Help facts rise up from fiction

Will_StewartChildren’s natural curiosity for STEM subjects, often sparked by popular science fiction films, can be engaged in a highly productive fashion, says Will Stewart,chair of the IET Communications Policy Panel and a former chief scientist at Marconi

Throughout my life I have always thoroughly enjoyed watching sci-fi films. They have become a welcome extension of my personal and professional interests in STEM subjects. I can remember, as a young adult, the thirst for scientific answers I was left with after watching and contemplating some of the ideas in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the excitement I felt as a child when I saw Patrick Moore’s Sky at Night – my imagination went into overdrive.

But,do sci-fi films still inspire our kids in the same way?

Taking into account the list of the most well-known sci-fi films, it’s easy to recognise that most
of them explore ambitious topics that many people might struggle to comprehend. Some tackle complex subjects such as genetic modification, aliens, time travel and artificial intelligence.

Although these popular films do touch upon a myriad of intelligent ideas, a lot of the time they offer little explanation into the science and engineering of how the devices shown could feasibly work.

The audience is expected to accept the intellectual ingredients at face value. With both science and engineering driving the plot, I imagine some people can be left bewildered by the concepts.

It’s with my own personal experience in mind that I do firmly believe that films, and particularly sci-fi films, have the power to spark the creativity inside people when it comes to science and engineering but what is just as important is a parent recognising this and doing something about it. We play a huge part in supporting and encouraging young people – inspiration is only half of it. It really is quite possible to be visionary and exciting but still keep the STEM essentially accurate.

Thinking about the power of film to influence youngsters when it comes to STEM, myself and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), as part most recent Engineer a Better World activity, put it to the test and asked some of the UK’s children sci-fi film questions that have left them perplexed.

In fact, some of the questions asked reminded me of the types of things I wanted to know the answer to and this fills me with hope there is potentially a whole generation of budding engineers out there.

By listening and responding to children, I’m delighted to be part of nurturing their natural STEM curiosity, in this case sparked by popular films. I feel that topical activities such as this will help to change perceptions of what modern engineering is and what it can offer young people as a career.

Here are the top questions with my answers.

Would it be possible to make a light sabre – how much would it cost? (Becky Francas, aged 12)

It depends on what you mean. Clearly, every toy store has examples and I believe the original movie used wooden sticks wrapped in reflective tape with a lamp mounted near the camera to make them look bright. This is clearly quite cheap and you could make your own to video with a smartphone and its built-in lamp, but it would not cut bits off people (or aliens), which is perhaps just as well.

Could you make a very powerful laser, say, in a small package that would cut things? Yes indeed – fibre lasers, including ones made at Southampton, are fairly compact and will cut thick steel plate and though they are normally invisible you could certainly make a visible green one.

Of course the reflected backscatter from any piece of bright armour you happened to touch might blind you.

Are there aliens, like the one shown in E.T.? (Ines Rognaldsen, aged 12)

Yes, almost certainly. We just haven’t found any yet. People are looking for oxygen, presuming this is a good marker for life (probably single-cell life, as life was on Earth for the majority of the time that living things have been around).

They have not found evidence of it yet because, although spectroscopy (looking for specific colours that are absorbed by specific gases) should be simple, it is very difficult to see a small planet in the much bigger glare from the nearby star.

Thousands of planets have been seen now, mostly big like Jupiter but some near Earth size, but seeing them well enough to do spectroscopy is still difficult. Good space telescopes being planned should be able to do this and I am guessing that we will see oxygen on a distant planet relatively soon.

Would it be possible to bring dinosaurs back to life as in Jurassic Park? (Becky Francas, aged 12)

Probably not; we do not have enough dinosaur DNA. The issue with dinosaurs is nothing specifically to do with them, it is that DNA is a big and complex molecule and, like other living things, it decays fairly quickly after death. All we have is fossils: imprints in soil that have been ‘cast’ into shapes with other soil and then made into rocks for preservation, not actual bits of dinosaur. The movies did recognise this and suggested blood from mosquitoes in amber, but even this would contain very little, if any, DNA.

Could a car actually run on uranium like in Back to the Future? (Josh Wood, aged 13)

Yes and it would last a long time. Radioactive fuel was, and indeed still is being, used by the Voyager spacecraft. However, the risks of radioactivity would be significant. It is hard to contain radioactivity in a small vehicle because the shields need to be very thick and thus heavy; so ships and submarines but not really cars and aircraft.