How Science Shapes Science Fiction

Course No. 2358
Professor Charles L. Adler, PhD
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
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Course No. 2358
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Dive into the real-world science that has helped shape science fiction
  • numbers Discover how science is applied in a variety of stories and storytelling mediums
  • numbers Explore the many scientific fields that sci-fi writers can use to build their story worlds
  • numbers Learn how accuracy helps a story and when it bogs it down in excessive scientific detail

Course Overview

Science fiction has been called “the literature of the future,” but how often do writers get the science right? Most of us are familiar with the common features of the genre: interstellar travel, laser weapons, alien technology, teleportation, artificial intelligence, time travel, and more. But how much do we know about the science behind the stories and their imaginative worlds? It’s true that these are, indeed, science fiction, but you may be surprised by how much scientific reality lies at the heart of well-known science fiction tropes.

Whether science fiction is exploring current realities, extrapolating from the present to create imaginary futures, or just creating interesting settings for character-driven stories, it often relies on real science to both entertain and build stories that can transport us into astonishing new worlds. In the 24 lectures of How Science Shapes Science Fiction, Professor Charles L. Adler of St. Mary’s College of Maryland looks at dozens of books, movies, and television shows to unearth the science behind the fiction. From the physics of space flight and the ecology of exoplanets to the creation of alien languages and the paradoxes of time travel, you will uncover the ways real-world science is applied by writers and filmmakers—and consider what they might alter or leave out for the sake of a good plot.

Over the course of these 24 lectures, you will engage with work from dozens of great names in science fiction, including:

  • Jules Verne;
  • Isaac Asimov;
  • Arthur C. Clarke;
  • Stanley Kubrick;
  • Frank Herbert;
  • Ursula K. Le Guin;
  • Becky Chambers; and
  • Robert Heinlein.

And you will have the perfect guide as you immerse yourself in the work by these and many other sci-fi storytellers. With over 30 years of experience in the field of physics, Professor Adler presents the many scientific facts and theories throughout this course with clarity and good humor, using science fiction as a lens through which we can better understand our own world and expand our understanding of vital scientific principles. While it isn’t necessary to read or watch the many stories explored in these lectures to understand the science, your experience will be greatly enhanced if you have encountered these tales before.

Reading Fiction Scientifically

If science fiction is about entertainment, why dig into the accuracy of the science? As Professor Adler demonstrates, fiction can be a wonderful gateway to education as well as entertainment. Through the dozens of novels, films, and television shows he discusses in this course, you will see how fiction can both directly and indirectly reflect the real-world concerns of scientists and everyday people alike. And, rather than taking stories to task for failures of accuracy, or only praising those with the most “truth,” Professor Adler enriches your experience of these stories. He provides an in-depth analysis of dimensions many could miss out on in a solitary experience with these narratives and helps you engage with science in a highly accessible way. As you dive into stories by great writers and filmmakers that span the history of science fiction, you will examine:

  • How science is applied in a variety of stories and storytelling mediums;
  • The ways writers can “cheat” science to bend it to the needs of their stories, rather than forcing fiction to fit reality;
  • The predictive powers of fiction rooted in real science;
  • The many scientific fields that sci-fi writers can use to build their story worlds;
  • When accuracy helps a story and when it bogs it down in excessive scientific detail; and
  • Real scientific principles and their applications to both fiction and reality, including the basics of rocket science, ecology, relativity, evolution, computer science, chaos theory, and much more.

By presenting scientific knowledge through the lens of fiction, How Science Shapes Science Fiction opens the door to theories, concepts, and formulas that may seem daunting in more academic settings. As you will see, fiction has an amazing capacity to teach us about ourselves and the nature of the world we live in.

Prediction in Fiction

Science fiction as a literary genre has been around since the early 19th century, and it has grown and expanded in tandem with our understanding of the world through scientific study. Experiments with electricity inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1817, the novel many consider the first science fiction story. From Shelley onward, writers saw the unlimited potential in using science to create stories of adventure and imagination. These stories often interrogate how the world would be changed by the discoveries made by physicists, biologists, chemists, ecologists, and many others over the course of the last two centuries. And one of the most eye-opening lessons in How Science Shapes Science Fiction is looking at how “soft” sciences like sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and psychology are just as important to the genre as the “hard” sciences.

Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon is an early example of “hard” science fiction that accurately reflects the scientific knowledge of his time—knowledge that would be proven correct in many ways a century later. Professor Adler walks you through the conditions necessary to launch a rocket into space, highlighting Verne’s grasp of physics and the logistics that would make a rocket launch possible. While Verne’s story would likely still be fun without this acute attention to detail, the depth of his knowledge and focus on the realities of spaceflight makes it an exceptionally prescient story and, along with 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, cemented Verne as a leading figure in sci-fi literature.

Jules Verne may not have set out to predict the future in his stories, but other science fiction writers have made attempts to deliberately look ahead, sometimes with mixed results. Isaac Asimov was one of the titans of mid-20th-century science fiction. As you look at his Foundation series, you will examine the ways he used social sciences and the sociological conditions of his own time to create a hypothetical future for humanity after the collapse of civilization. Since these stories are set thousands of years in the future, the “accuracy” of his predictive storytelling is less about the future and more about understanding how social and historical factors shape human decision-making in the here and now. This also opens the door to conversations about the ways writers and sci-fi creators understand the many fields they utilize to create fictional worlds, drive plot, and motivate their characters.

Questions Big and Small

While some science fiction purposefully sets out to engage with readers intellectually, there is no denying that a lot of science fiction relies on fictionalized or unsubstantiated science for the sake of storytelling. Beloved series like Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and a host of other works both classic and contemporary all utilize theoretical tools that are less about interrogating real science than they are about using technology and ideas to tell engaging, character-driven stories. But that doesn’t mean that their plot devices like teleporters, lightsabers, and time machines don’t present interesting scientific questions. Sometimes, as in the case of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, fiction can even influence legitimate scientific research with real-world implications.

Compare fact and fiction as Professor Adler helps you better understand the science that could answer questions including:

  • Is it possible to replicate or move matter across long distances instantaneously?
  • What are the paradoxes of time travel, and is it even possible?
  • Could huge winged creatures like dragons really fly?
  • How would travel and communication across vast interstellar distances actually work?
  • Can the way we use language alter our experience of reality?
  • Will artificial intelligence develop beyond our ability to control it?

