Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Science of Superheroes

Using Superheroes to Teach Physics: College Courses in Sci-Fi

( -- One of the more perplexing questions facing science these days is this one: How do we get more young people interested in science? Leading the way are a number of college courses -- that can be taken for credit -- that focus on the science in science fiction. After all, why can't superheroes, Star Trek and Harry Potter teach us about the answer to life, the universe and everything? (Or, at least debate the merits of the answer "42".)

This short article discusses classes at a few universities across the country which deal with reality in relation to a work of popular fiction (namely "The Science of Superheroes", a course taught at the University of California at Irvine). Understandably, not everyone sees it as a valid course -- after all, what part of "real-life science in the world of people who can magically fly" screams "This is the university for your troublesome teen!"?

I, of course, take the proponent's side, based on my own experience. I am not at all a science-minded person. I find some experiments interesting, but when it comes to memorizing facts and formulas, I'm useless. But when I was in high school, I was a huge (and I mean *huge*) fan of "The X-Files". Useless in most everyday situations, yes; but it helped me understand science in a way textbooks alone never could. For example, when I may otherwise never have learned what a chimera was, I was able to recall an episode of the same name, in which a woman was two creatures in one, and put that in the sidebar of my notes. I'm sure I still have some of those notes packed away, scrawling in the margins to "Remember (insert episode name here)!" Association is, after all, purported to be one of the best methods of retention; why should this case be any different?

In a similar vein, the one piece of information I retained in my entire Anatomy and Physiology course in college is that the sarcoplasmic reticulum surrounds the vasicle, because the textbook noted that it was "much like the sleeve of a loosely crocheted sweater". The second I read it, I knew I'd remember it forever.

The point isn't connecting science to something "cool" or "popular", it's relating it to something you already know. Some people, like me, just aren't science-minded. Isn't it nice to think there's some way we could understand it anyway?

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