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Do the robots of “Star Wars” or the genetically-engineered dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” have any influence on real-world scientific research? Many scientists and engineers can probably list their favorite science fiction films that inspired their careers and work. But data science could help dig deeper into science fiction’s influence within the thousands of research papers found in online databases.
This idea of identifying influential sci-fi films in research grew out of a conversation I had with Sparrho, a UK startup founded by ex-scientists who wanted a better tool for finding relevant research. Since 2013, Sparrho’s founders have developed a search engine for scientific research that uses machine learning algorithms to tailor search result recommendations to each user’s individual interests. Sparrho also has access to the online database of the British Library, the UK’s national library, through a special partnership. That means the online service can access research paper abstracts going back to the 1890s.
Finding the Top Contenders
The Sparrho team graciously agreed to trawl through the available data in search of possible sci-fi influences. Katja Bego, a data scientist at Sparrho, started out with a list of 40 popular science fiction films selected through a combination of moviegoer ratings, movie critic ratings and box office gross. Films that appeared in the top 100 lists in at least two of those categories made the cut.
Bego then ran searches for the movie titles among the abstracts and titles of research papers in the British Library database. She also manually checked the results to only count papers that explicitly referenced and discussed the films. Articles that merely mentioned a film title in passing did not count (e.g. “Other blockbusters, like movies A,B & C, were less profitable.”) Some films such as “The Matrix,” “Terminator” and “Alien” generated too many search results to filter manually. In those cases, Bego ran an approximate search by looking for common keywords related to the films.
Here is the list of popular sci-fi films that turned up at least two relevant search results. Not all the relevant search results represent physical science research; they also include film studies or social science results. (The film list also includes the dystopian film “Soylent Green” that isn’t necessarily among the most popular films, but was thrown in as a wild card.)
- Star Wars (18 relevant papers)
- Jurassic Park (11 relevant papers)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (9 relevant papers)
- Blade Runner (8 relevant papers)
- Minority Report (4 relevant papers)
- Back to the Future (3 relevant papers)
- The Matrix (2 relevant papers)
- Soylent Green (2 relevant papers)
This list overlaps to some degree with informal polls of researchers done in the past. In 2015, a Popular Mechanics poll that included “dozens” of scientists generated a list that included “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Matrix,” “Jurassic Park” “Blade Runner” and “Star Wars.” A 2004 poll of scientists by The Guardian also found “Blade Runner,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” listed among the favorites.
Science Fiction’s Impact on Academia
Bego kindly provided a few more details about the results and types of relevant research for each of the films that made the Sparrho list. I’ve also included a brief plot summary for people unfamiliar with these films.
- Plot: A space fantasy set in a galaxy far, far away where rebels battle against an evil Galactic Empire. The adventures include cheeky robots, interstellar warships, laser weapons and lightsaber-wielding warriors capable of using a mysterious power called The Force. The original film trilogy from the 1970s and 1980s was followed by three prequels in the early 2000s. The first of several new “Star Wars” films is scheduled for debut in 2015.
- Results: 18 relevant papers out of 45 search results (excluded everything covering Reagan’s missile defense system colloquially known as Star Wars, articles about camera angles and CGI where Star Wars was only mentioned as a brief example of where a certain technique was used).
- Type of research: The relevant papers on Star Wars focus on robots (R2-D2 and C-3PO as examples of (non-) humanoid robots), the psychology of Anakin Skywalker (can we diagnose him with Borderline disorder?), Star Wars fandom and the psychology behind The Force.
- Plot: A billionaire hires top geneticists to help resurrect dinosaurs and other prehistoric flora and fauna for the purpose of building a theme park. Chaos ensues when the dinosaurs get out. The original 1993 film has spawned several sequels, including 2015’s blockbuster “Jurassic World.”
- Results: 11 relevant papers out of 12 search results.
- Type of research: ethics of bringing back extinct species (mammoths, dodos, not dinosaurs), CGI developments/cinematography.
“2001: A Space Odyssey”
- Plot: A spacecraft sets out to investigate mysterious alien artifacts near Jupiter’s moon Europa, but the spacecraft’s artificial intelligence begins displaying some strange behavior. The 1968 film directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on an Arthur C. Clarke novel is widely considered a science fiction classic.
- Results: 9 relevant papers out of 9 search results.
- Type of research: Talks about the influence of the movie (and director Stanley Kubrick) as a whole, both on film and on society/technology. HAL 9000 and emotions/free will in artificial intelligence.
- Plot: A “blade runner” must hunt down four bioengineered “replicant” androids who have escaped from off-world colonies and arrived on Earth. This 1982 classic directed by Ridley Scott remains one of the most critically acclaimed science fiction films.
- Results: 8 relevant papers out of 8 search results.
