Star Wars, Star Trek, Scientists, and Science

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We have heard it time and time again, scientists and engineers everywhere, professing deep love and admiration for science fiction, and in particular, a fondness for Star Wars and Star Trek. In an unofficial (and totally unscientific) polling of The Exchange’s Scientist Spotlight interviewees, Star Wars ranked #1 in stealing the hearts (and creative minds) of scientists. (Star Trek ranked #2, with 2001: A Space Odyssey in the #3 spot.) “What we hear from a lot of the scientists we talk to is that science fiction was part of their inspiration when they were kids,” explained Glen Whitman, an executive story editor for Fringe. “They watched Star Trek and Star Wars, and they were excited about that and that’s why they decided to become scientists.”

Ah, science fiction as inspiration. (Where have we heard that before?) As rocket scientist Randii Wessen explained, the exploration of space onscreen inspired his fellow coworkers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to explore space off-screen: “Most of my colleagues first got excited in space exploration because of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. It is not unusual to walk into someone’s office and see a stuffed Marvin the Martian doll, a model of the starship Enterprise, a poster of the Klingon alphabet, or a light saber.” It is not all about space though. Paleontologist Stuart Sumida attributed his childhood love of Star Trek to the television’s use of science. “Not so much because of the accuracy of the science,” he explained, “but the fact that science was valued. And science was part of the optimistic outlook for the future.”

It should not surprise you then that, during the years, the science of Star Wars and Star Trek has received some attention. You can even read up on the science of both in The Physics of Star Trek by physicist Lawrence Krauss, and The Science of Star Wars: An Astrophysicist’s Independent Examination of Space Travel, Aliens, Planets, and Robots as Portrayed in the Star Wars Films and Books by astrophysicist Jeanne Cavelos. Or explore Star Wars’ science through the Discovery Channel’s Science of Star Wars website, which features information on cloning, machine intelligence, and the future of war. You can also visit NASA’s The Science of Star Trek for the skinny on what is possible (and what is not) in Star Trek.

But if you really want to know the influence of science fiction like Star Trek on today’s scientists, look no further than Paul Stysley, Demetrios Poulios, and Barry Coyle at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The team of laser experts were recently awarded a $100,000 grant to study three experimental methods of trapping and moving objects via laser light. That is right – the team is developing a tractor beam, a mainstay of Star Trek. Live long and prosper, Goddard laser team.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.