How Science Shapes Science Fiction
Charles L. Adler is a Professor of Physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He received his PhD, MS, and BS in Physics from Brown University, where he focused on experimental laser physics. He is the author of more than 40 papers on experimental physics, optics, and mathematics. He is a member of the Light and Color in Nature group, an international group of scientists who study the interaction of light with the atmosphere and landscape. He was the chair of the 2012 Light and Color in Nature meeting and has been the coeditor of four special issues of the scientific journal Applied Optics on the topic of meteorological optics.
Professor Adler has been a science fiction fan almost since he learned to read, and his first ambition was to become a science fiction writer. The genre led him to a love of science, especially when he realized that the science portrayed in science fiction was often inaccurate. To help readers tell the real science from the fake, he wrote the critically acclaimed book Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction. In 2015, it was a cowinner of the Science Writing Award for Books from the American Institute of Physics, and it made several lists of notable science books, including that of The Guardian. He is also cowriting a book on the science of Leonardo da Vinci with Matthew Landrus.
01: Science and Fiction! The Wayfarers Series
Begin your journey into the heart of how science shapes science fiction with a look at the world created by Becky Chambers in her galaxy-spanning Wayfarers book series. As you examine the “meta-question” of how authors decide to use science in their stories, you will zero in on four specific scientific ideas and how they utilize principles that are both real and imagined when creating a believable and engaging story.
02: Cheating the Science: Protector
Our understanding of science changes all the time. How do writers use science to help build their stories while also keeping these stories from becoming immediately dated or unbelievable? They cheat. Using Larry Niven’s novel Protector, as well as several other books by Niven and other sci-fi authors, Professor Adler demonstrates how writers can simplify and bend scientific ideas like evolution for the sake of narrative.
03: Prediction: From the Earth to the Moon
Turn now to Jules Verne, considered the progenitor of “hard” science fiction stories. As you look at one of the earliest literary excursions into science fiction and what it gets right about launching spacecraft, consider whether sci-fi can predict the future. Along the way, you will also look closely at how stories can use science in ways that are hopeful and adventurous, as well as realistic and informative.
04: World-Building in The Left Hand of Darkness
How do writers build fictional worlds that feel real, especially when a world is a completely different planet from our own? In this lecture, go on a scientific tour of two constructed worlds: the planet Gethen, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness, and Sukien, a world Professor Adler himself created for a Japanese television series. Look at the ways sci-fi writers pick and choose the science that makes these worlds work in fiction.
05: Advanced World-Building in Avatar
In this second lecture on worldbuilding, look at the habitable moon Pandora from James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar. What kind of astronomical conditions must exist to allow a moon to develop an ecosystem similar to that of a planet? Dive into the science that supports the lush, exotic world of Pandora and its inhabitants and consider the possibility of such places in our universe.
06: Action and Reaction in The Avengers
Superheroes have their own special niche in science fiction. Dissect the reality that underlies the physics-defying powers of comic book heroes. How does Iron Man’s suit work? Could a shield like Captain America’s iconic accessory really exist? What conditions could allow a hero like The Flash to run on water? Look closely at the science of superhero cinema to answer these questions and more.
07: Space Travel and 2001: A Space Odyssey
Space travel may be the single most common feature of science fiction, but not every story treats the science the same way. Here, you will see why the space travel depicted in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey has stood the test of time and is still among the best portrayals in the genre. Explore four aspects of space flight through the lens of this sci-fi classic.
08: Interplanetary Travel and The Martian
Could humans travel to Mars and survive there? This hypothetical scenario is the premise of the successful novel and film The Martian. Look closer at the story of Mark Watney’s lone survival on the Red Planet and see how it raises numerous scientific questions about travel from Earth to other worlds, and how we would create a livable environment on a planet so unlike our own.
09: Space Battles and Energy Weapons: Star Wars
Space battles and interstellar warfare make a lot of appearances in science fiction. While no battles have actually happened in space in the real world, the Star Wars films present some fascinating hypotheticals about orbital mechanics, laser technology, space debris, and more. Consider the real science behind the classic battles that have come to define these iconic films.
10: Advanced Rocket Systems in Star Trek
A definitive science fiction series, Star Trek offers many scientific and technological ideas to explore. In this lecture, take a closer look at propulsion systems that may (or may not) be possible in the far future by digging into the science behind space travel experiments in the 20th and 21st centuries, including various forms of atomic power.
