Understanding science

By Chris Zuber
Kern Valley Sun

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

“We can’t outrun them. Our only chance is to overload the warp drives and hope that the emitted tachyons travel in parallel vectors so that we can use quantum entanglement to teleport to a location faster than the speed of light.”

This is something that you might hear in a Sci-Fi movie this summer. All of these words individually have meaning, and the paragraph sounds as though it might be based on some scientific theory. That is because it is a distorted use of real theories and discoveries relating to our best understanding of time. It is fiction, disguised as science, relying on your lack of expertise in astrophysics to hide the fact that it is nonsense. For example, quantum entanglement is a real phenomenon that can be misused by lazy writers to summon a magical solution to a conflict in a plot, concealed by lack of context.

Imagine if humans were always born as twins, and one of the twins was always male and the other female. Now, imagine that, at the moment of their birth, one set of twins were separated and flown to opposite sides of the world. You, in New York, see that one is a boy and immediately know that the other, on the complete opposite side of the world, is a girl. This ability to instantly know something about something else, no matter the distance, is what “entanglement” means in quantum entanglement. The quantum part can be summarized as meaning that gravity and other natural laws have stronger or weaker effects on objects, depending on their size and mass. There is nothing magical about quantum entanglement – it is just something that most people don’t understand very well.

Whether it be movies, TV shows or literature, science fiction contains many such clichés. They string together a series of terms that sound scientific and use poorly understood theories to serve as plot conveniences. The Flash, for example, attributes an explosion at a particle accelerator to explain the development of many super powers despite the fact that real-world particle accelerators just make protons run into each other really hard.

Not only is the science in science fiction inaccurate, but it misrepresents the beauty and simplicity of what real science is. Many shows and movies have a character that can be described as a “resident genius.” This character often solves seemingly impossible problems relatively easily through some pseudo-scientific invention, going from theoretical to functional in a matter of minutes to days. Misuse of scientific terminology and theories can be excused as being harmless entertainment, but misrepresenting what science is and how it works may have some unintended consequences.

Science is not magic, and scientists are not some rare type of person who has all of the answers to everything. Science is not a collection of knowledge or answers, but rather a process or method. It is about discovering, not knowing. And, unfortunately, the way that the entertainment industry portrays science makes it seem inaccessible to the average person. Science does not require knowing multi-syllable Latin words or having an underground lab filled with bubbling chemicals. In many cases, it doesn’t involve complicated formulas that use foreign alphabets. While these things have their purposes in certain circumstances, a better understanding of science can be found by watching a toddler play.

Humans are born with a curiosity about the world in which we live. In our younger years, we could be entertained for hours by something as simple as the discovery that flipping a switch turns the lights on and off in a room. We are fascinated, much to our parents’ dismay, that objects bounce and break and make noises when dropped. The first few years of our lives are when we learn the most about the world around us, and it is no coincidence that these are also the years that we are the most easily amused. It is also when our brains develop the most. Later in our lives, this process of discovery will take the form of an obligation, likely becoming boring in the process. Instead of being free to satisfy our own curiosity, we perform the tasks that we are told to do, often without an understanding of why it should matter to us. Learning about the world transitions from being an active process of interactions and observations to remembering information that is often poorly understood.

This doesn’t mean that Sci-Fi and education are harmful. If science were to be accurately portrayed in movies, many of the most entertaining and iconic scenes would either not exist or they would be severely crippled by the limitations of reality. There would be no teleportation or lightsaber duels. To explain how everything works and to show the process of discovery would require cutting epic battle scenes to make room for all of the monotonous research. To demand certain changes to our educational system would similarly miss the purpose of schools, which are required to have a standard or baseline of information that all students must satisfy.

Science and technology are becoming increasingly important to our daily lives. The electricity flowing through your walls, the traction control in your car, the vibrant colors produced by your T.V. and any medicine that you take are just a few examples of what having a deeper understanding of how the world works can achieve. But, as important as science has become to our way of life, the ways that is presented to us through media and education are missed opportunities. Tests do not inspire a passionate curiosity for understanding and meaningless jargon transforms something that is completely real and understandable into mere mysticism.