dr Who and Torchwood but these pseudoscience elements really annoy me! @Gary Ansorge, did you mean Deinococcus radiodurans, also known to his close friends as ‘Conan the Bacterium’? ;)

  15. mike burkhart

    I frist saw Starlost when a local station put it on at 11:00 , by the way it had Walter Koneg (Mr Cheackov) in two episodes Wormholes have been popular in Science fiction lately ,in Star Trek the motion picture a warp engine imbalance creates a wormhole the Enterprise go thro and pulls an Asteroid into it. In the Transformers the evil Deceptacons build “space bridge” witch is a wormhole to go form Earth to Cybertron (cartoon) . As for Close Encounters of the thrid kind , they have come out with a three disk pack that includes : The theater version,the speceial Edition, and the directors cut .

  16. François Cartier

    Hi Phil,
    I also missed the web chat on Google+. I would have asked you about one of my favorite sci-fi shows : Space 1999. Would a catastrophic nuclear blast send the moon out of its orbit? If so, would it leave the solar system or be “grabbed” by another planet with big gravitional pull like Jupiter (in the event it passes close to one of those planets, of course; one thing I learned from you, is that space is huge)?? And since we are loosing the moon, what would be most likely effects on Earth?
    Thanks.

  17. The sound gets out of synch with the video at about 23:30 … but it gets back into synch by 25:30 somehow.

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