I got into this stuff because of science fiction. I was a huge nerd in high school. I remember there was a time that between UPN, TNN, and The SciFi Channel you could watch six straight hours of Star Trek on a Friday night. None of those networks exist anymore. I built a Stargate in my parents’ basement freshman year (see above)–though I never got it to send me anywhere. When my Junior English teacher told me to write a paper on John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or another famous American author, I wrote it on Phillip K. Dick.
As I grew older, and my knowledge of science fact began to catch up with my encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction, I realized that the fantastic science I had seen and read about matched up with actual science less and less. This semester, I took a class in Quantum Mechanics with Prof Brian Greene (If you’re on the World Science Festival website, you’ve probably heard of him). And I learned why all the cool utilizations of Quantum Physics we see on TV wouldn’t work with our actual understanding of the theory. The “spooky action at a distance” of Quantum Entanglement can’t send a message faster than the speed of light. Quantum Teleportation is light years—metaphorically—away from “Beam me up, Scotty” even if the news keeps on insisting otherwise every few months. And while the Many Worlds Approach may be a legitimate method for understanding the universe, we can’t jump to other universes like Quinn Mallory or Spock with a goatee.
In 1995, Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek. Over the past decade and a half, several other similar titles have been written, on topics ranging from Baseball to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The latter is a surprisingly good review for the AP Physics exam). These authors recognized that the ideas that fascinated us as children can help us to understand the physical world. In their own right, they may not be teaching methods, but they inspire us to learn.
It was never about how accurate the science was in science fiction.
It’s about the wonder and excitement of the unknown. It’s about the attitude of characters like Spock and Data, how they attacked problems head on and came up with creative solutions. It’s even about building a interdimensional portal in your basement. That’s what inspired me to want to become a scientist. And maybe this means we’ll never have warp drive or transporters like they have on the Enterprise. But we’ll create something better.
Michael J Kennelly is a Senior Physics Major at Columbia University, where he holds a I.I. Rabi Scholarship. He has completed research internships at Columbia, Rutgers University, The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratories, and The Large Hadron Collider at CERN. He suffers from terrible insomnia, which he treats by watching Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.