Sci-Fi Superlatives with Princeton University Professor of Astrophysical Sciences Joshua Winn

We caught up with physicist and astronomer Joshua Winn ahead of his introduction for our screening of Contact (1997) for his thoughts on what science fiction gets right and where it falls short. Read ahead for his expert analysis and join us at the show for a deep dive into this modern classic.

Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway in “Contact.”

Most accurate Sci-Fi film:

The one that comes to mind is The Martian (2015). It involves Matt Damon as this astronaut stranded on Mars. He turns out to be an incredible genius, and jack of all trades, and manages to overcome all sorts of obstacles to get rescued… so that’s not very realistic. What’s obvious though, is that the author (Andy Weir) just loves these engineering, physics, and chemistry problems, and took pains to make sure that everything could be done in principle. It’s backed up by some quantitative detail, which I thought was fun, and very unusual for a novel or Hollywood movie. In the book especially, there are a lot of numbers given about how many square meters of soil he needs in order to grow enough potatoes to supply his bodily need for calories, how much electrical power is needed to run the life support systems, and how could he obtain water and oxygen from the materials that he has at his disposal. Those things are fun to see worked out. They also get all the time scales right, like how long it would actually take to get to Mars and the fact that there’s a time delay in communicating with the Earth, simply because it takes information traveling at the speed of light a certain amount of time to get back and forth.

Least accurate Sci-Fi film:

Well, usually bad movies are very forgettable so there may be some that I’m missing here, but one that was so bad that I remember it clearly was The Core (2003). This was a ridiculous movie about some scenario in which the Earth’s iron core stops spinning, wreaking all kinds of havoc at the surface. So, naturally, the scientists have to drill down and try to restart the core. It’s just ridiculous on so many levels that it stood out to me.

“Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) — Recently screened as part of the Ambler Theater’s 35mm Film Fest.

Most irritating science fiction trope:

One thing that bugs me, and it’s probably going to be viewed as very inaccurate when viewed in the future, is that aliens are always hostile, that they’re going to eat us, or take over our planet and use the raw materials or something like that. I think that’s pretty unlikely to be the case, and that it’s at least as likely, maybe more, that aliens will have much higher intelligence, a much more developed civilization, and will not be interested at all in taking over our civilization or anything like that. Contact is one of the few films where the aliens are benign, or even helpful.

A piece of science fiction lore that turned out to be factual:

What I can say that’s related to my own work is that certain visions of other planets from science fiction have been confirmed by recent astronomical discoveries. There are a bunch of planets like this. One for example, is a planet with two suns. This idea appears in science fiction like Dune (1984) and certainly in Star Wars (1977), likely lots of other films as well. The first definitive evidence for such objects only came seven or eight years ago but it turns out that they’re really out there, so that’s pretty cool! We’ve also found planets whose surfaces are probably covered by oceans of lava, which is another thing that you see pop up a lot.

From left: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and David Gyasi in “Interstellar.”

Piece of science fiction technology you wish we had:

The really great piece of technology that I don’t know we’ll ever have is faster than light travel, or maybe even the capability to just get close to the speed of light, because that’s the only way to explore the galaxy in a reasonable time. A propulsion system that can get us to Alpha Centauri [the solar system closest to our own] in less that a human lifetime would be very exciting. There’s actually a project underway called the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative to try and encourage people to think creatively about this problem. It’s very difficult though and most of the ideas, in fact I think all of the ideas only relate to tiny spacecraft, like a few grams. That’s just enough to put some kind of miniaturized camera and antenna on. A big leap in our ability to make fast spacecraft with heavy payloads would be really important.

Artist’s rendering of Kepler-36 (Courtesy of NASA Image Archives).

Planet that you would want to set a movie on:

There’s a planetary system called Kepler-36. What’s special about it is that there are two planets almost sharing the same orbit. One of them completes seven orbits in the time that it takes the other to go around six, so their orbital periods are almost the same. This is interesting because they’re right on the edge of instability. If you made the planet’s orbits even a little bit closer, or increased the mass of either one, the system would become unstable. This raises a bunch of interesting questions about how such a system could’ve formed in this delicate state.