11: Relativity and Time for the Stars
Traveling to distant planets raises questions about time and relativity, which is what you will examine through Robert Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Dive into the history of Einstein’s revolutionary theory and how it has been interpreted—and misinterpreted—by science fiction writers for decades. And learn why even the mistakes sci-fi writers make can help us better understand science.
12: Black Holes, Wormholes, and Interstellar
Another common scientific feature of many sci-fi stories are black holes and wormholes. As we continue to speculate and learn more about the nature of these mysterious phenomena in the real world, see how films like Interstellar offer a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities—while also offering an example of when an extreme focus on science can actually be hazardous to good storytelling.
13: Time Travel and Doctor Who
Dive into the concept of time travel with one of the longest-running science fiction television series in history: the British phenomenon, Doctor Who. Through the fan-favorite episode “Blink,” explore the nature of time and it’s 4th-dimensional relationship to physical space, consider the many paradoxes of time travel, and think about whether time machines are even possible at all.
14: Teleportation and Star Trek
Take another look at Star Trek, this time with a focus on teleportation and transporter technology. While transporter technology was first introduced in the series to cut filming costs, it raises interesting scientific questions. Can matter be instantaneously moved across long distances? What are the risks of human teleportation? Is the modern 3-D printer a real-life version of the matter replicator?
15: Cyberspace and the Singularity: Neuromancer
Robots and artificial intelligence have been part of science fiction for over 100 years, though in reality we are still far away from meeting truly sentient machines. Consider the robotic characters featured in properties like Star Wars and Star Trek as you explore consciousness and the possibilities of the computerized future in William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.
16: Steampunk Science and Leviathan
There are a number of subgenres within science fiction with their own distinct styles and intents. One distinct subgenre is steampunk, which is defined by its historical time period and focus on rethinking the science of the past. Through Scott Westerfeld’s novel Leviathan and other steampunk stories, Professor Adler explores the retro-scientific possibilities of genetic engineering, giant mechanical vehicles, and early computing technology.
17: Design Your Own Dragon: Game of Thrones
Science fiction writers don’t just build worlds that are different from our own; many also design unique creatures to populate those worlds. Look at the intersection of biology and physics as you explore dragons in fictional stories like Game of Thrones. As you will see, there is probably a reason most stories featuring dragons are considered fantasy rather than science fiction.
18: Planetary Ecology in Dune
Ecology is a particularly complex science to get right in fiction. Turn to Frank Herbert’s classic Dune to see how writers can use scientific principles to create entire ecosystems—and how they decide what science to highlight and what to ignore. Along the way, look at major real-world ecological projects and controversial theories that have influenced sci-fi.
19: Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Contact
Carl Sagan is the rare sci-fi creator who is more famous for being a science educator than a fiction writer. As you will learn, his extensive background in science not only allowed him to portray interstellar communication theories with accuracy in his novel Contact, but his work also influenced real-world research. Explore the possibilities of communication with alien species and why a lot of scientists believe we are not alone in the universe.
20: UFOs, ESP, and The X-Files
The long-running television show The X-Files explored a host of conspiracy theories and scientific mysteries. In this lecture, you will examine two popular topics the show tackled over the course of its nine-season run: UFOs and “superhuman” abilities like ESP. While the show was great at using these mysterious phenomena to tell thrilling stories, much of the science may be unreliable at best.
21: Social Sciences and the Foundation Series
The social sciences play a huge role in any good science fiction story. Here, dive into the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov and explore how anthropology, sociology, history, and other subjects shape how worlds are created in science fiction. Along the way, you’ll also look at sociology in other influential stories and see what chaos theory has to say about predicting the future.
22: Designed Languages and Arrival
Dive into the science of linguistics and language creation through the film Arrival, as well as other notable stories, through which Professor Adler explains the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the relationship of language to time and our perception of reality itself. Do we shape language or does language shape us? As you contemplate this question and other mysteries, you will also look at the challenges of creating fictional languages.
23: Cosmology, the Mind, and Star Maker
Many science fiction stories are told from the perspective of a few key characters. In this lecture, the scope widens astronomically as you consider Olaf Stapledon’s influential 1937 novel Star Maker and how it manages to tell a story that encompasses a cosmic scale in terms of both time and space. Examine the different scales of potential civilizations in the universe and consider the possibilities presented by both scientists and storytellers.
24: Science Fiction’s Purpose: Childhood’s End
Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End brings this course to its fitting conclusion with a consideration of science fiction as a genre with limitless potential to explore some of our biggest questions. As you will learn, these questions are often scientific, but they are also much bigger than anything we can tackle with a mathematical formula or technological advancement alone. Ultimately, science fiction has the same goals as any other art: to explore the human condition through fiction.