Science and Science Fiction

I just set my DVR to record this evening’s broadcast on the History Channel of Parallel Universes, and noticed that the summary information about the show reads:

Some of the world’s leading physicists believe they have found evidence proving the existence of parallel universes.

One participant in the program is Clifford Johnson, who writes on his blog about how he’s gotten a bad feeling about the project after seeing a rough cut:

I’m a bit worried, if I’m honest, since this is a topic that is so easily seized upon by nutcases and sensible people alike, and is, in various forms, the fodder of so much charlatanism and mystical mumbo-jumbo. Any program in a science series on this sort of material has to be doubly careful -triply- to not give people an excuse to say that “the scientists have verified this”.

Why am I slightly worried? Well, I did not see a final cut of the show and so don’t want to go over the top here, but an early rough cut I saw did seem to potentially suffer from a problem these shows can sometimes have: A collection of practicing scientists are very carefully making comments about what is known, unknown, likely, and unlikely, and so forth, and then much of that care can be undermined by the interspersing of their remarks with clips of every physics documentary filmmaker’s favourite go-to guy who can be relied upon to say wild and wonderful things – Michio Kaku…

I also did notice in the rough cut that there were a couple of places where I’d have preferred a bit more of a reminder that string theory (a framework where some of these speculative ideas about parallel universes has recently been re-discussed in scientific -but yes, still speculative- circles) is itself an unestablished and under-developed theory that could well be cast aside one day in favour of something else. I stressed this point in the course of our shooting, but don’t know how much this got through.

One odd thing about this TV show is that it has already been done, in our universe, with the same name, featuring Michio Kaku, by the BBC back in 2001:

Everything you’re about to read here seems impossible and insane, beyond science fiction. Yet it’s all true.

Scientists now believe there may really be a parallel universe – in fact, there may be an infinite number of parallel universes, and we just happen to live in one of them. These other universes contain space, time and strange forms of exotic matter. Some of them may even contain you, in a slightly different form. Astonishingly, scientists believe that these parallel universes exist less than one millimetre away from us….

For years parallel universes were a staple of the Twilight Zone. Science fiction writers loved to speculate on the possible other universes which might exist. In one, they said, Elvis Presley might still be alive or in another the British Empire might still be going strong. Serious scientists dismissed all this speculation as absurd. But now it seems the speculation wasn’t absurd enough. Parallel universes really do exist and they are much stranger than even the science fiction writers dared to imagine.

It all started when superstring theory, hyperspace and dark matter made physicists realise that the three dimensions we thought described the Universe weren’t enough. There are actually 11 dimensions. By the time they had finished they’d come to the conclusion that our Universe is just one bubble among an infinite number of membranous bubbles which ripple as they wobble through the eleventh dimension.

In his posting, Clifford asks sensible questions about what scientists can do to keep science fiction from taking over science programs. I’ve heard that one mediagenic physicist who was offered a role in this program told them he would only participate if given the right to veto any segment involving him that misrepresented his views. He’s not in the program.

From the opposite end of the science/science-fiction issue, tomorrow in LA there will be an event to launch a new project called The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This is a program (directed by Jennifer Ouellette, who blogs about it here), aimed at improving the portrayal of science by the entertainment industry. There seems to be an increasing amount of media-interest in science-related story lines, and the goal of translating this into getting some higher-quality science out before the public is a worthy one.

One goal of this organization I guess will be to improve the science in science-fiction programs. Since, at least as far as fundamental physics goes, the battle to keep science-fiction out of science appears to have been lost, maybe there should also be an effort to improve the quality and accessibility of the fiction now spreading throughout the physics literature. Some organization could get together creative artists and other media professionals to work on this, helping out programs like “Parallel Universes” as well as popular science books and journal articles. One can’t deny that, at the moment, all of these are pretty sophomoric as creative art, as well as typically not very successful at reaching a mass audience.

There’s a lot of room for advice from visual artists about more appealing string theory vacua for use in particle physics and string cosmology. Surely a good novelist or playwright could come up with a better pre-big bang story line than “colliding branes”. As physics journals like Nuclear Physics B fill up with articles on Boltzmann Brains and the multiverse, with some help from the entertainment industry they could be marketed to a much wider audience, bringing down their cost to university libraries. A lot could be done on the marketing front: for instance it might be a good idea to include some 420 with each issue to help ensure that “mind-blowing” ideas don’t just bore people, but really do blow the mind of the target audience. The possibilities really are limitless…

Update: Just finished watching “Parallel Universes”. Wow. Almost completely free of any real scientific content, and definitely deserves an award as the most idiotic and ludicrous TV show ever made that pretends to have something to do with science. Deep into “what the bleep” territory. The problem is not just Michio Kaku. Everyone involved in the thing should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

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5 Responses to Science and Science Fiction

  1. Peter – what does this mean?

    for instance it might be a good idea to include some 420 with each issue

  2. Peter Woit says:


    It means that this nonsense about “Parallel Universes” is making me get rather silly and vindicate those who describe this blog as sometimes “over the top”. If you’re unaware of what “420” is, you could try Google…

  3. Right – gotcha now. I agree in that case!

  4. Pingback: Parallel Universes and This One

  5. IGPNicki says:

    I’ve just been posting on another forum about how I feel strongly that while yes, I would appreciate better science in science fiction, I feel strongly that since the words “science” and “fiction” share equal billing, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for enjoying a show. However, have to totally agree that we need to keep scince science and not science fiction. I definitely see this trend for science lite (the spelling was on purpose). And not just science either. There’s very little on the history channel which actually pertains to history. Pretty scary!

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