The Sciences

Comic-Con: Science, Even if It's Fake, Can Make Fiction Better



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Yesterday evening we held our third annual Comic-Con panel on the science of science fiction. And in our unbiased opinion, it rocked. (Attendees said the same, but then they probably wouldn't have told us it was lame, would they?) One theme that emerged from the panel was that skillful use of science could make stories better. But being Discover, we needed some evidence. And how better to present this evidence than as a scientific publication: The Enhancement of Dramatic and Aesthetic Qualities of Fictional Works Through Application of Authentic or Apocryphal Scientific TheoriesAbstract: Anthropological evidence suggests humans have engaged in storytelling since at least the birth of complex culture. Over the past century, these stories increasingly take the form of science fiction, in which advances in science and/or technology figure prominently in the story. Here we present evidence supporting Carroll's Hypothesis: that clear, consistent use of rules corresponding to real-world or even imagined scientific theories increases the artistic value of fictional works. Methods: A panel of science-fiction experts was assembled at the San Diego International Comic-Con. Experts showed clips from films where successful use of scientific rules enhanced value and where unsuccessful use decreased value. The moderator was Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy blog), and the panel comprised Sean Carroll (Cosmic Variance, CalTech), Kevin Grazier (Science Not Fiction, JPL), Jamie Paglia (Eureka), and Zack Stentz (Fringe). Results: Plait showed a clip from Armageddon in which rain falls on Bruce Willis as he stands on an asteroid. (We leave it to the reader to surmise the feasibility of this type of event.) Grazier showed a clip from the same film illustrating the effects of a massive asteroid impacting Earth, and pointed out inaccuracies in the depiction. He also showed a similar but much more scientifically accurate clip from Deep Impact. Plait argued that Armageddon is "the worst film ever made"; Grazier agreed. Paglia showed a clip from Eureka in which tiny robotic "nanoids" self-assemble into human forms. The protagonists of the show use a speaker to broadcast powerful infrasound waves at the nanoids' communication frequency, shaking the human-shaped nanoid collectives into dust. Paglia asserted that assuming the existence of the as-yet unrealistic nanoids, the internally consistent logic of their destruction led to a strong climax of a strong episode. Stentz showed a scene from the film The Arrival, in which a radio astronomer who is fired from his job becomes a professional antenna installer and cleverly coordinates the antennae to operate with the power of a much larger one, much as the Very Large Array does. Stentz said the implausible aspect of the scene was actually not a scientific point: Charlie Sheen's casting as a brilliant radio astronomer. Discussion: An entirely subjective regression of the anecdotal data presented shows a strong causative connection between adherence to scientific rules (even imaginary ones) and artistic success of fictional works. Stentz pointed out one potential explanation for the connection: "Drama comes from a struggle--from characters not being able to do something they're trying to do." The rules of science can provide those obstacles--and also methods to circumvent them. Crucially, the science invoked should be internally consistent within the work. If writers use scientific-based miracles to advance plots, "that’s not science fiction, that’s science magic. That’s the line we try not to cross," said Paglia.

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