It’s also fun to think about what it would be like to grow up in a civilization on one of these planets. The system is really chaotic in the sense that even if you know exactly where the planets are right now, it’s very difficult to predict where they’ll be in thirty, or a hundred years because of the butterfly effect. Essentially they’re so strongly interacting that even the slightest bit of measurement error gets amplified into a huge uncertainty in the future. After we discovered this planet and studied it, I started wondering what it would be like. Here on the earth, the whole scientific revolution took inspiration from the motion of the planets and the regularities that people could observe in the sky that eventually lead to the understanding of the laws of physics and so on. Well, what if the motions in the sky were chaotic? How would the scientific revolution have played out?

Spaceship preparing to traverse a black hole, as envisioned in “Interstellar”.

Space phenomena you want to see on-screen:

One that I find intriguing is relativistic time dilation, the idea that if you get close to a black hole or travel very close to the speed of light, then your own “clock-time” will start to depart from the clock-time of your friends back on the earth. This gives you the potential for all sorts of interesting situations, being younger than your twin, younger than your child, and the psychological strangeness of being on a different timeline than everybody else that you know. This was touched on in the movie Interstellar (2014), and they had some fun with that because the main character did end up being younger than his own daughter. I think though that there’s a lot of untapped potential for that idea because it’s physically interesting, and also has a lot of psychological implications.

If we do manage to get some fantastic propulsion system and send some people to Alpha Centauri and back again at nearly the speed of light, then they will only have aged some small amount of time, even though it’s been, say, sixty years back on earth. The astronauts will essentially have to sign up for a one-way trip into the future. When they return to share all their knowledge with us, two generations could have gone by. Everybody they know will have passed on, and they would be sharing it with a completely new group of people. There’s a lot here that I feel Hollywood hasn’t yet explored fully yet.

Amy Adams’ character attempting to decipher the alien language in “Arrival.”

Film with the most realistic depiction of aliens:

Beats me! It’s very unlikely that they’ll resemble us, but I guess it’s not out of the question If their planet is like ours and evolution proceeds the same way. It seems much more likely that they’re going to have some completely different body plan, scale, that sort of thing.

An interesting one in that regard though is Arrival (2016), where the aliens are these octopus-like creatures that don’t have an exact analogue on Earth. They also have this radically different language that turns out to use a completely foreign concept of time. I thought that was pretty cool because the aliens weren’t hostile, although everyone on earth was worried that they would be. They were just different in this very profound way, in this case, how they perceive time. I think that’s much more interesting and probably more realistic that how aliens are typically portrayed, although we won’t know for sure until we actually find them! It’s really anyone’s guess as to what they’ll look like.

A science fact often ignored by science fiction:

The speed of light barrier is a big one. The known laws of physics prohibit any faster than light travel, which is a huge bummer. It’s just going to be very difficult to get anywhere in the galaxy because it’s simply too large. Any really interesting, far-reaching science fiction that involves other galaxies and so on has to just make up some technology to overcome that hurdle.

I also love time travel movies but that being said, there’s no basis for thinking that we could actually travel backwards in time. Any such movie is based on something that as far as we know, is completely ruled out by the laws of physics, so that’s not so much fun to think about. Time travel movies are popular though because they’re so fascinating. Like I was saying with time-dilation, they present all these kinds of psychological implications, logical paradoxes, and so on. I can’t get enough of them!

Contact will be playing at the Princeton Garden Theatre on Thursday, November 8th at 7:30pm as part of our Prof Picks series. This film was selected and will be presented in-person by Professor Joshua Winn.
You can also join us for our screening of Interstellar on Wednesday, November 14th at 7:30pm. Presented as part of our Art on Screen series with an introduction by Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward.