The Sciences

Sci-Fi and Bringing Back the Mammoth with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about Sci-Fi movies and books that accurately depict science and why some Sci-Fi stories seem less plausible.

By Monica CullMay 16, 2023 9:00 AM
Sci-Fi astronaut on a spaceship with extraterrestrial monsters


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For some of us, science fiction books and movies were the first ways we experienced anything science related. They've also inspired many modern inventions, from helicopters to the World Wide Web.  

As part of an ongoing series, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tours various cities and gives a lecture called "An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies, the Sequel" about the science behind science fiction movies.

While these stories inspire scientists and modern inventions, many focus more on the "fiction" part of science. Here's what Tyson has to say about differentiating between fact and fiction.

Sci-Fi Stories That Got it Right

Rome, Italy - April 05, 2021, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 film produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, co-written with Arthur C. Clarke who produced the story. (Credit: Shutterstock/Stefano Chiacchiarini '74)

Tyson is no stranger to science fiction stories. Along with his real-life influences, he found inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. This movie brought space exploration into people's lives before humans stepped foot on the moon. To Tyson, there are plenty of science fiction stories that aren't accurate, but there are a few that get it right. Michael Crichton's (author of Jurassic ParkThe Andromeda Strain is one Tyson believes did an excellent job regarding scientific accuracy. 

"I would say The Andromeda Strain was very well done," Tyson says. "[Crichton's] a medical doctor [and] was trained as an M.D., so there's a lot of excellent reference to the human physiology and how it might react or respond to a [microorganism]."

Read More: Neil deGrasse Tyson Responds to Artemis 2 Announcement

Another story Tyson notes as scientifically accurate is Andy Weir's The Martian. It's a story about an astronaut who is left behind on Mars and as a former computer programmer, Weir tried to make it as scientifically accurate as possible.

He studied astronomy, orbital mechanics and human spaceflight. Tyson went as far as to say that it may be one of the most scientifically accurate books and films ever made. 

"I'm going to take partial credit for that," Tyson says. "I don't mean to brag, but the author [...] said, 'you know Neil, because you always talk about movies, what they get right and wrong on, on Twitter, when I was writing this story, The Martian, I imagined you were looking over my shoulder... [and thought] Neil's gonna tweet about that. I better redo that calculation.'"

Sci-Fi That Got it Wrong

(Credit: Shutterstock/Usa-Pyon)

Weir had every right to worry that Tyson may call him out on Twitter. Because Tyson often tweets about the science fiction that gets it wrong. In fact, Tyson did tweet about The Martian, saying:

"In The Martian (2015), the Rocket gets rattled by a raging wind storm, forcing them to launch from Mars without Mark Watney. But at only 1 percent that of Earth, the Martian atmosphere is so thin, 100 mph winds would feel like a gentle breeze."

Tyson has also tweeted about Sci-Fi characters such as the Hulk/Bruce Banner, saying how Bruce Banner would have died from organ failure after exposure to gamma rays before turning into the Hulk. While DNA mutation can happen after gamma ray exposure, it's extremely rare. 

Tyson says that other Marvel characters, like the X-Men, who are born with their genetic mutations, are much more plausible characters than the Hulk.  

"I'm just suggesting that if the author and the storytellers knew more science, you could tell a deeper story, […] you could tell a more authentic story," Tyson says. 

Science Fiction That Could Happen in Real Life 

(Credit: Shutterstock/Aleks49)

While we already have so much to thank science fiction stories for, there are still discoveries that Sci-Fi could bring us in the future.

One of the major projects that scientists are focusing on right now relates to Crichton's Jurassic Park. Although, researchers aren't trying to bring dinosaurs back from extinction; they're trying to bring back animals like the dodo and the woolly mammoth. The biotech company, Colossal, is working to bring the woolly mammoth back from the dead as soon as 2027.

"With the more recently extinct species," Tyson says. "We have their DNA, if I understand correctly."

According to Tyson, bringing back the woolly mammoth is no longer science fiction. He believes it can be done. However, the woolly mammoth thrived during the Ice Age. Bringing it back during the climate crisis would be a little unfair, he says.

"So now we wanna bring it back just in time for global warming? That ain't right!" he says.

Watch more of our interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson here.

Read More: The Woolly Mammoth Meatball Could Kick Off a Trend of Eating Extinct Meats

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