Can it rain on an asteroid?

Sci-Fi 1Sci-FI 2
(left to right): Jaime Paglia, Kevin Grazier, Zack Stentz, Sean Carroll

The third annual panel of scientists and sci-fi writers discussing the use of science in television and film took place Thursday, July 22nd. It was moderated by astronomer and blogger Phil Plait and included guests Jaime Paglia (Eureka), Zack Stentz (Fringe, Thor), Kevin Grazier (NASA scientist and Eureka advisor), and Sean Carroll (physicist and blogger).

Each brought clips to illustrate good and bad science presented on both the small and big screens. A general consensus was that for astronomers, “Armageddon” is the worst film ever to postulate that its science is somehow accurate. Whether it was the moisture hitting Bruce Willis’ face on the asteroid before he saves the Earth or the nuclear equivalent for the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, it was a clear example of ignoring science in an attempt to create good drama (obviously, the result can be debated too).

Therein lies the best point, made by Carroll, that good science fiction comes about when the story is informed by the science, not just used as window dressing. Audiences would rather follow a story, even if it concedes a few laws of physics, as long as there is an attempt to logically follow rules and scientific principles. He highlighted “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” as a prime example of good science fiction, even though it doesn’t always root itself in established scientific fact.

As Carroll put it, time travel may never be a reality. However, as Bill & Ted attempt to gather the necessary historical figures for their report, they discuss the steps that must be undertaken in order to preserve history from repeating itself. The clip shown was of how the boys were able to get the Sheriff’s keys in order to break their new friends out of prison; they rationalized that if they went back in time, they could hide the keys in a place they needed to find them at that moment – but that in order for it to happen, they’d have to go back in time after utilizing the keys. A bit confusing when written down like that but you get the point.

Stentz used his own writing on “Fringe” to show an example where they used bad science because it better facilitated drama. In that episode, a character’s specific memories are said to reside in specific portions of the brain. This obviously isn’t true but it made for a better device in order to lead the story in a direction. Still, he was cognizant of the shortcuts being made and, in the episode, even threw in a line about how being able to erase memory by removing chunks of brain shouldn’t work “in theory”.

Each speaker made salient comments and clearly enjoyed watching, creating and advising on science fiction projects. It was an absolutely riveting panel and one that gets repeated each year; so even though you might have missed it in 2010, make sure to keep it in mind for next year. While the hordes are gathering in Hall H for whatever special effects bonanza is on the horizon, the smaller panels like this often offer more intimate and thought provoking material.