The great sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem once said, “Science explains the world, but only art can reconcile us to it.” There is a lot to be learned about science through science fiction, but ultimately, the aim of great literature is the same, no matter the genre. The questions and theories considered in How Science Shapes Science Fiction will give you the opportunity to experience science fiction on multiple levels, as both a fascinating inquiry into the scope of our scientific knowledge and as a bold human quest for meaning in a vast and complex universe.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Science and Fiction! The Wayfarers Series
    Begin your journey into the heart of how science shapes science fiction with a look at the world created by Becky Chambers in her galaxy-spanning Wayfarers book series. As you examine the “meta-question” of how authors decide to use science in their stories, you will zero in on four specific scientific ideas and how they utilize principles that are both real and imagined when creating a believable and engaging story. x
  • 2
    Cheating the Science: Protector
    Our understanding of science changes all the time. How do writers use science to help build their stories while also keeping these stories from becoming immediately dated or unbelievable? They cheat. Using Larry Niven's novel Protector, as well as several other books by Niven and other sci-fi authors, Professor Adler demonstrates how writers can simplify and bend scientific ideas like evolution for the sake of narrative. x
  • 3
    Prediction: From the Earth to the Moon
    Turn now to Jules Verne, considered the progenitor of “hard” science fiction stories. As you look at one of the earliest literary excursions into science fiction and what it gets right about launching spacecraft, consider whether sci-fi can predict the future. Along the way, you will also look closely at how stories can use science in ways that are hopeful and adventurous, as well as realistic and informative. x
  • 4
    World-Building in The Left Hand of Darkness
    How do writers build fictional worlds that feel real, especially when a world is a completely different planet from our own? In this lecture, go on a scientific tour of two constructed worlds: the planet Gethen, from Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness, and Sukien, a world Professor Adler himself created for a Japanese television series. Look at the ways sci-fi writers pick and choose the science that makes these worlds work in fiction. x
  • 5
    Advanced World-Building in Avatar
    In this second lecture on worldbuilding, look at the habitable moon Pandora from James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar. What kind of astronomical conditions must exist to allow a moon to develop an ecosystem similar to that of a planet? Dive into the science that supports the lush, exotic world of Pandora and its inhabitants and consider the possibility of such places in our universe. x
  • 6
    Action and Reaction in The Avengers
    Superheroes have their own special niche in science fiction. Dissect the reality that underlies the physics-defying powers of comic book heroes. How does Iron Man's suit work? Could a shield like Captain America's iconic accessory really exist? What conditions could allow a hero like The Flash to run on water? Look closely at the science of superhero cinema to answer these questions and more. x
  • 7
    Space Travel and 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Space travel may be the single most common feature of science fiction, but not every story treats the science the same way. Here, you will see why the space travel depicted in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey has stood the test of time and is still among the best portrayals in the genre. Explore four aspects of space flight through the lens of this sci-fi classic. x
  • 8
    Interplanetary Travel and The Martian
    Could humans travel to Mars and survive there? This hypothetical scenario is the premise of the successful novel and film The Martian. Look closer at the story of Mark Watney's lone survival on the Red Planet and see how it raises numerous scientific questions about travel from Earth to other worlds, and how we would create a livable environment on a planet so unlike our own. x
  • 9
    Space Battles and Energy Weapons: Star Wars
    Space battles and interstellar warfare make a lot of appearances in science fiction. While no battles have actually happened in space in the real world, the Star Wars films present some fascinating hypotheticals about orbital mechanics, laser technology, space debris, and more. Consider the real science behind the classic battles that have come to define these iconic films. x
  • 10
    Advanced Rocket Systems in Star Trek
    A definitive science fiction series, Star Trek offers many scientific and technological ideas to explore. In this lecture, take a closer look at propulsion systems that may (or may not) be possible in the far future by digging into the science behind space travel experiments in the 20th and 21st centuries, including various forms of atomic power. x
  • 11
    Relativity and Time for the Stars
    Traveling to distant planets raises questions about time and relativity, which is what you will examine through Robert Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Dive into the history of Einstein’s revolutionary theory and how it has been interpreted—and misinterpreted—by science fiction writers for decades. And learn why even the mistakes sci-fi writers make can help us better understand science. x
  • 12
    Black Holes, Wormholes, and Interstellar
    Another common scientific feature of many sci-fi stories are black holes and wormholes. As we continue to speculate and learn more about the nature of these mysterious phenomena in the real world, see how films like Interstellar offer a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities—while also offering an example of when an extreme focus on science can actually be hazardous to good storytelling. x
  • 13
    Time Travel and Doctor Who
    Dive into the concept of time travel with one of the longest-running science fiction television series in history: the British phenomenon, Doctor Who. Through the fan-favorite episode “Blink,” explore the nature of time and it’s 4th-dimensional relationship to physical space, consider the many paradoxes of time travel, and think about whether time machines are even possible at all. x
  • 14
    Teleportation and Star Trek
    Take another look at Star Trek, this time with a focus on teleportation and transporter technology. While transporter technology was first introduced in the series to cut filming costs, it raises interesting scientific questions. Can matter be instantaneously moved across long distances? What are the risks of human teleportation? Is the modern 3-D printer a real-life version of the matter replicator? x
  • 15
    Cyberspace and the Singularity: Neuromancer
    Robots and artificial intelligence have been part of science fiction for over 100 years, though in reality we are still far away from meeting truly sentient machines. Consider the robotic characters featured in properties like Star Wars and Star Trek as you explore consciousness and the possibilities of the computerized future in William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. x
  • 16
    Steampunk Science and Leviathan
    There are a number of subgenres within science fiction with their own distinct styles and intents. One distinct subgenre is steampunk, which is defined by its historical time period and focus on rethinking the science of the past. Through Scott Westerfeld's novel Leviathan and other steampunk stories, Professor Adler explores the retro-scientific possibilities of genetic engineering, giant mechanical vehicles, and early computing technology. x
  • 17
    Design Your Own Dragon: Game of Thrones
    Science fiction writers don't just build worlds that are different from our own; many also design unique creatures to populate those worlds. Look at the intersection of biology and physics as you explore dragons in fictional stories like Game of Thrones. As you will see, there is probably a reason most stories featuring dragons are considered fantasy rather than science fiction. x
  • 18
    Planetary Ecology in Dune
    Ecology is a particularly complex science to get right in fiction. Turn to Frank Herbert’s classic Dune to see how writers can use scientific principles to create entire ecosystems—and how they decide what science to highlight and what to ignore. Along the way, look at major real-world ecological projects and controversial theories that have influenced sci-fi. x
  • 19
    Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Contact
    Carl Sagan is the rare sci-fi creator who is more famous for being a science educator than a fiction writer. As you will learn, his extensive background in science not only allowed him to portray interstellar communication theories with accuracy in his novel Contact, but his work also influenced real-world research. Explore the possibilities of communication with alien species and why a lot of scientists believe we are not alone in the universe. x
  • 20
    UFOs, ESP, and The X-Files
    The long-running television show The X-Files explored a host of conspiracy theories and scientific mysteries. In this lecture, you will examine two popular topics the show tackled over the course of its nine-season run: UFOs and “superhuman” abilities like ESP. While the show was great at using these mysterious phenomena to tell thrilling stories, much of the science may be unreliable at best. x
  • 21
    Social Sciences and the Foundation Series
    The social sciences play a huge role in any good science fiction story. Here, dive into the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov and explore how anthropology, sociology, history, and other subjects shape how worlds are created in science fiction. Along the way, you'll also look at sociology in other influential stories and see what chaos theory has to say about predicting the future. x
  • 22
    Designed Languages and Arrival
    Dive into the science of linguistics and language creation through the film Arrival, as well as other notable stories, through which Professor Adler explains the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the relationship of language to time and our perception of reality itself. Do we shape language or does language shape us? As you contemplate this question and other mysteries, you will also look at the challenges of creating fictional languages. x
  • 23
    Cosmology, the Mind, and Star Maker
    Many science fiction stories are told from the perspective of a few key characters. In this lecture, the scope widens astronomically as you consider Olaf Stapledon's influential 1937 novel Star Maker and how it manages to tell a story that encompasses a cosmic scale in terms of both time and space. Examine the different scales of potential civilizations in the universe and consider the possibilities presented by both scientists and storytellers. x
  • 24
    Science Fiction's Purpose: Childhood's End
    Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End brings this course to its fitting conclusion with a consideration of science fiction as a genre with limitless potential to explore some of our biggest questions. As you will learn, these questions are often scientific, but they are also much bigger than anything we can tackle with a mathematical formula or technological advancement alone. Ultimately, science fiction has the same goals as any other art: to explore the human condition through fiction. x

