HEIDI: While watching or reading science fiction, have you ever wondered, “Yes, but is that really possible? Is that real?” Yes? I’m sure you have, which is why we decided to end Sci-fi-tember with something a little different – an Ask a Scientist panel!
You might not know this, but here at Mystic Cooking HQ we actually have our very own scientist on speed dial – meet my older sister, Rosi Reed!
Rosi has a PhD in physics, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us here today about the portrayal of science in popular media, and what is and isn’t within the realms of possibility. Rosi, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, and what you’re studying right now.
ROSI: I’m currently a post-doc at Yale university, but I’m doing my research at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. You might have seen it in the news! What I’m studying right now is this form of matter called a Quark-Gluon Plasma, which is known as the perfect liquid. Atoms are made up of proton and neutrons at their center, and electrons around their edges. Protons and neutrons are made up of quarks and held together by gluons. Yes, physicists are cute like that. But the force that binds all this together is the strong force, and it’s one of the four fundamental forces of nature, so it’s really very cool to be studying something so very basic to the way the universe works.
Rosi’s group in front of the ALICE experimental hall
HEIDI: Wow, sounds…slightly less complicated when you lay it out like that. 😉 And why are you so interested in studying physics? What do you love about it?
ROSI: In order to make any progress we need to understand the fundamentals, which is why basic research is so important. Today’s research problems are tomorrow’s engineer problems. The study of physics is really the study of the universe, and we never know where we are going to go from there.
HEIDI: Thanks, Rosi. And if you want to know more about what Rosi’s currently working on, you can check out this write-up. Now, onto the questions!
First, I have to ask, as a scientist what questions do you hate getting asked the most? Figured we’d clear those out first, you know, avoid any pitfalls. 😉
ROSI: Well, what I hate the most when people find out I’m a physicist is when they say, “Oh wow, I hated physics in school.” Hmm. I’m never sure how to take that. Do they want me to convince them that physics is cool? Do they think something is wrong with me? It’s always awkward….
HEIDI: Interesting. I hated physics in school, too…
KATI: I didn’t even bother with it as a subject.
STEPHANIE: Me too! I love science fiction, but real science was always lost on me.
HEIDI: Apparently all three of us hated physics in school…but we’ll avoid mentioning that. 😉
KATI: …Anyways, Rosi, how about the most common questions you’re asked?
ROSI: The most common questions are usually about black holes or the Higgs particles, which I find fun. I can usually explain both to the layperson without much problem, and let’s face it, everyone finds black holes cool.
STEPHANIE: So true! I think black holes are fascinating, I also think they might relate to the two questions I have for Rosi. Is there any scientific basis for time travel or teleportation?
ROSI: Well, yes and no. For starters, they really are the same thing, especially as we visualize them. The earth is traveling through space very quickly, so if you only moved in time and not in space, you’d find yourself floating in vacuum. But if we believe Einstein, space and time are two sides to the same coin. Teleportation may be possible, scientists have managed to teleport a beam of light from one place to another. Of course, I realize this sounds silly in a way, because we’re not used to thinking of light as a thing. The question is, of course, if teleportation is possible, are you really teleported or are you killed and disintegrated and then a clone with your memories is created some place else? Because the reality of teleportion, if it’s possible, is that the body or object on the other side won’t be made of the same atoms!
HEIDI: Wow, that’s a really horrifying thought.
STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think that kinda just killed all my teleportation ambitions.
KATI: What about time travel, then?
ROSI: Physicists have spent a lot of time thinking about time travel, and it may be possible, but probably not in something like a TARDIS. By time travel, I assume that you mean the ability to travel backwards and forwards in time, because there are many ways a person might be able to jump ahead in time! Gravity slows down time, so if you were to get really close to a giant black hole, time could slow down so much that you could spend a few seconds near the event horizon and come back to find that a billion years had passed. But, that would be a one way trip! Our best bet would be something like a wormhole, which could connect two parts of the universe together, so you’re taking a short cut through time and space, which would essentially be time travel. Einstein’s equations allow for such an object, but we haven’t seen any evidence that they really exist. It may be that you could get to them at the center of a black hole, but that wouldn’t do you much good in terms of arriving in one piece. In the end, I don’t think we’ll see anything like Star Trek in our life times even if it is possible.
KATI: Well. That’s a little disappointing.
HEIDI: Is there anything that drives you crazy about the way science is portrayed in popular media? Are there any shows/movies/books that get it right? Or rightish?
