Science Friday Live: Science and the silver screen
If the rapturous response at Cal Tech’s Beckman Auditorium is any indication, the surest way to a science geek’s heart is directly through Science Friday’s Ira Flatow.
For instance, when Flatow asked for a minute of silence so his crew could record the sound of a full auditorium, the sold-out audience went absolutely still. When he asked for applause that could be recorded as well, the crowd erupted for as long as it was silent, with thunderous clapping, whistles and cheers…..and all before Flatow had even started the actual show.
What better way to build bliss for a science/sci-fi fan than bring in animation veteran Tom Sito to talk about the history of computer-generated imagery (CGI). ”When I started in 1975,” he said, “the most advanced thing in animation was electric pencil sharpeners.”
Or consider “Big Bang Theory” writer and producer Eric Kaplan discussing the decision to create a storyline around the Higgs boson particle physics for the show’s 23 million viewers.
“There’s no such thing as too much science,” he said, addressing how much science a television script could hold and still interest a general audience. “I think the human brain is a very craving blob of gunk….it really likes to know things.” The response set off a mini riot of cheers and applause.
“I think the average person might wonder where mass came from,” he added. “And if they learn from us that it came from a fluctuation in the Higgs field, I think we’ve done some good.”
The show also included “Avatar” villain and “Call of Duty” video game actor Stephen Lang, looking just as buff in person as he does in his movies, talking about some of the tricky business and ethical issues around his motion capture avatars — that is, the recording of his movements to recreate them in computer animation.
“The concept that my data can be banked, and I can in fact do seven films simultaneously, or I may actually go into porno 10 years after I’m dead, depends on who controls my rights,” Lang said. “That’s one of the great things about being an actor—I’m a contractor. I don’t have to do nothing I don’t want to do, unless I sign a contract, and the idea of someone else having control over what I’m going to be in is a little bit rancid for me.”
Other panelists include “Grey’s Anatomy” writer and physician Zoanne Clack, “Contagion” and “An Inconvenient Truth” writer Scott Burns, Caltech theoretical physicist and movie consultant Sean Carroll and computer graphics innovator Paul Debevec from USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.
To the end the evening, JPL researchers Lauren Chu and Bobak Ferdowsi competed in a Science Friday Movie Quiz against Caltech’s Teagan Hall and Xan Sonn. Each got the same questions, and each answered some correctly and others incorrectly, ending in a tie.
KPCC’s science writer Sanden Totten rounded out the evening with a funny look at how science fiction has foretold or inspired real scientific advances. (Take a quiz inspired by his presentation below.)
One of Totten’s best received stories revolved around “Star Trek” science advisor Andre Bormanis, who had to “fact check” a storyline that involved teleporting a fetus from one woman’s womb to another’s in the 1996 “Star Trek” offshoot show “Deep Space Nine.”
“You know, I read this and I’m like, ‘That’s crazy, that’s nuts! You can’t do that,’” Bormanis said. “So I called a friend of mine who was a pathologist, and told him the idea. After he got done laughing he said, ‘Well, there may be a way to do that.’”
It would involve teleporting something called the fetal placental complex from one woman to another, Totten said, “something conceivably that doctors on a spaceship 300 years from now might be able to pull off.”
It was total fiction then, and today, we still can’t teleport much of anything, but, as Bormanis said in the show, “15-odd years later, there are people talking about how one could actually transplant the fetal placental complex from one woman into another. It’s a whole new level of surrogacy, but it is not medically impossible.”
That’s the beauty of science fiction, Bormanis said in a recorded interview. “It pushes the boundaries of imagination. If you just stick to what you know, if you just stay with, ‘Well, this is possible and these other things are not possible,’ then you’ll never discover anything new.”
TV and movies “give scientists, thinkers and dreamers a place to ignore those hard fast scientific rules and see what else is possible,” Totten said. “And sometimes, we find out that what we once thought were scientific constraints were really just limits of our imagination.”
Score another point for science fiction.