Who says class has to be all about lectures and labs? Andrés Aragoneses, a quantum optics researcher at Duke, has created a class called “Science & Science Fiction” in conjunction with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke (OLLI). The course explores hot science fiction topics through the study of famous movies – from Star Wars, to Independence Day, to The Martian.
The unconventional idea to use movies as the primary medium for the class was born during Professor Aragoneses’s time teaching in Spain. Physics professors at his university had found that in order to get students to follow their classes, they had to do more than just explain Newton’s law and demonstrate practice problems. So, they began to relate these complex topics to media that the students were familiar with — news, cinema, and comics.
Each week, the OLLI group watches small scenes of movies that use scientific concepts in their production, and then learns the true theories behind these concepts. Most movies are quite fantastic when it comes to their scientific aspects, and this leads to incorrect representations of cosmological, physical, and astronomical phenomena on the screen. Focusing on a single concept each class, Aragoneses debunks Hollywood myths about natural disasters, comets, solar flares, neutrinos, and magnetic fields (to name a few).
One week, the class focused on the dynamics of travel in space, calling on “Mission to Mars” to provide them with their screen reference. In one particular scene, astronauts are walking on Mars, propelled by air coming out of their backs and pushing them forward. The class learned that due to the lack of frictional force in space, the astronauts would, in reality, never run out of fuel since they would not need to push as hard as the movie suggested, using up much less fuel. The popular movie reference allowed Aragoneses to easily segue into the topics of friction, Newton’s laws, and the reality of space travel for the remainder of the class, while still holding the students’ attention. The group also analyzed the scientifically impossible behavior of deadly neutrinos in scenes from “2012” to learn about their true movement, and watched parts of “Independence Day” to better understand meteors and atmospheric interferences.
Occasionally, Aragoneses uses scientifically sound movies to study different concepts. One scene in Star Wars features Obi-Wan searching for a planet he is not able to find in existing maps. Yoda explains to him that the movement of the other stars in the sky is suspicious, and reasons that something must exist in between, although Obi-Wan cannot see it. The scene demonstrates the true manner in which astrophysicists search for new planets; since they are so tiny, they analyze movements of surrounding stars to detect their presence rather than searching for the planets themselves. Clearly the Grand Jedi Master knew a thing or two about the real universe!
Aragoneses’s idea to teach the class in such a unique fashion has evidently captivated his students; they often return after the week with new questions, suggestions for future movie references, and an excitement to continue their exploration of elaborate scientific concepts. The class has been a learning experience for Aragoneses as well, as he has had the chance to watch movies he hadn’t previously seen, and develop a deeper understanding of the concepts he teaches. He has so thoroughly enjoyed his work on the class in fact, that he is considering continuing to teach for OLLI in the future.
For those who are interested in enrolling in one of Aragoneses’s future classes, or another class hosted by OLLI, please visit their website. The Institute teaches about 100 different courses that range in topic from history, to science, to politics, to religion. The courses are taught both by Duke professors, and by other individuals from the Durham area.