ROSI: It’s really hard to get science right in the popular media, because 95% of what we do during a day doesn’t make for exciting viewing. Basically we spend a lot of time poking at computers or equipment, getting exciting by this, poking at them some more, feeling depressed by it, and then having loud arguments over coffee before sitting down to write up a paper. I guess what I dislike the most about how science is portrayed in the media is how absolutely certain movie scientists are. The reality is that there is some uncertainty in everything we do, and that as scientists we’re uncomfortable stating that something is 100% true, because maybe it’s really just 99.9999999999999% true. This becomes a problem when science and politics intersect, because they want scientists to give them the 100% and we just don’t do this.
HEIDI: Okay, this show isn’t really science fiction, but I have to ask, what do you think of the physicists on The Big Bang Theory? Is it an accurate portrayal? And do you think it’s helping to make physics seem more mainstream?
ROSI: Well the physicists I know are divided into two camps: those that love the show and those that hate it. To me, TBBT is more a show about geek culture than science culture. The reality is that most physicists don’t have the time for all of the hobbies they participate in. However, there is definitely some truth to the way they are portrayed, it’s just very concentrated. You really wouldn’t get all the traits seen in Sheldon in one person, but I’ve known people with some of these traits. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s really made physics seem more mainstream, but it’s just a reflection of the fact that last decade’s geek culture is somehow cool this decade.
KATI: Earlier on the blog we talked about our favorite sci fi novels and movies. So, what’s your favorite sci fi novel? How about show? Or movie? Or all three? 😉
ROSI: Hmm. That’s hard. For books, I’d say that I’ve enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and on a fluffy level Anne McCaffrey’s telepath series starting with The Rowan. I’d have to say that my favorite sci-fi show is probably Deep Space Nine, unless we count Doctor Who! But I feel Doctor Who is more fantasy than science fiction. For the movies, I’d have to say the original Star Wars, though I have to say I also enjoyed the recent Star Trek films as well.
HEIDI: As a scientist reading sci fi, does it really bother you when the science part is all wrong? How important is that to get right, in your opinion? Or is there a very high degree of wibbly wobbly science allowed because it’s fiction?
KATI: Wibbly wobbly timey wimey…
HEIDI: Exactly! 😉
ROSI: I think it’s actually better to not explain “future-tech” science in too much detail, because it can end up sounding ridiculous. Take FTL, which a lot of sci-fi stories have, usually when someone tries to explain it in their book, they just say nonsense things. Usually I don’t think it’s so necessary, for instance we use computers and cars and things every day, and many of us don’t know how they work. It does bother me when they say something that is outdated or known to be wrong now in a book set in the future. Also, if you get really specific, your book is going to sound especially funny if we supercede the technology long before the book is set. I forget which sci-fi author it was, but one of old famous ones had an entire book centered around people’s abilities to calculate things from books in order to navigate through space. There were no computers at all! It can become very silly when you read these books now.
HEIDI: How about how women are portrayed in science?
ROSI: I wish we’d see more strong women characters. In the hard sciences it’s true, the genders are quite biased. In my field we’re only about 15% women. I think part of that is that many girls don’t grow up thinking about being a scientist so it’d be nice if more characters were female. It’s actually one of the things I liked about the movie Avatar, the main scientist was a woman and they really didn’t make a big fuss about it. Star Trek was great about this too. I also don’t like the fact that women scientists are often portrayed as completely unfeminine, quiet and mousy (unless they are portrayed as the bimbo love interest for the male scientist who does all the hard “sciency” stuff). But I actually think this issue with gender is generally a problem, why aren’t more parts cast as women? Why aren’t more main characters women? Obviously gender is important to some stories, if you’re writing about WWII soldiers, well, they were generally men. But for some stories it shouldn’t matter and I’d like to see a more balanced treatment. Unfortunately with sci-fi, most authors are men and it seems to me that men have a harder time writing believable female characters.
HEIDI: And now for something a little less serious. Kati has an important question for you…Stephanie, you might recognize this one from your own interview. 😉
KATI: It’s very important. Everyone needs to answer it.
HEIDI: Definitely. 😉
KATI: So, Rosi, you get to go on an adventure with one captain on his ship. Who would you choose? Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon? Captain Kirk and the Enterprise? Or Malcolm Reynolds and the Serenity?
ROSI: Han Solo. Though I’d probably have to whack him a few times for him to take me seriously. 🙂 But I would be afraid that I’d be a red shirt if I went with Captain Kirk and well, Han Solo is a touch cuter than Malcolm Reynolds, but just a touch.
HEIDI: And Han Solo gets another win! As he should. Thanks, Rosi!
ROSI: My pleasure! I can be reached via twitter @PhysicsGirl…. And I’m more than happy to answer any science questions. 🙂
So now we turn it over to all of you. Got any more burning questions for Rosi? Ask her on twitter using the hashtag #realscifi and let’s keep the science part of science fiction going!