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This edition: Episode #110: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Fantastic Four

Episode Details

Original tape date: October 2, 2015.

First aired: November 27, 2015.

In episode #110 of Science Goes to the Movies, Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie are joined by City College physics professor Vinod Menon to discuss how light is used and portrayed in Star Wars, Star Trek, and Fantastic Four.

Star Wars and Star Trek serve as the basis for a consideration of light as weapon, as in the lightsaber. Professor Menon breaks down the plausibility of such usages of light and explains the way in which light exerts force. The physics of the tractor beam, as seen in Star Trek, is compared to recent innovations in medical science. The crucial question of whether light ever stops, or comes to a point, as it seems to with lightsabers, is addressed. How sci-fi inventions like holograms are becoming closer to a reality, and how the imagination of filmmakers inspire scientists, are considered. A basic explanation for the different colors of lightsabers in Star Wars finishes off the first section of the show.

A conversation about how the creators of Star Trek remained true to actual science is next. Masers, the predecessor to lasers, are put in a historical context, and the way in which Star Trek creators adapted the idea of masers into “phasers” is laid out. Rectified light, the type used in light weaponry, is defined, and light that makes sound, as heard in the many lightsaber fights of Star Wars, is compared to the properties of light in real life; conversely, the possibility of sound that makes light is assessed. Professor Menon then weighs in on the plausibility of laser guns.

“Energy Creatures,” or beings without bodies, such as those seen in the CBS show, Extant, provide another angle on light. Professor Menon describes the spectrum of invisible light where these creatures are supposed to exist as well as the part of the spectrum that can be dangerous to humans. Dr. Heather Berlin clarifies the way in which our senses have evolved to be able to perceive certain frequencies of light as compared to other animals.

The final section of the show focuses on the Fantastic Four character, Sue Storm, and her power of invisibility. First, Professor Menon lays out why invisibility is indeed a property of light, how objects become visible in the first place through reflection, and how light must behave around an object in order for that object to become invisible. He also talks about new research on “invisibility cloaks,” a garment that can make light bend around an object or person. He compares the challenge of manipulating light to that of manipulating sound. Finally, he shares the way in which light is currently being used to ensure greater security in communication technologies, and the exciting new field of optogenetics, in which light is used to manipulate neurons.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Prof. Vinod Menon Professor, Department of Physics, CIty College/CUNY Graduate Center

Web Extras

What defines a laser?

City College Professor Vinod Menon defines the various properties of lasers.

Imagination in Science

Professor Vinod Menon and hosts discusses the importance of the imagination in science.

Why We See Color

City College Professor Vinod Menon explains how and why we perceive colors.