Physicist Sidney Perkowitz has a long, and impressive, résumé. The Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University is not only the published author of more than 100 scientific papers, he is also the author of four popular science books, (with the fifth to be available in August 2011) a playwright, an Advisory Board member for the Exchange, and, hilariously enough, a YouTube star. Where does he find the time? Well, he is a physics professor, so we will let him answer that, along with a few more questions on why he became a scientist, what you can learn in his upcoming fifth book Slow Light: Invisibility, Teleportation, and Other Mysteries of Light, and a possible upcoming “science-fiction food” project.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a scientist?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a scientist, but the reasons are mysterious. No one in my family is or was one and no one especially encouraged me to become one. Rather, I seemed to be following an internal drive, just as some people know from day one that they need to be artists or musicians. One contributing factor, though, was emotional. My family had a lot of turmoil and science seemed to offer a haven of rationality. Of course, after I became a scientist, I realized that like any other human activity, science is not necessarily carried out in rational ways; but the bedrock idea of trying to understand the universe at some objective level still has a lot of power for me.
About 20 years ago, you made the transition from research scientist to science writer. How did that transition happen? Was writing something you had always wanted to do?
The transition started right after I earned an endowed chair at Emory, published my 100th research paper, and had one of those crucial decade birthdays. This combination of milestones seemed to say “step back and take stock.” When I did, I remembered that as a kid, I admired writers second only to scientists. I had gone to the same high school in Brooklyn, New York, as two famous writers, Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22). I had a great writing teacher there and had always written for myself. Now it seemed time to try writing seriously. I was lucky enough to get my very first short pieces published in good places. After that, there was no looking back: I was working on my first book shortly after.
Why is it important for scientists to communicate with the public?
It’s important for science and for society. Scientists as a group are not famous for explaining what they do in the clearest language; yet nuclear power, global warming, stem cell research, and more are science-based issues that cry out to be explained to a public that will be profoundly affected by them. Scientists need to help their fellow citizens learn about these matters. Besides, because scientific research is funded by governments, scientists have an obligation to tell society where their money is going – and after all, it’s also enlightened self-interest to show those who fund science that the money is well spent. Finally, scientists gain deeper understanding of their own work when they undertake the often difficult task of explaining it in accessible terms.
How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange?
It goes back to my book Hollywood Science, about science in the movies. It was originally slated for publication by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) but for complicated reasons, it ended up being published by Columbia University Press. However, when people at NAS started thinking about The Exchange, they knew of my interest in these issues and asked me to become involved. I jumped at the chance, seeing it as a way to help get science across to the public. On top of that, The Exchange activities looked like they would be lots of fun, which has turned out to be true. It has also been fascinating to see things from the viewpoint of the entertainment industry and try to figure out how to merge their needs with the goal of presenting real and understandable science.
You seem to have made it your mission in life to encourage and help Hollywood improve its portrayal of science on the big screen. Have you seen any progress?
Yes, there is progress, at least in the long term. Judging by my own experiences with The Exchange and by the many requests it gets from film people, it is fulfilling its goal of bringing them together with scientists. This is a big step toward building a culture where science is well represented on screen. But there’s also a discouraging trend. Hollywood’s quest for surefire mega-blockbusters puts a premium on repeating past successes in the form of sequels and on turning films into impressive visual spectacles. Special effects are wondrous, but if overdone can dominate other important cinematic elements. These factors can mean a loss of creativity, and the replacement of big ideas with big visual effects excites adrenaline rather than the mind. This conflicts with the goal of presenting science accurately and thoughtfully. However, I believe that interested people from science and entertainment, brought together by The Exchange, can find ways to make all this work.
Your upcoming book Slow Light: Invisibility, Teleportation, and Other Mysteries of Light explores the physics of light and its interpretation in science fiction. What is your favorite example of the physics of light in science fiction?
Light shows up so often in science fiction that I’ll give several examples (these and other topics in the science of light are presented in Slow Light). In H.G. Wells’ story The Invisible Man, a scientist explains how he made himself invisible. He gets the optical theory exactly right, setting a marker for how to incorporate accurate science into a good story. Then there’s the laser, a necessity for exciting science-fiction space battles. Science fiction foresaw this device even before its invention in 1960, as in the ray guns appearing in 1930s comic strips and movies featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and in Martian weaponry in the 1953 film The War of the Worlds. Finally, getting back to invisibility, I’m struck by how movie special effects have evolved to handle the paradox of showing what is by definition not visible. The best the 1933 film The Invisible Man could do was to show Mr. Invisible’s head wrapped in bandages, along with a few shots of apparently unsupported objects held by him. But Hollow Man (2000) delivers a stunning scene of a human body dramatically vanishing, layer by layer, as scientist Kevin Bacon makes himself invisible. Maybe the best example of the physics of light in science fiction is how brilliantly movie special effects manipulate light.
True to its title, Slow Light, explores the physics behind slowing down light. You mention in the book that most science fiction is concerned with the high speed of light and with finding ways to move beyond that. Why do you think there are less science fiction examples of slow light?
Along with E = mc2, the most famous physics fact is that nothing can go faster than light, making it seemingly impossible to explore the far universe. The challenge of breaking through this barrier has engaged both scientists and science-fiction authors. Light at slower speeds, however, is common and less compelling, since light slows down naturally by up to half as it passes through a transparent material like glass. Still, a few science-fiction writers have found drama in the idea of slowing light by a really huge factor. The Irish writer Bob Shaw invented “slow glass,” a thin sheet of which so impedes light rays that it takes them a year to traverse the sheet, and wrote about the emotional and practical implications of capturing light in this way. This and other examples of the fictional idea of slow light, and of the real science that has actually produced it, are related in Slow Light.
What is the common ground between entertainment and science?
Offhand, you might say there isn’t any, but from writing Hollywood Science and Slow Light, and from my time with The Exchange, I’ve learned that the common ground is scientific speculation – preferably, informed speculation. It’s virtually a cliché that ideas that were once presented as highly speculative in science-fiction entertainment, from lasers to nuclear weapons to smartphones, have become true or are becoming so. Going in the other direction, far-out ideas in science and technology, from multiple universes and black holes to intelligent robots and nanotechnology, inspire some highly imaginative work from writers and filmmakers.
In addition to being a physics professor and author, you’ve also found time to write plays as well. A lot of plays with science themes have been written in recent years. Why do you think science and theater mix so well?
Film is primarily a visual medium, whereas in stage drama, words and character dominate. Rather than dazzle an audience with special effects, theater uses language, character development, and ideas. Science theater can never match the visual power of film, but it is a great vehicle to present scientific ideas and to explore scientist’s lives and motivations. These factors show up in most science plays, such as Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, and make science theater a different experience from science fiction or science-based films. My own science plays present the lives of well-known scientists such as Rosalind Franklin along with the ideas that make them important – in Franklin’s case, her insight into the structure of DNA. However, theater reaches far fewer people than does film, so although science plays can show depths that movies don’t always attain, they have a much lower impact in conveying science.
What should we have asked you that we didn’t? Anything you can share about your next project?
You could always have asked me to list my all time worst Hollywood science-fiction films, which would take some tact on a website devoted to making Hollywood and science feel good about each other. So I’m glad you didn’t ask, but interested readers can track down my opinions of the worst, and also the best, elsewhere.
One possible upcoming project was actually inspired by a blog posting I did for The Exchange, “Food for (Future) Thought or Star Trek: the Menu.” That got me interested in all the ways that science, technology, food, and cooking intersect. I’m now thinking about magazine articles and possibly a book about this, and The Exchange might see more future postings on the subject, too.
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