Battlestar Pedagogica: Using Science Fiction to teach Science!

Science fiction is educational - SO SAY WE ALL! Picture courtesy BattlestarWiki
Science fiction is educational – SO SAY WE ALL! | Picture courtesy Battlestar Galactica Wiki

I’m a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy. There are few feelings quite as impressive as when an author crafts a world that draws you in (See: Arrakis, Middle Earth, Westeros, LV-246, Hogwarts etc). Perhaps what I find most fascinating though, is how quickly science fiction can turn into real life. For example, the tricorder from Star Trek was a fictional device that could scan different aspects of the environment depending on the requirement, ranging from geological, such as mineral content of rocks, to metereological, such as air pressure and temperature, to biological, such as heart rate and blood pressure. While this sounded like a great dream in the 1960s (when The Original Series aired), we’re now, within a single generation (pun *totally* intended), able to turn this into reality. The new Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, is slated to be released with a suite of health apps (dubbed S Health), including apps to measure heart rate, blood pressure as well as track caloric expenditure. Even things as simple as being able to communicate without needing a bulky cellphone have now become a reality.

As teachers and educators, we suffer from a very real limitation when it comes to teaching. Either due to time, lack of equipment or other constraints we cannot teach some issues the way we would like. But even in the most well-equipped lab, sometimes we can’t teach a concept because the technology doesn’t exist. In those situations, we can use outlandish examples to discuss a concept, and then work backwards from there to discuss the limitations we currently face, a concept called a Thought Experiment. By imagining a scenario, we can push the boundaries of our understanding, discussing the issue from a “what about if X happened,” or “Would Y still occur if A and B happened.” There are many types of thought experiments, and it means different things to different disciplines. I’m going to be using it to refer the use of a metaphor to explain a concept, which corresponds to the “prefactual” type of thought experiment, ie. what outcome would we expect if we had conditions A, B and C.

Zombies: Not just for entertainment anymore | Picture courtesy AMC, available online here
Zombies: Not just for entertainment anymore | Picture courtesy AMC

With some ingenuity and creativity, we can incorporate this into our (science) teaching. Aetiology is the nom de plume of Tara Smith, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, and a member of the Zombie Research Society. If you aren’t already reading her blog, I highly recommend it. She wrote a great blog post last year about using zombies to teach virus outbreaks. Building on the face of such commercial successes as The Walking Dead, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and the upcoming movie World War Z, originally a novel by the very talented Max Brooks (who also wrote the Zombie Survival Guide), this is something that youth, as well as adults, can easily relate to. While viruses are difficult to understand and visualize, everyone can understand zombies, and how they transmit “zombie-ism.” When you’re the last survivors of the human race, there are some very pertinent questions you must ask:

“How would you protect yourself if infection was spread through the air versus only spread by biting?”

“How well would isolation of infected people work if the incubation period is very long versus very short?”

“Why might you want to thoroughly wash your zombie-killing arrows before using them to kill squirrels, which you will then eat?” (via Aetiology)

In infectious disease terms, these are referring to the 1) vector of transmission (how does the virus travel), 2) length of incubation (how long does it take before you start passing on the disease and 3) cross-contamination (disease moving from one object to another). But this is much more interesting than talking about “why should you wash your hands before eating dinner,” especially when talking to kids. But these can be expanded even further – what if zombies can’t pass on “zombie-ism”? What if zombies only live for 3 days? What if zombies are affected by extreme hot or cold temperatures? There are endless possibilities for how this experiment could be modified, adapted and how boundaries could be pushed. It’s something the CDC used for Zombie Preparedness Guide – using zombies they managed to engage people and use social marketing to their benefit, something I discussed over on the PLOS Public Health Perspectives blog. I’m a fan of this sort of work, and have also talked about using World of Warcraft to model disease outbreaks.

But this isn’t just limited to Star Trek and fictional monsters. Comic books are also a great resource when it comes to teaching and learning, especially when it comes to physics. An interview with Jim Kakalios, author of “The Uncanny Physics of Superhero Comic Books” talks about how much force Superman would need to “fly,” or whether Gwen Stacey would have died when the Green Goblin threw her off the George Washington Bridge. One example was taken from the movie Batman Begins. In that movie, there’s a scene where Batman glides around Gotham City using his cape. Some physicists took issue with this scene, and tried to determine what would have happened in real life in the aptly titled paper: Trajectory of a Falling Batman. The authors concluded that, based on the information provided, Batman would be gliding at a speed of 80kph (~ 50mph). Landing at this speed would cause grievous injuries, and thus, they conclude:

Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used such as a parachute. (Marshall et al., 2011)

Data is a sentient being, with thoughts and, following his meeting with Lore, emotions. So should he be treated as a human, with all the rights and responsibilities of such? And if not, what does it mean to be "human"? | Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Data is a sentient being, with thoughts and, following his meeting with Lore, emotions. So should he be treated as a person? | Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Of course this isn’t just limited to STEM (although I’ll limit it given the scope of this piece). Science Fiction is also a great backdrop of the discussion of other important issues. You can also use Star Trek to discuss philosophy, such as whether or not Data, a fully functional, sentient android is a “person,” and whether he should be afforded the rights and responsibilities as such. PopBioEthics has an excellent discussion of science fiction philosophy titled “Why Mass Effect is the most important science fiction universe of our generation.” It’s a long read, discussing racism, speciesism and sexism in the context of a science fiction universe where humans aren’t the dominant life form, and totally worth the time investment. Courses in this area are offered for credit at some universities – the course PHIL 180 at Georgetown aims to cover these issues and more as part of its syllabus. This is an ongoing theme in science fiction – those who have watched Blade Runner or read any of Isaac Asimov or Phillip K. Dick’s work (Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, I, Robot) are intimately familiar with this the issue of sentience and what is a life.

So what do you think readers? Have any of you used methods like this to teach students?


Special thanks to Brian R. for the title of this post, and all my Facebook friends who suggested equally awesome titles. Thanks guys!

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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