Science and Star Wars
The holidays are the perfect time to relax in front of a film, or a dose of festive telly. This December saw the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is smashing box office records. Can films serve as more than entertainment, and end up inspiring scientists? Graihagh Jackson grabbed some popcorn with Cambridge University's Karen Yu, who explained how her love of the films first got her into science.
Graihagh - We're sat in the Picturehouse in Cambridge. Everyone has just flocked in to see Star Wars, the latest movie. You saw it earlier this morning and I believe you're a big fan. It's actually how you got into science in part. I wonder if you can tell me that story.
Karen - Yes, so I was around nine or ten at my local library and drawn to the science fiction section and I saw a copy of Star Wars - it was a novelisation of the first film. At the point I hadn't seen the films yet, but I picked up the book. I had heard of the series, and I read it and from that I was pretty hooked. I saw all the movies and that wasn't enough so I read a lot of the expanded universe stuff from there and then, from that, lots of other science fiction as well.
Graihagh - What was it about it, in particular, that drew you in?
Karen - All the things that they could do; from visiting other planets, meeting all the strange and new alien life forms, interacting with them, and all the interesting technology - hover cars for example. I remember being stuck in traffic and being well like, why can't our cars hover and fly and we can avoid all this? And questions like that made me think well like, why don't we have that technology and how can we get that technology? Can I help to do it?
Graihagh - And that's what brought you to where you are today?
Karen - Yes. Originally I had very grand designs; some fusion powered starship engine, but my goals have tempered a little bit since then. Currently my project involves laser processing, and controlling that and attaching feedback and monitoring, so that the processing for micro and nano scale components is a lot more efficient.
Graihagh - So not the future of hover cars then?
Karen - No, no. I still get to work with lasers which is also pretty cool.
Graihagh - You've seen the most recent Star Wars. What did you think?
Karen - I had a great time. I think it captured the feeling of the original trilogy a lot better than the prequels did, and that feeling that you get when the trumpets start blasting and the text starts scrolling across the screen and you know that it's begun. I think that alone was worth the ticket but the film was excellent, quite yes wonderful.
Graihagh - Did it reinvigorate your love of science?
Karen - I like to think that that never left but yes, given the rate of my PhD, yes it has a little.
Graihagh - Do you think that's the same with a lot of people? Getting young people into science, things like Star Wars and other science fiction movies really help with that?
Karen - Oh yes, absolutely. It just fills your imagination with all these things and I think I'm certainly not the only one to think well why can't we do these things? When kids ask these questions they start thinking about well how can I help, and how can I get into science and make my dreams of having a hover car come true?
Graihagh - Do you think it matters that they're incorrect scientifically, if that makes sense?
Karen - As a scientist and an engineer, when I see certain films and they play fast and loose with the science, it does bother me a little bit as I'm sure it bothers many other scientists and engineers. But that being said, there is something about just leaving it open ended, not explaining everything and leaving it to the imagination, and the stuff that we can't do right now is what's going to inspire the kids who are watching it.
Graihagh - One last question. It's a serious question okay. What's your favourite Star Wars film?
Karen - Ah...
Graihagh - Oh, it's a toughie, I can see.
Karen - The new ones great but I think it would still have to be "Empire Strikes Back." I'm sorry.
Graihagh - And favourite Christmas film?
Karen - That's another hard one. I guess, as odd as it sounds, it would have to be "You've Got Mail."
Graihagh - "You've Got Mail?"
Karen - Yes. It's always on TV, and I always end up watching it with my mum around Christmas, so it's just kind of like our Christmas film.
Graihagh - Fond memories?
Karen - Yes, very fond memories...