- Type of research: Most papers focus on discussing the imagery, themes and cinematography of the movie, one paper discusses the urbanism of the movie, one paper discusses replicants in the larger context of the ethics and potential of bioengineering.
- Plot: A law enforcement agent working in a futuristic Precrime unit works on arresting criminals before they even commit a crime. But the agent soon finds himself on the wrong side of the law in the future dystopian society. A 2002 film by Steven Spielberg.
- Results: 4 relevant papers out of 70 search results (needed to exclude papers using phrases like “a minority reported side effects”, “female and minority reporters and journalists”)
- Type of research: surveillance states, Bush doctrine, future urbanism
“Back to the Future”
- Plot: A teen and his scientist friend go on a series of time-traveling adventures in a DeLorean car transformed into time machine. The original 1985 film led to a trilogy with plenty of recurring timeline jokes, characters and other references.
- Results: 3 relevant papers out of 46 search results. Most of these papers use “Back to the future” as a phrase, though definitely originating from the movie title, not actually referring to the movie at any point. This term is most often used in papers discussing regenerating damaged ecosystems.
- Type of research: relevant papers discussed the DeLorean car in pop culture, and “Back to the Future” as an early blockbuster in an economic/sociological analysis of Hollywood, and the potential of fueling a car with banana peels/bio waste (as is done in the movie).
- Plot: A hacker finds himself caught up in deadly race to uncover the truth behind his world’s reality. The 1999 sci-fi film includes plenty of fantastical gunfights and martial arts scenes set in a virtual reality world where rules can be bent or possibly broken. Spawned a trilogy.
- Results: 2 relevant papers out of 244,639 search results (found by searching for “red pill”, and “artificial intelligence”, no search results for other keywords).
- Type of research: both papers discussed the philosophy behind the red pill/blue pill choice (with “The Matrix” as an allegory for today’s information age).
- Plot: An NYPD detective investigating a murder in a future dystopian society soon uncovers a very dark truth about how future food is made. A classic science fiction film from 1973.
- Results: 2 relevant papers out of 2 search results- this movie is not particularly popular but one of my “wild card” search terms.
- Type of research: In both cases used humorously in somewhat dystopian what-if scenarios about future food production (“this may remind us of Soylent Green”)
Scratching the Surface of Sci-Fi’s Influence
Keep in mind that this represents a small sampling of science fiction film citations. First of all, the search results exclude research papers or studies that don’t explicitly reference the film titles in the abstract or title. That may leave out many—perhaps the majority—of research papers that took inspiration from science fiction films. (After all, it may not necessarily pay for researchers to reference Hollywood films in papers they’re submitting for publication in serious journals.)
The Sparrho sample search also does not necessarily include the influence of science fiction on private sector or military research. Such research does not always show up in public, peer-reviewed journals, or even patent records. For example, the “Star Wars” series alone has probably had a big influence on certain research efforts to develop certain U.S. military technologies.
But even this incomplete sampling still provides a useful peek into how science fiction may influence certain areas of research. For example, some popular science fiction themes showed up more frequently than others. “Robot” showed up in the research papers 89 times. “Artificial intelligence” also had a strong showing with 29 references. Perhaps because of limitations in modern research, “time travel” was only mentioned two times.
Papers that focused on the most popular or well-respected science fiction films—such as “Star Wars” or “Blade Runner”—tended to discuss the film stories as a whole or consider their roles in cinematic history, Bego pointed out. By comparison, films that generated the most research papers with a “hard science” focus tended to be smaller films with more unique or niche topics. The film “Minority Report” is commonly associated with surveillance state technology. “Soylent Green” is associated with the idea of highly processed, unnatural food in a dystopian future (“Soylent Green is people!”)
Looking to the Future
Sparrho’s search only includes movies released before 2010. That’s in part because of the British Library’s data set and the fact that not enough time has passed for more recent films to inspire related research. “This unfortunately means that movies like ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Ex Machina,’ which have generated quite a lot of buzz in science journalism, are not included in this analysis,” Bego said.
Maybe future efforts to survey science fiction’s influence on research could include some of the latest films. 2015 has already been a huge year for Hollywood’s most popular science fiction franchises between “Jurassic World” breaking box office records over the summer and the hotly-anticipated debut of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The “Terminator” series also came out with a somewhat less well-received entry called “Terminator Genisys.” On a more serious science fiction note, “The Martian” has been doing extremely well with its story of one astronaut’s attempt to survive on Mars.
The line between science fiction and reality also continues to blur. For the latest “Star Wars” film, real-world technology and science fiction can almost seem indistinguishable in at least one case: The rolling BB-8 Droid that has become a smartphone-controlled robot toy for legions of “Star Wars” fans.
Have any thoughts about science fiction influences on research that might have been missed? Let me know your top candidates in the comments.