Multiply Connected: The Expanding Universe of Science Fiction, Science Fact, and Science Communication

David R. Powell

Following the September 1966 premiere of the original series Star Trek, which creator Gene Roddenberry called “the first true SF series ever made on television” (Solow and Justman 1996, 301), the show garnered the attention of none other than Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote a review of Star Trek for TV Guide in which he (as Roddenberry would later describe it) damned it with faint praise. Asimov’s comments included what he saw as Star Trek’s lack of scientific accuracy. (Roddenberry replied to Asimov, defending Star Trek’s attempts to guarantee scientific accuracy, straightening out Asimov on what it is like to do so within production constraints, and he eventually won Asimov over as an outspoken supporter of the show.)

By 1979, when Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released, the notion of a (credited) technical adviser had come along. Jesco von Puttkamer, a NASA aerospace engineer and science fiction author, consulted with Gene Roddenberry to explain the “multiply connected” universe that makes wormholes possible (von Puttkamer 1980, 25). In general, science consulting in science fiction such as Star Trek would involve a process of finding something in or on the cutting edge of real science—or, failing that, inventing new, though plausible, “science”—that will fit the dramatic needs of a story (Bormanis 1998).

Andre Bormanis (1998, viii) would also say, “Star Trek can’t be Nova” and the “purpose [of Star Trek] has never been to teach science.” However, the multiple connections among science fiction, science fact, consultants, communicators, and consumers provide avenues not just of inspiration to educate oneself about science but for education itself and for reflection on the human condition through creative science communication.

Science communication has not been uncontroversial, especially when practiced by scientists themselves. However, as Sir Walter Bodmer, the chair of the ad hoc group that produced the 1985 report “The Public Understanding of Science” for the Royal Society of London, said in 2011, “it is now an accepted part of any scientist’s activities and there is no longer any stigma for a scientist to be involved in the public communication of science” (Bodmer 2011, xiii). Not only are there scientists who engage enthusiastically in the public communication of science, some do it via the medium of science fiction, which has itself sometimes been looked down upon in literary circles. So what do some of these multiple connections look like, and what are some of the questions that they still raise?

“In space no one can hear you scream,” noted the movie poster for the 1979 film Alien. Apparently, though, you can hear spaceship engines and exploding Death Stars. When analyzing films for their scientific content (or just being a picker of nits) sound in space is one of the standard examples of a piece of science fiction failing to get the science right. What those who point out this oft-repeated slip are looking for is portrayal of scientifically accurate phenomena. Ideally, instances of physical phenomena portrayed will not violate the laws of physics, for example. At some point, however, the desire to depict accurate science in fictional contexts (say, by the scientist acting as consultant on the project) encounters the dramatic demands of the film (or other medium) and its creators. A compromise must be reached between the “veritable truth” as established by science and the “dramatic truth.” Veritable truth is interpreted to be “entertaining and commercially viable … once it is filtered through the social and structural limitations imposed upon it by the filming process” (Frank 2003, 432). Consultants and creatives reach the best compromises when “perceptual reality,” the portrayed phenomenon, has sufficient points of contact to be convincing with “referential reality,” that which actually occurs or exists (Frank 2003).

There are few things more dramatically truthful than the threat to throw someone out an airlock, with the implied exposure to cold, empty space. Ellen Ripley opens an airlock to attempt to blow the Xenomorph out into space in the film Aliens. She is also exposed and hanging on desperately. “While immediate exposure would … cause blood to boil, body [to] expand, and other not pleasant things, we COULD argue that the sheer volume of air rushing past her slowed those effects” (Macdonald 2020a), thus we are walking a fine line in this case between the two truths.

One might think that this approach is uncontroversial under the circumstances. As it turns out, though, it does raise questions. To the extent that science consultants are able to usher accurate science into the production of a piece of science fiction, does that necessarily lead to successful public communication of science? Part of the issue is that it depends on what model of science communication one is assuming. If the concern is for accurate scientific facts and content to be reflected in the fictional representation—and the assumption is made that presenting such facts is sufficient for increasing the public’s (that is, the audience’s) scientific literacy—this tends to express the deficit model of science communication. The deficit model makes the possibly questionable assumption that audiences are able to judge the difference between accurate and inaccurate scientific content in fictional presentations. In addition to that, the publicized use of science consultants might lead to the conclusion that inaccurate fictional representations of science are not only plausible but accurate (Kirby 2003).

