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The Science Facts in Science Fiction


I bought the really interesting book shown here just before Christmas and whiled away a period of enforced isolation over New Year by working my way through it. It is essentially a (very readable) textbook written by Barry Luokkala who is a Professor in the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and it ties in with an undergraduate course in which he teaches key concepts from Physics, using examples taken from Science Fiction movies.


Some of the examples he talks about (like those involving time travel) go beyond Leaving Cert Physics, but most fit in quite well with our syllabus in terms of the material and the depth. It's inspired me to build some of these examples into my classes, and I've begun by seeking out the clips he references (along with a few I thought of myself) on You Tube. For the moment, I've embedded them into one big PowerPoint file (which I've made available here on General Resources: look for Physics in the Movies on the 3rd row) - but I'm also linking to the key clips below.


Some of the clips are from The Martian,

dealing with Gravity Assist: https://youtu.be/p4OJoFlWVyY

dealing with Newton's 3rd Law: https://youtu.be/yGrYtRE0xuo

Both of the above are interesting because they're really quite plausible (in Science Fiction terms)


From the movie Gravity, we have this interesting clip, which I often use when teaching Newton's First Law - but only because it seems to break that law. (Which is odd in a move that otherwise stayed quite true to scientific principle): https://youtu.be/WxJY1WX4oyM


And from Back to the Future 2. The famous Hover Board scene is always interesting if only because it prompts us to ask what is holding the Hover-Board up: https://youtu.be/TkyLnWm1iCs

(to my mind it could only be held up by some sort of jet (which doesn't work because we'd have to see some of the effects of that jet on the ground, particularly the water), or by magnets (which would entail the whole square - at least - containing huge underground magnets - which seems improbable)


Two from Bond - which are fine on basic scientific principles. but which are probably a stretch in terms of conservation of energy - or which would at least require battery technology far beyond anything we have yet produced.

On resonance: https://youtu.be/ICmuFRBvPmk

On Laser tech: GoldenEye - Train Escape - YouTube


I really like this one from Contact, which deals with possible contact from Alien Life-forms and how they might select a frequency on which to send their 'hello' radio transmission. https://youtu.be/lhIi4ODt0uM

(Following Carl Sagan's novel, they use the strongest frequency from the Hydrogen spectrum. Presumably on the basis that any civilisation advanced enough to receive the signal would surely recognise that frequency. But they multiply that frequency by pi, to avoid all of the radio interference that would be caused by the vast amount of Hydrogen in the universe)


And a favourite is this one from Spiderman, in which he uses his webs to stop a runaway train: https://youtu.be/3Y4THGYRLtE

Obviously, the idea that a spiderlike superhero could be created by being bitten by a radioactive spider isn't really science fiction (or at least it's a whole other category of science fiction which we could label 'science-nonsense') but the Luokkala book goes into great detail, using Hooke's Law and Kinetic Energy calculations, to establish how strong a spider's web would have to be stop the train, and then compares that to the actual strength of a spider's web. The result? It's actually plausible (if we could only produce spiders webs on that enormous scale).


Most of the calculations he uses there would fit comfortably into a Leaving Cert question. The only problem is devising a way to feed an agreed set of assumptions to a class about things like the speed and mass of the train. I'm working on seeing if I can put it together as an extension of the PowerPoint.


It would be great to hear from anybody who has used similar clips in the past. We could build a really good, fun resource out of this.





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