Star Trek: Into Darkness still

Engineers and scientists in film - an accurate portrayal?

Love it or hate it, sci-fi has a major influence on the way the general public perceives engineering and technology - so is it possible to be at all accurate?

How do you make science-fiction that scientists and engineers will actually like? It sounds easy. Aren't they all supposed to be huge fans of the genre?

Actually, no. Many do acknowledge having been inspired by Doctor Who or Star Trek. However, many just don't get sci-fi, and even those who do can be picky.

This isn't just a question of whether or not a work obeys the laws of physics. Such slavish observance is not a prerequisite for success. In fact, it can be a hindrance.

There are two greater criteria: how well you tell the story, and how you portray science and the scientists themselves.

Let's start with the story-telling because, like physics, that appears to be about rules.

Terrance Dicks joined the Doctor Who team in 1968 and was the series script editor from 1970-74. A portrait shows him in the series office clutching copies of New Scientist and Science. But he gleefully notes: "It was a set-up by the photographer. I'm not in the least bit technological."

However, what Dicks unquestionably understands are the needs of drama.

"Being utterly faithful to science doesn't have to be an issue," he says, "and we actually didn't get that many complaints from science or from engineering. They came more from people like Mrs Whitehouse - I used to say that if there was one thing she hated more than sex it was Doctor Who.

"You see, at one level, you always have that great get-out clause that if we met any truly advanced society, the technology it had would be so advanced as to appear to us like magic. Once you went, 'Aha! Alien tech!', a lot of restrictions disappeared."

Where Dicks does acknowledge you need to think things through carefully is in the nature of each Doctor Who story.

"What people forget is that, in my era, we were a series of serials. So yes, you could have a different story every few weeks. Science-fiction covers a lot of genres, some more fantastic, some more realistic," says Dicks. "As long as you're clear about the type of story, people will go a long way with you."

From the scientists' side, UC Santa Barbara astronomer Andy Howell agrees with Dicks. His views are interesting because Howell is also 'Copernicus' on one of the world's largest sci-fi sites (probably its biggest for film and TV), 'Ain't It Cool News'.

"Look at Doctor Who. It's a guy in a box who can go anywhere at any time. Look at Star Trek. You have Warp speed. And we know as scientists that all this just isn't possible," he says. "But the good shows and films set down these ideas, ask you to accept them, but they then build around that - the rest of what they offer seeks a kind of plausibility and does so on a defined basis."

Howell took apart the science in 'Star Trek: Into Darkness' in an article for AICN. For him, its breaches went beyond not only acceptable physical laws, but also those that 'Star Trek' had established for itself. This wasn't the same universe that original creator Gene Roddenberry envisaged.

"I think a really interesting contrast is what Marvel's done, and there's a good example with the first 'Thor' movie," says Howell. "They do play the alien technology card. What might have been seen as Norse gods are members of a society that is way more advanced than we are technologically. But they also worked really hard to make the Earth-side astronomy and technology feel right. They talked to people in the field.

"They used that to get you to buy into the world of the characters and the story they were telling. It was really well done."

The director Richard Donner famously pushed the word 'verisimilitude' into the public consciousness when he made the 1970s version of 'Superman'. "You'll believe a man can fly," the ads declared - and if you did, it wasn't just because of the then groundbreaking special effects.

Not always the bad guy

So, once you give your universe rules, stick to them. A second golden rule for reaching scientists and engineers with your sci-fi is to try and avoid dystopias and painting technologists as evil or incompetent.

"I've written plenty of mad boffins in my time," says Dicks. "And I can see why it usually would drive real scientists mad.

"But we had the Doctor. So you always had him as a balance to these crazy or misguided men, good science versus bad science - and good science would always win."

Ed Gomez is an astronomer directing education and outreach for the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope network. Also, given his base at Cardiff University, he has occasionally been tapped by the Cardiff-based 'Doctor Who' team. He doesn't mind - he's a lifelong fan.

"It is important that the Doctor is there as a positive figure representing science, having a humane viewpoint and all of that," he says. "But you don't have that in all sci-fi.

"What drives me mad is the bumbling idiot. You can understand that you need to get the story moving, but when you see a scientific professional behaving in a way that simply would not be allowed to happen in real life, you give up. Because it's just lazy."

Yes, there is such a thing as the scientific method. Most engineering proceeds on the basis of certain rules and best practices. And presenting an idiot's version of how anyone does his or her job will get noticed.

Then, of course, there is the next stage: dealing with these hilarious bumblers.

Dystopias drive technologists to distraction partly because they are an abnegation of their work. Most people in science want to make the world a better place. However, it isn't just this direct insult that makes most dystopias objectionable. Their foundations tend to be fundamentally dumb.

Thought experiments

Award-winning author and scientist David Brin is best know for fiction such as 'Startide Rising' and 'The Postman', and non-fiction such as 'The Transparent Society'. However, it is his work demolishing a great many hackneyed sci-fi tropes that matters.

First, there is highlighting the Idiot Plot. "So, in this nightmare, all the fundamentals of our society have to collapse for the story to function. The police must be corrupt. The government must be corrupt. The scientists must be corrupt. All the things that make us civilised, that make us a society, must have collapsed for the hero to triumph," he says.

"What you notice about just about anyone who writes for that model is that if they get into a fix in real life, they will be the first people to expect the law to punish the bad. But the structure is lazy - it's just a way of keeping your hero in jeopardy and allowing for some kind of individual triumph."

The problem with dystopias is that they are generally dishonest. And they drown out science-fiction's ability to explore or propose solutions as well as challenges. Brin uses a term from Einstein, gedankenexperiment, or 'thought-experiment', to describe a process that can take us to either optimistic or pessimistic results, as long as the foundations it has itself are valid.

He has a point, but don't take my word for it. Scientific dislike of the unthinking dystopia was beautifully summed up by a non-sci-fi fan and physics lecturer friend of mine: "Science-fiction authors take it upon themselves to ask 'What if?' But the conclusion they reach is all too often that scientists and researchers shouldn't be asking 'What if?' at all. And they can't see the irony in that."

If science-fiction does want to mend some of its bridges with the professionals, that paradox might not be a bad place to start.

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