According to the most recent Science & Engineering Indicators report from the National Science Foundation, Americans correctly answered 5.6 out of nine factual knowledge questions about science and technology. Only three in ten had a clear understanding of what is meant by a scientific study (National Science Board 2018). This reinforces the current general state of scientific literacy among the public. How much of this is accounted for by consumption of science fiction media is unclear. The current Indicators report does not mention fictional media, although the 2000 version expressed concern over the challenge to the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction due to the increasing availability of information (Barnett et al. 2006). What does seem clear, though, is the need to raise these questions. One might conclude that science consultants “contribute to the [film] industry’s ability to confuse the public as to what is real and what isn’t” (Frank 2003, 463).

Roddenberry and the Star Trek cast on hand for the space shuttle Enterprise’s rollout on September 17, 1976.

All of this is not to say that fictional science should not at least be plausible and perceptually real. It is to suggest, however, that there is more to the relationships among science fiction, science fact, and science communication than “accuracy” and the deficit model. It has been shown, after all, that “bad” science in fictional contexts can produce misunderstandings about how the world works. These misunderstandings can be built from the level of plausibility arising from a compromise between referential and perceptual reality. Based on a combination of some correct science and credibility seen coming from a character in a movie, viewers can take away misunderstandings when accepting the plausible yet incorrect science that is also part of the visual experience. In one study, Earth science students came away from watching the film The Core confidently believing the center of the Earth was liquid rather than solid and using content from the film to explain their belief (Barnett et al. 2006). Perhaps these misunderstandings are unavoidable—again, the tension between veritable truth and dramatic truth, between Star Trek and Nova. Perhaps there is some tidying up that communicators need to do after science consultants have done their best on behalf of realism on the production side of fictional works.

Rather than rely simply on facts and the deficit model of science communication, some science communicators are relying—either after the fact or as part of the production team or both—on science fiction’s ability to inspire and fire the imagination. Science fiction has been credited with this ability when it comes to education and career choices, deeper thinking about ethics and science, more creative problem solving, and so on (Orthia 2019). Some science communicators, then, have taken on a “contextual” model of science communication by addressing the questions of science in science fiction for the benefit of fans, though not just for fans. The approach is to look at pieces of science fiction, sharing references and enthusiasm with the public in this version of the public communication of science, and analyze the material in terms of how the fictional portrayals of science compare and contrast with how nature actually operates.

Lawrence Krauss (1995) prefaces his The Physics of Star Trek, a pioneering work among a number of “real science of”–type projects (O’Keefe 2017, 27), by saying that he did not want to write about just what Star Trek got wrong. He was inspired by fictional technology (the transporter in his case) to consider how such technology might work and what the implications would be for a variety of topics ranging from biological complexity to particle physics. One must still make the distinction between the “good” science and “bad” science, but that is only the starting point. Some consider these “real science of” approaches an erosion of such distinctions to the detriment of an informed citizenry (O’Keefe 2017). However, deficit approaches to science communication are giving way to those that take the backgrounds and experiences of different publics into account and can lead to a more collaborative use of a valued creative product in attempts to communicate and educate. “The initial notion of public understanding of science as a didactically conceived one-way street through which scientific literacy is diffused did not miraculously lead to increased public support for science” (Nowotny 2005, 1118), nor, apparently, to scientific literacy. The goal for these more recent communicators is to embrace the fictional media and the surrounding culture that such media inspires. Failing to do so by adhering strictly to real science and discounting the fictional science risks failing to inspire the target audience by failing to find value in the fictional source material (O’Keefe 2017).

