Popcorn science bending your view of reality

Reporter: Bec Fary

A night at the movies usually involves a suspension of our disbelief, but Australian audiences might be taking the believability of science fiction a little too far.

How might some sci-fi movies bend our views of reality?

Bec Fary reports on ANSTO’s Fact or Fiction movie nights.

This story is part of a summer podcast series produced by journalism students from RMIT University. Read more about the project.


JAMES BOND: You must be joking.

Q: As I learnt from my predecessor, Bond, I never joke about my work. 

BEC FARY: In almost every installment of the James Bond film franchise, Q, the weapons expert at MI6, introduces 007 to the latest revolutionary technology. But would Bond’s technologies work outside the cinema? At ANSTO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, scientists are dissecting science fact from science fiction.

JAMES BOND: This is where they keep the old relics then, hey?

Q: I’ll have you know, this is where our most cutting edge technology is developed.

BEC FARY: It’s tempting to believe sci fi movies are windows into the future. Rod Dowler, team leader at ANSTO’s Discovery Centre, says sci fi technologies like flying cars, hover boards and intelligent metals in movies are influencing what audiences believe about the reality of science.

ROD DOWLER: We’ve seen these types of things in movies, and we’ve seen them so often that we’re believing them. Movies are heavily influencing what people believe. I guess that’s what Hollywood’s meant to do, they’re out there to try to make the unbelievable look believable and they’re doing a pretty good job of it.

BEC FARY: As part of the ‘Fact or Fiction’ events, ANSTO has invited Australian audiences to vote on whether or not they think science and technology from films like James Bond, Star Wars and The Terminator is real. After collecting the results of these surveys, Rod Dowler says Australian audiences are getting hooked on some of the fantasies of science fiction. Three in four people who took part in the survey, for example, incorrectly believed microscopic life had been discovered on other planets.

Dr Joseph Bevitt is scientific co-ordinator at ANSTO’s neutron-scattering facilities, the BRAGG institute. A sci fi fan himself, Dr Bevitt is one of the scientists who speaks at ANSTO’s ‘Fact or Fiction’ events. He says he sees fictional technologies through a different lens to the general public.

JOSEPH BEVITT: The challenge is watching a sci fi movie, and watching it without the eyes of a scientist.

BEC FARY: Dr Bevitt’s perspective might be bad news for Star Wars fans.

JOSEPH BEVITT: Whether we can actually implement a light saber as a technology.

BEC FARY: And can we?

JOSEPH BEVITT: The answer is no. The energy requirements and the material requirements are so strict that you just couldn’t do it, in the next 50 years at least.

BEC FARY: The outlook for some other sci fi technologies is a little more optimistic.

Q: Adaptive camouflage. Tiny cameras on all sides project the image they see onto a light-emitting polymer skin on the opposite side. You see, to the casual eye, it’s as good as invisible.  

BEC FARY: James Bond’s invisible car in ‘Die Another Day’ might seem far-fetched, and current technology isn’t quite that advanced, but improving machinery is already leading to chameleon-like metals. Jasmin Craufurd-Hill is a systems engineer, and has taken her expertise on optics and intelligent metals to ‘Fact or Fiction’.

JASMIN CRAUFURD-HILL: We want to believe. You want that escapism, you want to imagine that anything is possible, and that’s part of the joy of working in science engineering is to be part of the concept that anything can be possible and to work towards that aim, but some of it isn’t quite possible yet.

BEC FARY: Sometimes real science plays a game of catch-up with the movies, with far-out science fiction technologies skewing the public’s view of reality. But like a two-way mirror, the imaginations of filmmakers and scientists can reflect each others’ creativity. Here’s Rod Dowler.

ROD DOWLER: The beautiful thing about science fiction is that you can use your creativity and let your imagination run wild, and then that sets the challenge that’s the inspiration for scientists to try and deliver into the future. While 007’s high-tech weaponry might seem like pure fantasy, the worlds of science fact and science fiction project a sometimes surprising co-operation.

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