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Lasers in SF, Part VII: Wrap-up, and some final thoughts

April 25, 2012

I intended to write one more post for the lasers in science fiction series, about how lasers work, but I decided that I’ve lost momentum on this topic and it’s time to move on to something else. However, I don’t want to end without offering a few final thoughts.

As we’ve seen, sometimes movies get the physics right. Lasers can cut through thick pieces of metal, and you should be able to see a laser that’s fired in a planet’s atmosphere. Often, however, movies get the physics wrong. Lasers fired in outer space shouldn’t be visible, laser beams travel faster than you can capture on camera, and it would be really, really hard to pull together enough power to blow up a planet.

But does it matter? Do movies NEED to be perfectly faithful to science?

I’d argue that the answer is no, as long as things don’t get too far-fetched. In the examples that I wrote about and presented in my NerdNite talk, lasers are portrayed as more powerful than they actually are, but they don’t do anything that causes us to immediately think, “no, that can’t be right.”

Modern lasers are powerful enough that it’s easy for us to suspend our disbelief and accept these movie weapons. In the ’60s, however, when lasers first hit the scene, they weren’t very powerful, and writers worried that audiences wouldn’t believe that lasers could actually do any damage (there is an interesting discussion of how this relates to phasers and Star Trek here). So, lasers were quickly replaced with particle weapons and other fictitious high-energy devices.

However, as we’ve seen, modern lasers are quite a bit more powerful. And lasers have still found homes in a broad cross-section of the science fiction canon. Aside from the examples I’ve already written about (Bond, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Austin Powers), we find lasers in Doctor Who (the robot dog K-9 has a laser in his nose), in Lost in Space, in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, in Firefly, in the movie Real Genius, and even in the TV show The Big Bang Theory.

The lasers aren’t essential to the plots of most of these movies and shows, but they do make for some good battles and silly hijinx. And I think that lasers (and other directed energy weapons) are great weapons for science fiction.  They’re flashy, they act quickly, and they look great on screen. Nothing looks cooler than a flash of light rocketing fatally toward its target. Lasers are also familiar, so we can pay attention to the action without being distracted by the techology.

So I’m okay with movies that ignore some of the physics and make lasers more powerful or more portable than they actually are. In fact, I think science fiction SHOULD push the boundaries of the possible, but it shouldn’t become so unphysical that it is absurd.(*)

(*) As an example of a movie that is way, WAY too absurd for me to swallow, I direct your attention to Evolution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_(film). Sorry, guys, just a few too many leaps of logic between “the alien is a nitrogen based lifeform!” (itself a little absurd) to “selenium should be toxic to it, because selenium’s right next to arsenic on the periodic table just like nitrogen’s right next to carbon!”

What is the merit of pushing the boundaries of the possible? Sometimes, pursuing ideas that are just a little bit out there leads us to fantastic new discoveries. These ideas also inspire an important fascination with and interest in science. Famed astronomer Edwin Hubble, for example, was reportedly inspired by the writings of science fiction author Jules Verne.

Sometimes, science fiction even directly inspires new technologies, or science fiction writers themselves find a new way to see things that opens up vast new realms of the possible. As one of the audience members at my NerdNite talk pointed out, writer E. E. “Doc” Smith dreamed up a new system for managing overwhelming fluxes of information during combat. The Navy liked his system enough that they later drew heavily on his writings in re-designing their own combat information centers.

As a slightly sillier example of science fiction technology inspiring real technology, automotive think-tank Rinspeed designed a concept car capable of driving underwater, directly inspired by a scene in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” And while Harry Potter is a little outside of the true science fiction canon, a lab in Australia recently made blood tests that report their results in writing, just like Tom Riddle’s diary or the Marauders’ Map.

So sometimes, science fiction leads to real-world developments. Even if it doesn’t, it can inspire us and should encourage us to think about where we might go if there were no limits (because maybe someday we’ll find a way to get there).

But in the end, when it comes to science fiction, I think the most important question has nothing to do with the science:

Is the story any good?

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