Apollo With Warp Drive? Make It So.

By Jennifer Ouellette
Sunday, July 19, 2009

In Georges Melies's classic 1902 silent film, "La Voyage Dans la Lune," six hardy astronomers build a bullet-shaped rocket and blast themselves into space with an enormous cannon. They hit the Man in the Moon smack in the eye when they land -- the rocket protruding from the eye of a discomfited moon is the film's iconic image.

Once they're romping on the rocky surface, the astronomers encounter lush foliage and hostile insectoid inhabitants who explode in a puff of smoke when struck. By the time one astronomer sticks his umbrella in the lunar soil and it magically sprouts into a giant mushroom, one can't help but wonder just what mind-altering substance Melies was smoking when he made this movie.

For all its fanciful elements, "La Voyage," which is loosely based on Victorian novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, does boast one snippet of accurate science: If you could get a projectile moving fast enough (about 25,000 miles per hour), it could break free from the Earth's gravity. That makes it the very first science fiction film, according to Sidney Perkowitz, an Emory University physicist and author of the book "Hollywood Science."

Science fiction films and TV shows "mirror real science and its effects on society," he said. "Ideas filter from the scientific world into movies, and from movies into the general consciousness," and then sometimes back to science. As our instruments and techniques become ever more sophisticated, we extend the boundaries of knowledge far beyond the wildest dreams of early film pioneers.

Hollywood has adapted accordingly, reflecting shifts in scientific knowledge and in public perceptions. Melies's film seems absurd to modern eyes because the moon is so familiar to us now. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, we know far too much about the moon to do more than giggle at the naive 19th century sensibility of "La Voyage."

Melies was a good 60 years ahead of science when he made "La Voyage," but today, science and technology are rapidly outstripping what screenwriters and storytellers can imagine. Director Ron Howard's 1995 film "Apollo 13" is the polar opposite of Melies's fantastical lunar mind-trip -- a highly realistic retelling of one specific mission in NASA's golden age of space exploration. And the new science fiction thriller "Moon" stars Sam Rockwell as a lone lunar colonist wrapping up a three-year stint mining helium-3, a rare isotope that has become Earth's primary energy source.

It's not a far-fetched premise. NASA launched its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter last month. Its mission: to map the moon's surface in precise detail to determine the most favorable sites for a future colony. One of the main goals of China's Lunar Exploration Program is to mine helium-3 on the moon. And a Russian space company, RKK Energiya, believes lunar helium-3 could be a viable commodity by 2020.

Within a decade, "Moon" may seem more like a documentary than science fiction. What used to be a magical place where umbrellas sprouted into mushrooms has become mundane; it's the cinematic equivalent of the isolated cabin in the woods. Perkowitz describes "Moon" as less science fiction and "more of a mood piece about a guy doing a job and living in solitude."

As space science advances with unmanned missions to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, Hollywood has had to venture beyond our solar system to other stars and galaxies for its otherworldly inspiration. But science keeps catching up with the fiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in tracing the evolution of science and "Star Trek."

When he launched the starship Enterprise in 1966, series creator Gene Roddenberry famously chose antimatter as the ship's fuel -- small amounts of which are now created almost routinely at the CERN facility in Switzerland, although not nearly enough to power a spaceship. Martin Cooper, inventor of the cellphone, admits he drew inspiration from the handheld communication devices sported by Captain Kirk and his crew.

The Department of Homeland Security announced a new "standoff patient triage tool," essentially a primitive version of Bones McCoy's medical tricorder: a snazzy handheld device one could magically wave over an injured crew member to make an instant medical diagnosis. The new real-life laser-based device would allow medics in the field to check patients' vital signs wirelessly from up to 40 feet away.

And while the fantasy-generating holodeck and transporter technologies of "Star Trek" might not yet be realities, immersive virtual reality and quantum teleportation are advancing rapidly.

The cloaking devices used by Romulan ships in "Star Trek" might also be on the horizon. Last year researchers at the University of California at Berkeley used a mixture of ceramic, Teflon and fiber composites ("meta-materials") to deflect light waves around a three-dimensional object -- effectively camouflaging it from prying eyes.

Let's recap: Lunar colonization and helium-3 mining outposts? Check. Antimatter? Check. Tricorders, holodecks and communicators? Check. Teleporters and cloaking devices? Check. Can warp drives, traversable wormholes to other dimensions and parallel universes be far behind?

All scientists would have to do is follow Hollywood's lead there as well. Carl Sagan collaborated with Caltech physicist Kip Thorne to devise a plausible wormhole scenario for Ellie Arroway to travel to a distant star in the book and then the movie "Contact." In its fifth season, the television show "Lost" played fast and loose with the laws of relativity as temporal anomalies beset the island's denizens. The season finale of "Fringe" had its characters shunting back and forth between one reality and an alternate Earth where Boston is a bombed-out ruin and an inter-dimensional war is brewing. J.J. Abrams's "Star Trek" reboot -- a blockbuster movie this summer -- relies on alternate realities, black holes and a mysterious substance called "red matter" to drive the plot.

All of which compels Perkowitz to dangle the tantalizing notion that perhaps science fiction, as a genre, is dead. It has always drawn from real-world science to imagine what might be technologically feasible in the future, often inspiring scientists in turn to push the boundaries of knowledge even further. But what happens when the gap between reality and fiction becomes so narrow that the two are nearly indistinguishable?

"We take the wonders of science so for granted, and technology advances so rapidly, that the media can barely find the imagination to keep ahead of the reality," says Perkowitz. "Now filmmakers need to leapfrog into less-reasonable fringe science, like alternate dimensions, to seem novel. There's less science fiction, and more pure fantasy with a surface sheen of science."

Of course, today's fringe science may become tomorrow's established fact. Physicist Hugh Everett III was ridiculed in the 1950s when he first proposed the idea that every possible outcome in any situation is realized in a separate universe. It was meant to reconcile a key paradox of quantum mechanics, but the reception of his "many worlds" theory was so harshly critical that Everett left the field.

The notion of a multiverse or extra dimensions is no longer grounds for automatic dismissal as a crackpot by the physics community. The godfather of science fiction, novelist Arthur C. Clarke, famously observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

How long before science outpaces even Hollywood's most magical innovations?

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of "The Physics of the Buffyverse" and director of the National Academy of Sciences' Science & Entertainment Exchange.

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