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Science faction: which bits of this summer’s sci-fi flicks could come true?

Posted at 10:15 am, May 17, 2015 in Arts & Entertainment, Fun London

[Illustrations: Rob Dobi]

Invisibility, super-intelligent robots, the apocalypse – they’re all on the big screen this summer. But just how much truth is there in our favourite science fiction scenarios? Gail Tolley speaks to four academics to find out while Tom Huddleston rounds up the best of the summer’s nerdy blockbusters.

What will the apocalypse look like in London?

Dr Anders Sandberg and Andrew Snyder-Beatty from the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University

Andrew Snyder-Beatty: ‘We examine the big-picture, long-term future of humanity. This involves exploring both the radically optimistic possibilities for our species as well as studying existential risks – risks that could put an end to the human story.

‘Pandemics, for example – both natural or resulting from an engineered bioweapon – would disproportionately impact any major city with an international airport, London included.

‘Most apocalyptic movies have very little basis in science. A movie where a massive catastrophe occurs followed by a boring, dead Earth is far more likely, but doesn’t make for an interesting show.’


Dr Anders Sandberg: ‘We should not forget good old nuclear war risk. While the city itself might not be targeted, a nuclear war would certainly hit refineries and military installations in and near the city. Not to mention the aftermath: if we are unlucky, nuclear winter will make things very nasty.

‘Another apocalyptic risk is solar flares and electromagnetic pulses. They could hit our infrastructure: if power goes out for more than a week and cannot be restored, then London will be in trouble since it is highly dependent on very sensitive control.

‘There’s an assumption in apocalyptic films that people immediately turn into leatherclad sociopaths. In practice, civil society is pretty strong, and people who co-operate well with their neighbours have better chances to survive. In a crisis, people do not riot or panic, they typically behave pretty well. It is only when hope starts to fade that goodwill also fades.’

See it this summer: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road‘ 

One for… Anyone who felt the old ‘Top Gear’ presenters weren’t quite psycho enough. In cinemas from May 15.

Will dinosaurs ever roam Piccadilly Circus?

Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist, University of California.

‘The idea of de-extinction is to bring species or traits that are extinct back to life. As of today, it’s not possible. Every dinosaur bone that’s been found is made of rock, so we’ll never be able to get DNA from dinosaurs. And we know we can’t get DNA out of amber, so that doesn’t work either. In the ‘Jurassic Park’ films, they fill in the holes in their dinosaur DNA sequence with frogs’ DNA. I don’t know why they did that, because even then we knew that dinosaurs were related to birds and reptiles, not frogs!

‘The very early stages of the field I work in gave Michael Crichton the idea for ‘Jurassic Park’. He acknowledges [in his book] Alan Wilson’s lab at Berkeley, called the Extinct DNA Study Group, which included people who have gone on to become leaders in the field of ancient DNA.


‘I think bringing extinct species back to life isn’t where we should be going with the research on de-extinction. Still, the idea of reviving extinct species is pretty exciting – it gets people interested and starts them thinking about biodiversity and extinction.

‘What if we could use this same technology to change the genomes of living species just a little bit, based on the genomes that we can extract from extinct species? What if we can use this to help species that are alive today, but under threat of extinction because of rapid climate change? I think that would be super-cool.’

‘How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction’ is published by Princeton. Beth Shapiro is giving a lecture with the same title at the Royal Institution on May 21.

See it this summer: ‘Jurassic World

One for… Extreme newt-fanciers. In cinemas from June 12.

When are the evil robots arriving?

Professor Murray Shanahan, Imperial College

‘Skynet in the Terminator franchise is portrayed as human-level AI [artificial intelligence]. It’s not the kind of thing we have now or that’s around the corner. It’s a futuristic thing, and it’s always portrayed rather negatively, which is a bit of a shame in a lot of ways.

‘I do worry that the portrayals of AI in film give the wrong impression – that there are evil scientists making nasty things. And whenever this subject comes up [in the media] it’s always with a picture of the Terminator. I bet you’re going to do that!

‘There’s exciting specialist AI that’s around the corner. The things people are working on now are bits of specialised tech, for example self-driving cars. I think [in London] we will start to see self-driving cars before too long.


‘London is a real hothouse for AI technology. Itís one of the worldís major centres at the moment. Youíve got places like Google DeepMind, a London-based startup who were bought by Google for £400 million last year, and is a major AI research centre. And then we have Imperial College and UCL who are doing work in this area. ëThere really is no need for public panic. With all technology there can be misuses of it, but I tend to think that with advances in technology, the positive applications outweigh the negative and I think that will be true of AI as well.í

See it this summer: ‘Terminator: Genisys

One for… Fans of antique ironwork. In cinemas from July 3.

Will we ever be able to be invisible?

Professor Chris Phillips, Imperial College

‘We made a crystal that vanished when you shone a laser at it. It’s a difficult thing to pull off. When you shine a light at something the electrons vibrate and shine the light back – that’s how you see things. This is a way of stopping the electrons vibrating by freezing them with a laser. If you can pull that trick off the thing becomes invisible, it vanishes. We made a name for ourselves by doing it with a crystal for a very short amount of time – a billionth of a second. It’s not as practical as a superhero would like, but it is real!

‘Quite often the outcome of research isn’t foreseen. We developed special lasers to do this invisibility research, and then we discovered that they could actually be used to image cancers, meaning they could potentially detect cancers earlier than we can at the moment.


‘The trouble with human beings is that they’re made up of lots of different stuff. If you could make one bit invisible, the other part wouldn’t go invisible and in fact would get badly burned by the lasers. So [the research] isn’t very practical for making humans go invisible.

‘If you want something to dream about, you could imagine a coat with a webcam that’s filming behind you. You can now get flexible displays that you could wear. If there was someone you wanted to vanish from, you could flip a switch in your pocket and the webcam would take a picture behind you and make the picture appear on the front of your coat to give the illusion that you’re not there. We call it adaptive camouflage and the technology is already there for that.’

See it this summer: ‘Fantastic Four

One for… Fans of spontaneous combustion. In cinemas from August 6.

Want more sci-fi geekery? Check out:

The 100 best sci-fi movies

Ten reasons why ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is the best blockbuster of 2015

The most confusing sci-fi movies explained

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