This is more the approach demonstrated, for example, by science communicator Erin Macdonald. The recently named consultant for the Star Trek franchise and self-described tattooed gravity queen meets science fiction fans where they are (whether in the classroom or at science fiction conventions) and brings her PhD in astrophysics and specialization in gravity waves to bear on the science of science fiction (see her Dr. Erin Explains the Universe series on YouTube). In the terms we have been using so far, she addresses how well the perceptual reality squares with the referential. More important, perhaps, to the extent that the perceptual reality falls short, Macdonald addresses why that is and what it would take to actually achieve what we are seeing on the screen or reading on the page. Rather than feeding information to the public (as in the deficit model), Macdonald prefers to:

provide an anchor for those people [by relating] the information to science fiction or popular culture. They can say, “I can picture that; I’ve thought about that.” I also like that when you start bringing in science fiction to teach science, people start asking questions about different films and wondering, “Wait, would that really work?” That’s a big part of why we teach science, to build those critical-thinking skills. (Baldwin 2019)

Wait, would the spinning ring that creates artificial gravity, say, really work like it does in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Once more, it is not quite that easy. As Macdonald explains it:

To get 1G of gravity, you would need a large ring rotating slowly or a small ring rotating quickly. A large ring is prohibitive just from a practicality standpoint, expensive to launch to space and hard to plan/build. A small ring rotating quickly has more of a biological issue—the centrifugal forces would be different from your head to your feet, because your height would be a significant portion of the radius of the ring. This would cause terrible vertigo any time you tried to move or walk around, particularly in directions opposite to that of rotation. (Macdonald 2020b)

The multiply connected universe allows for moving in all sorts of directions. Those who engage with science fiction and science fact can move together in all sorts of directions as the public communication of science continues to evolve. Collaboration and conversation around these “real science of science fiction” perspectives, which “demonstrate an authentic and responsible treatment of both the fictional and nonfictional content” (O’Keefe 2017, 31), can build upon the work of creators and consultants for a more robust public communication of science.

References

Baldwin, Melinda. 2019. Q&A: Astrophysicist Erin Macdonald on science and sci-fi. Physics Today (May 9). Available online at https://physicstoday.scitation.org/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190509a/full/.

Barnett, M., H. Wagner, A. Gatling, et al. 2006. The impact of science fiction film on student understanding of science. Journal of Science Education and Technology 15(2): 179–191.

Bodmer, Walter. 2011. Foreword. In Successful Science Communication: Telling It Like It Is, edited by David J. Bennett and Richard C. Jennings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bormanis, Andre. 1998. Star Trek: Science Logs. New York: Pocket Books.

Frank, Scott. 2003. Reel reality: Science consultants in Hollywood. Science as Culture 12(4): 427–469.

Kirby, David A. 2003. Scientists on the set: Science consultants and the communication of science in visual fiction. Public Understanding of Science 12(3): 261–278.

Krauss, Lawrence. 1995. The Physics of Star Trek. New York: Basic Books.

Macdonald, Erin. 2020a. “And of course we get the classic airlock opening to vacuum of space.” Twitter (January 16). Available online at https://twitter.com/drerinmac/status/1217957694755049473.

———. 2020b. Email to author (January 20).

National Science Board. 2018. Science & Engineering Indicators 2018. National Science Foundation. Available online at https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/science-and-technology-public-attitudes-and-understanding/highlights.

Nowotny, Helga. 2005. High- and low-cost realities for science and society. Science (May 20). Available online at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/27f9/2c22b282694d6a15cbdc273256ab082a6e9c.pdf?_ga=2.243449862.228794609.1578766913-17696096.1578766913.

O’Keefe, Moira. 2017. Riding the wave: Science fiction media fandom and informal science education. Journal of Science Fiction 1(3): 24–39.

Orthia, Lindy A. 2019. How does science fiction television shape fans’ relationship to science? Results from a survey of 575 Doctor Who viewers. Journal of Science Communication 18(4). Available online at https://doi.org/10.22323/2.18040208.

Solow, Herbert F., and Robert H. Justman. 1996. Inside Star Trek: The Real Story. New York: Pocket Books.

Von Puttkamer, Jesco. 1980. The origin of Star Trek’s wormhole. Starlog (April): 25.


Following the September 1966 premiere of the original series Star Trek, which creator Gene Roddenberry called “the first true SF series ever made on television” (Solow and Justman 1996, 301), the show garnered the attention of none other than Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote a review of Star Trek for TV Guide in which he (as …

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