An Interview with Stephen Kane and Daniel Bernardi -
"Merging of Worlds: Science, Fiction and Culture"
Stephen Kane is a Professor of Astrophysics at San Francisco State University. His area of expertise is the discovery of planets around other stars and investigations into the prospects of their habitability. Daniel Bernardi is a Professor of Cinema at San Francisco State University. His area of expertise is culture studies, particularly critical race theory, and documentary filmmaking. They first co-taught a course, Merging of Worlds: Science, Fiction and Culture, in Spring, 2016.
The email interview was conducted by OLLI member Mary Hunt, whose previous knowledge of physics has been provided by The Big Bang Theory.
Mary: How did you originally decide to teach a class together?
Daniel/Stephen: We were both teaching separate classes during the same session in Fall, 2015. Several students were taking both, and they suggested we co-teach a class. Since we’re neighbors and both love OLLI, we talked and quickly realized we shared a number of interests. For example, we’re both interested in the relationship between science and culture—how one feeds the other. Yet one of us, Stephen, is a scientist. The other, Daniel, is a cultural studies scholar. So we both knew we’d also learn from each other as well as the students in the class.
Mary: Is it fair to say that the theme of the Science, Fiction and Culture course in Spring, 2016 was the interplay between scientists and science fiction authors and screenwriters?
Daniel/Stephen: What could be more interesting than a planet hunter, a cultural studies nut and a bunch of OLLI students thinking through what an alien might look like, how we might communicate with intelligent life on other planets, and all the narratives “out there” trying to answer both questions? In that way the science fiction authors component was key, since at their best fiction tellers provoke readers and viewers to look toward the stars. So, too, were the theoretical aspects of science and cultural studies. The overarching questions cultural studies scholars ask are not too dissimilar from the questions many scientists ask: what methods and tools might we use to interpret the meaning of life—be it through a telescope or a film projector?
Mary: What worked well in the class from your viewpoints?
Daniel/Stephen: We had no limits on what we might discuss from any of the topics that organized the course. Also, we learned from each other and the students. That might seem obvious, but scientists and cultural studies scholars—even working at the same University—don’t get too many chances to work together. And we almost never get a chance to encourage an intellectual free-for-all in class with folks that know a heck of a lot more than we do about a range of topics.
Mary: We talked about so many things in class: What are alien atmospheres made of? What percentage of risk would we subject a spaceperson to in the interests of gaining scientific knowledge? Why is it theoretically possible to travel through time to the future, but not to the past? What is the chronotope’s place in science and literature?
What were your favorite group discussions about?
Daniel/Stephen: Really hard to pick, since they were all so fun. The students were just amazing—like University graduate students without the angst. They came to class with a range of experiences—and a healthy amount of humor. We laughed a lot! They asked thoughtful questions we did not predict. So the favorite part for us was the discussions and questions.
Mary: There’s a poem called “Mantis” in this issue that compares that insect to an alien with a pyramidal head and green body. When did space aliens first appear in the culture with green bodies and buggy eyes?
Daniel/Stephen: Although the idea of Martians living on Mars had been spoken of several times during the 1800's, it was really the scientific work of Percival Lowell in 1895 regarding canals on Mars that was the critical turning point in these ideas, since the possibility of water on the planet lent them credence. The War of the Worlds by H.G Wells in 1898 popularized the idea that not only was there life on Mars but that the life forms may try to invade us. The twentieth century (particularly the decades surrounding the Second World War) became rife with fiction about aliens and flying saucers. It was during the 1950's that several apparent flying saucer sightings piloted by “little green men” coincided with fictional stories with the same imagery about the appearance of Martians. It would be interesting to discuss further how this imagery of “aliens” stems from the cultural and racial views of the time.
Mary: Where do you fall on the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and whether earth has been visited by aliens?
Daniel/Stephen: We actually both doubt that “aliens” have visited earth. But in the same way that it is harder to disprove “god” than it is to have faith in god, it is harder to disprove alien visitors than it is to believe aliens have visited earth. And we don’t mean that in a contrite way. To be a scholar is to be, at least in some way, agnostic—faithful to skepticism and criticism. Yet it also means you don’t take a definitive position short of sufficient and compelling evidence that can be tested and repeated. After all, there is a fair amount of evidence, albeit not yet definitive, that asteroids or comets carrying simple forms of life seeded life on earth. And if that proves to be the case, we’re all aliens alienated from our “true” origins. Ultimately there are a variety of reasons that an intelligent species may choose not to spread throughout the universe, both scientifically and culturally. Since we are still the only known example of such a species, we are learning as we move forward what some of those reasons may be.
Mary: Which is the better depiction of interstellar culture: Star Wars or Star Trek?
Daniel: Star Trek is way better, and there’s a terrific book proving that to be the case. It is called Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future. It’s better because Star Trek understood that it was less about the future than it was about the present.
Stephen: I land on the side of Star Wars, mostly because my cynicism won't allow me to subscribe to the Star Trek history. A nice thing about Star Wars is that, since it takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far away,” then the narrative can plausibly contain many cultural aspects that aren't necessarily tied to our own. Star Trek, on the other hand, attempts to make a direct prediction of the how our specific culture evolves, that being one of unification and a desire to explore space. I have doubts as to whether humanity could unify on anything, much less space exploration. I sense another debate between Daniel and myself on this topic brewing ....
Mary: How did you feel about the latest addition to each film franchise?
Daniel: The new Star Trek films, the last three, are amazing works of cinematic art and storytelling. They are faithful to their origin, the original Trek, yet unafraid to deviate from all iterations of Trek to tell new and exciting stories. Star Trek is a far more developed - intellectually and visually - stimulating space-time.
Stephen: The new Star Wars film was a solid addition to the franchise, but appeared to “play it safe” by hugging the narrative of the first film, A New Hope, closely to its chest. As a result, it was entertaining but didn't contain enough new material to really inspire me. Despite what I said earlier, I do agree with Daniel that the new Star Trek films appear to be going in a more interesting direction.
Mary: Is there anything else you’d like OLLI people to know?
Daniel: When are you two jokers going to co-teach again . . . and what subject?
Stephen: Soon, I hope. We barely scratched the surface of this subject.
Mary: Well, we'll leave you to it then. Thanks so much for talking to Inside OLLI.
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