January 25, 2014 1:24 pm

This Sunday, We’re Back with Cosmic Queries Science Fiction – The Sequel

Image of The Professor, Gilligan, the Skipper and the coconut-powered radio on Gilligan's Island

Could The Professor really fix a radio using coconuts? Image Credit: © CBS Television.

Science fiction double feature
Doctor X will build a creature
See androids fighting Brad and Janet
Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet
Wo oh oh oh oh oh
At the late night, double feature, picture show
– Lyrics from “Science Fiction/Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show

No, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not on tomorrow night’s schedule. But Gilligan’s Island is.

So are The Abyss, Deep Impact, Prometheus, WALL-E, Dune, and Disney’s The Black Hole, Iron Man, the X-Men (specifically Magneto), Alien, The Matrix and moreall because you asked so many questions about the real science in Science Fiction that we couldn’t fit them into a single episode.

And that means that tomorrow night, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Eugene Mirman are returning in “Cosmic Queries Science Fiction – The Sequel.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. Sequels are never as good as the original move, right? Well, I have two things to say to you: Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back. Neither of which are discussed in our sequel, but both of which were arguably better than the originals. (I can see the arguments starting in the comments already.)

Anyway, when I listened to Neil and Eugene in this week’s episode, I couldn’t help but reflect on this: for the most part, people who love science fiction movies and TV shows also love science. And yet, frequently, the science in science fiction can be… whimsical, magical, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. And you know what? That doesn’t stop us from standing in line for the next blockbuster sci-fi flick.

Take Prometheus. There was some great science in that. Neil talks about how much he loved the med-bay and the airborne sensor drones and how both of them are entirely plausible science. But then Charlize Theron’s character says they’ve come a billion miles from Earth to get there, when a billion miles wouldn’t even get you half way to Neptune. Would it have taken very much to get that right?

Neil also compares the accurate depiction of meteors in Deep Impact, one of his favorite movies, with the, shall we say scientifically challenged Bruce Willis movie, Armageddon.

The fact that the former had a global box office (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com) of $349,464,664 and the latter blew it away at $553,709,788 suggests that something other than scientific accuracy may be at work in terms of science fiction we love.

One reason may just have to do with the quality of story telling (which, as Eugene points out, was pretty weak in Deep Impact). When talking about why he loved Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, Neil says that good science fiction often tells stories about human nature that might be more difficult to address realistically, but by putting them into outer space, we’re able to better grapple with the concepts as a society. Perhaps people were more enrolled in the riveting story of Bruce Willis’s roughneck crew saving the Earth in dramatic Hollywood fashion than in Robert Duvall’s more realistic group of heroes who only partially stop the asteroid. (I know I was!)

Contact, another of Neil’s favorite movies, based on the book by Carl Sagan, is much more about how humanity reacts to the discovery of aliens than it is about the technology involved. It does it believably, dramatically and creatively… and that makes it great science fiction, even if you don’t fully accept the science depicted in the movie.

Of course, most of your questions in Cosmic Queries Science Fiction – The Sequel aren’t about what makes good science fiction. They’re about science: whether we can actually build a radio out of coconuts the way The Professor did on Gilligan’s Island, or whether it’s feasible to use alcohol as a power source the way Bender the Robot does on Futurama, or whether cybernetic implants could give human beings the powers of Magneto. They’re about whether Superman should be able to gain strength from our yellow Sun, but grow weaker under the influence of Krypton’s red one, or if the laws of physics impose any limitations on Iron Man’s power source. They’re about whether alien life forms could have acid for blood like they do in Aliens, or whether Disney got any science at all right in the movie The Black Hole.

My favorite? It’s a classically geeky question: Who would win in a fight, Superman (who after all is an alien) or Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise as depicted in Star Trek: The Original Series.

To find out, tune in Sunday, Jan 26th at 7:00 PM ET on our website, iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons


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