Communicating Through Movies


When the Huygens probe landed on Titan recently, astrobiologists were realistic about what they hoped to gain from the mission. There was little or no chance that life would be found on Saturn’s moon, they said, but the field would nevertheless gain vital clues about organic chemistry on worlds beyond Earth.

Those expectations may, however, become somewhat less staid in the public eye later this year, when the latest Star Wars prequel and a modern-day remake of the H.G. Wells classic, War of the Worlds, hit movie theaters. After all, these sorts of films have fed nonsense such as UFO sightings and mysterious crop circles.

But that pattern did not begin with celluloid. Mark Brake, professor of science communication at the University of Glamorgan in Wales, points out that the invention of sci-fi movies is the latest installment in humanity’s long contemplation of whether we’re alone in space. ‘There’s a clear history of speculation on astrobiology all the way back to Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus, through Roman poet Lucretius, Italian mystic Giordano Bruno, and the 17th century French Copernican Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle,’ Brake says.

Brake, a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s science communication group, has been thinking about these subjects for some time now. Back in 1998, he began teaching to final-year science students a course that took a skeptical view on aliens and UFOs. A year later, he enrolled his first-year undergraduates in a three-year honors program on Science and Science Fiction. This year, he’s due to head the University of Glamorgan’s new degree in astrobiology.

“Key to the advancement of extraterrestrialism in the 20th century was Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory gave credence to the development of life under alien conditions, placing the extraterrestrial hypothesis on a sounder footing,” says Brake.

So it wasn’t until late in the 19th century that extraterrestrialism seriosly found its way into fiction. “No one could have predicted that this idea would spark one of the universal motifs of 20th century fiction: the concept of the alien,” says Brake. “The insistence in science fiction that all aliens have humanoid form is palpable nonsense. But at least you’re not starting from scratch when it comes to communicating with the public.”

Brake says it’s not a stretch to propose that science fiction revolutionized our cosmic perspective, suggesting that life was a fundamental property of the universe. “The concepts of Copernicanism are inherent in Star Wars,” he says, pointing out that even the way the original movie began (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”) points toward a non-Earth centered universe.

Science communication will be playing a key role in Brake’s course this year, in part because astrobiologists need to be able to tackle the “stuff and nonsense” that people believe about alien life, Brake says. Still, the idea of science meaning something to people is important to Brake. “Frankly, the idea of studying science in isolation from that is nonsense.”

Note: this article appeared recently in the American magazine ‘The Scientist’

One comment

    Robert Andrews

    March 16, 2005

    On aliens with humanoid form being palpable nonsense…

    Even more nonsensical, I think, is that aliens in the likes of Star
    Trek speak English. Not just English, but American English. In
    fact, it sounds like most of the alients in that show come not
    from a galaxy far, far away, but upstate Massachusetts. Makes a
    bit of a mockery of the whole thing.

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