Fiction and Science; Lucas Films Parallel Scientific Inventions

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Fiction and Science; Lucas Films Parallel Scientific Inventions


Byline: Jen Waters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When "Star Wars" was released in 1977, director George Lucas never imagined he would influence a generation of scientists, says Tomi Landis, executive producer of "The Science of Stars Wars," a three-part Discovery Networks television special.

"To him, these were the stories that he wanted to tell," Mrs. Landis says. "The best science fiction inspires the imagination of the best scientists, no matter how old they are."

Because works of science fiction often feature futuristic societies, the movies or books sometimes foreshadow upcoming innovations. The fictional realities can encourage scientists to think "outside the box" in their professional work.

If science fiction is good, it's a logical extension of the world and has the likelihood of happening, says Jim Halperin, author of science-fiction novels "The Truth Machine" and "The First Immortal."

In "The Truth Machine," which was published in 1996, he described a fictitious drug that would "block blood vessel growth within tumors." Although Mr. Halperin didn't know it at the time, clinical trials for a drug called Endostatin, which performs the same function as the drug in his book, were being developed.

"It's like if you give a monkey a typewriter forever, he'll eventually write something that actually happens or the entire works of William Shakespeare," Mr. Halperin says. "There aren't that many original ideas anyway. They are all sort of composites of other ideas."

The best science-fiction authors seldom try to predict the future, says David Brin, author of the novel "Earth," which was published in 1989. It's an indirect result of their creativity, he says. Before Web pages were popular, Mr. Brin portrayed them in his novel as a way to seek information.

"We try to explore possibilities or plausibilities," Mr. Brin says. "When you do that, you're trying to make drama."

Among the narratives in the science-fiction genre, none has motivated scientists and scientists-to-be like "Star Wars," Mrs. Landis says. The latest movie, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," arrives in theaters today.

"When my children watched 'Star Wars,' my son, Ryan, came up with an idea I thought was brilliant," Mrs. Landis says. "He was only about 6 or 7 at the time. He said he wanted to invent a hovercraft that uses polluted air and spits out clean air. I told him if he could do that, he would be as famous as George Lucas."

"The Science of Stars Wars" highlights inventions that can be related to the technology seen throughout Mr. Lucas' movies, Mrs. Landis says. The series will re-air on the Discovery Channel at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Discovery HD Theater also will air the TV series at 8 p.m. May 28 and at 9 p.m. on the second, third and fourth Sundays in July. Discovery Networks is based in Silver Spring.

The first episode of the trilogy, "Man and Machines," illustrates how robots increasingly are assisting human hands, Mrs. Landis says.

For example, the Sony Aibo Dog and the Japanese Banryu Companion Robot can react to human commands and movements, similar to "Star Wars" droids C-3PO and R2-D2, she says.

Another example is the work of James McLurkin, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer. He works with robots that operate in swarms, much like the battalions of droids that work together in "Star Wars" battle scenes.

The swarm members remain in constant communication with one another to identify the location of their opponents and complete their tasks in an efficient manner, Mrs. …

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