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Your professor

Charles L. Adler

About Your Professor

Charles L. Adler, PhD
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Charles L. Adler is a Professor of Physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He received his PhD, MS, and BS in Physics from Brown University, where he focused on experimental laser physics. He is the author of more than 40 papers on experimental physics, optics, and mathematics. He is a member of the Light and Color in Nature group, an international group of scientists who study the interaction of light with the...
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How Science Shapes Science Fiction is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 5.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A science professor & sci-fi fan shares his ideas I am a life long fan of sci-fi movies and novels. The best sci-fi authors have a knack for keeping their fans engaged in their novels and stories by dramatizing how now time issues feasibly project into the near and distant future. Their success in doing this skillfully is significantly up graded when they use legitimate scientific theories and proofs of what is already been proven to demonstrate and validate what our future existence could be socially, economically, politically or even religiously as well as what it could feasibly look and feel like in the near and/or distant future. In this lecture series the professor skillfully blends sci-fi's intrigue for its fans with demonstrably proven scientific fact. The graphics are also well done. As a result this lecture series is scientifically informative, entertaining and intellectually provocative. If you like science and you like sci-fi even a little this course is for you.
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good explanations Professor Adler generally does a good job of explaining the science behind many popular science fiction stories. Most of his explanations are lucid; however, some of them are downright abstruse. Still, it's a good course.
Date published: 2020-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting, exciting and entertaining! Great course! The professor was engaging and brought a strong background to a very interesting topic. He brought real science to science fiction which was enlightening. I couldn't wait for the next lecture.
Date published: 2020-09-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great subject I am a regular great course subscriber with over 80 courses and enjoyed this course. The professor is engaging and equally effective and knowledgeable in both hard science and science fiction. I enjoyed course so much to view first half of course in one day and to purchase his book Wizards Aliens and Starships. The visual course download provided too little additional material to audio course, would have been nice to see more illustrations from science fiction books and movies. Also his book includes significantly more algebraic equations and data tables. The increased rigor of these would be appreciated by Great Course audiences. Again I would happily buy course again but wish it could have been better.
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Only at the beginning I've only started listening so I'm at the beginning, but so far I find it really fascinating and enlightening.
Date published: 2020-08-16
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