Separating Materials Science from Fiction

November 1, 2018

“Materials Science of Science Fiction” course premieres in Spring 2019

Users in the characterization labs at SMiF

Assuming that you have, by now, seen the blockbuster movie Black Panther, we’ll also assume that you’re familiar with vibranium, the fictional element that powers Wakandan technology and gives the title hero’s panther suit the power to absorb and redirect massive amounts of kinetic energy.

You have to be willing to suspend disbelief to watch science fiction movies like Black Panther—but for those of you who still found yourselves questioning whether the Second Law of Thermodynamics could really allow energy to be transmitted in such a manner, you’ll be pleased to learn of a new elective class at Duke set to begin in Spring of 2019, titled “The Materials Science of Science Fiction.”

MEMS Associate Professor Christine Payne, whose research focuses on cellular interactions with materials, will teach the course.  Payne will encourage students to use their own analytical superpowers to separate science from fiction, assessing and testing the limits of materials both real and imagined. In addition to considering Black Panther from a scientific perspective, the students will read two sci-fi books—Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, and Kelly Robson’s novella “We Who Live in the Heart,” and consider the feasibility of the technology portrayed in each.

 “Engineers are main characters in these works. That could be inspiring.”

Christine Payne, Associate Professor, MEMS

“Some of these materials do exist, and we’ll talk about how they work,” said Payne. In The Diamond Age, for example, scanning tunneling microscope technology is pivotal to the plot, and the author imagines that everyone has access to wearable  electron microscopy.

Exploring the capabilities of SMiF's characterization labs

To advance the students’ understanding of that type of imaging, they’ll be challenged to complete their own electron microscopy projects at Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility.  But, Payne warned, students won’t get away from solving problem sets. “You have to have physics, chemistry and calculus knowledge,” she said. “There will be differential equations. For example, in Robson’s short story the characters 3D print everything to save weight—but if you actually calculate the weight of the printers and polymers, is it working out in their favor? 

Payne said her aim is not to create a hyper-informed club of sci-fi debunkers, but rather to encourage students to think about the limits of what’s possible.

Payne, a fan of classic science fiction writers like Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin, hopes that the course’s reading and writing components will help produce well-rounded students, and also offer undergraduate mechanical engineering students who are interested in continuing their studies a bigger taste of the field of materials science.

And, of course, it will give the students a bit of room to let their imaginations run wild. “Engineers are main characters in these works,” said Payne. “That could be inspiring.”

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