I don’t suppose he can get it right all the time. Recently, Buzz Aldrin, second man on the Moon and huge space development advocate, has been very vocal with his views about NASA and the agency’s position in the space exploration pecking order. Good man, the world needs more people like him willing to encourage a more positive attitude toward space. But today, I read that the NASA legend has dropped a clanger. Fair play, he’s entitled to his views, but for once (and hopefully the only time) I will say “Buzz, you are totally, and unequivocally wrong.” So what did he say? Science fiction makes space science reality look boring.
When I was a kid, I loved science fiction. I’m now 27 and I still love science fiction. Give me any decent sci-fi movie, and I will be in front of that screen for two hours with no toilet break. Of course, I shudder when I think back to some terrible sci-fi flicks (Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Armageddon, Battlefield Earth, Terminator 3, Aliens vs. Predator Requiem etc.), but the vast majority of my sci-fi memories focus on Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix (the first one, not the sequels) and my all-time favourite Serenity. But we’re not just talking about movies. My staple diet of space did not stop at Carl Sagan documentaries or space news; long-running (and not-so-long-running) sci-fi TV shows kept me enthralled from age 10 and upward. Firefly, Babylon 5, Star Trek (from the original series, The Next Generation, DS9 to Voyager), X-Files (yes, I had a Gillian Anderson “phase”), Quantum Leap, Battlestar Galactica… the list goes on. And these examples are just off the top of my head, almost every day of my life, there has been some science fiction influence.
So was all that time wasted? Did my love for science fiction dampen my interest in real space science? Erm, well, let me see. First off, I remember watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in my early teens, watching the Enterprise getting photon torpedo’d by a Romulan warcraft. I started to question a few things: What is a photon torpedo? Would the resulting explosion really make a noise in space? What’s the difference between impulse drive and warp drive? I’d mostly do the research myself, but I’d also start asking questions. From that point on, I was besotted with the physics behind the fiction, suddenly equations of motion and astronomy weren’t boring at school. I wanted to know more, and science fiction was the fuel behind my enjoyment of science fact.
I decided to expand my understanding of physics at college, and then I wanted to study astrophysics at university. Four years later, I specialized in solar physics to get my PhD four years after that. And what do I have to thank for the last 15 years of science? Science fiction.
So, over to Buzz, who was speaking in an interview during a function held by National Geographic Channel at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills last week:
“I blame the fantastic and unbelievable shows about space flight and rocket ships that are on today. All the shows where they beam people around and things like that have made young people think that that is what the space program should be doing. It’s not realistic.
“And Tom Hanks’ series From the Earth to the Moon. They were fascinating, because it was reality history, and reality fiction can be good if you stick to reality. But, if you start dealing with fantasy and beaming people up and down and traveling seven times the speed of light, you are doing damage. You’re not helping. You have young people who have got expectations that are far unrealistic, and you can’t possibly live up to the expectations you have created in young people. Why do they get bored with the space program? That’s why.”
– Buzz Aldrin (emphasis added)
I agree with my fellow space bloggers, such as Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, who points out that Buzz has his argument totally wrong. In fact, it is the precise opposite. Science fiction gives kids inspiration to learn more about real-world space flight. Like me, kids want to understand the physics behind what they are seeing. I remember watching Babylon 5 space battle scenes with an air of satisfaction when I realised the director had created vast visuals of spaceships exploding with no sound (suddenly the Alien tagline “In space no one can hear you scream…” made sense!), what’s more, I could explain why.
Of course, I’m only talking from personal experience, there may be kids out there who see science fiction as being geeky, or find real-world space exploration boring because sci-fi is too much fun. Also, Buzz could be talking from personal experience (I’m thinking he’s not a Star Trek fan!), he may have access to statistics I’m not aware of. But personally, I think his statements are totally incorrect.
Science fiction enhances kid’s imaginations (and let’s face it, when grappling with quantum mechanics or relativity, you need a very good imagination). Science fiction pushes the envelope of science fact, new discoveries in science requires the human brain to go beyond that envelope, sci-fi can only help; it will never hinder interest in space programs.
Inspired by the Bad Astronomy article “Buzz Kill”