SPICE Hub – Science Popularisation in Culture and Entertainment

Pop Culture & Science?

Studying Popular Culture & Science reveals where cultural narratives about science fit within the science-society relationship. If popular culture represents public perspectives on science and scientists, what can we learn from those representations? If popular culture promotes public discourse about science, how has this contributed to or undermined the public good? How can scientists use popular culture to engage people with their science? How has popular culture driven scientific advancement and technological innovation, historically and today? What pop cultural media and themes have excited the public imagination about science, and how? How can comics and animated films, aliens and clown robots – and more! – be used in and for science communication?

The stupendous (inter)connections between Popular Culture & Science teach us about the status of science as a cultural force – science in and as culture – and about the ways science has excited the public imagination. Popular Culture & Science reveals transmedial strategies used to manipulate not only the object but also the observer: to enchant and beguile an audience – how scientific research is connected to and expressed by creative imagination. Exploring Popular Culture & Science contextualises and thus broadens our understanding of the relationships between fact and fiction – and is a source of great academic fun!

What to study at CPAS?

The CPAS Spice Hub offers opportunities for students at all levels to engage in some of these topic areas.

We teach two courses both offered to undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students:

  • SCOM2003/SCOM6003 Science in Popular Fiction
  • SCOM2006/SCOM6006 Science and Humour

We also supervise research students in the ANU SCOM undergraduate, honours and Master’s programs, and students interested in undertaking higher degree research studies in this field at MPhil and PhD levels. SCOM students can also do internships with us.

And we organise seminars and symposia to explore the links between popular culture and science – to which students are always most welcome!

Pop Culture & Science at CPAS – our foci

Representations of Scientists in Culture

Scientists seek to investigate the ways in which nature works and to ask how humanity can best comprehend different aspects of the universe and domesticate the unknown. By challenging conventional wisdom, scientists can act as rebels against the status quo and common sense. In what ways do scientists appear in cultural and fictional contexts? And what can we learn about science in society from fictional representations of scientists?

Science in Popular Fiction

Science appears in popular fiction in multiple guises, from allegorical explorations of future technologies in science fiction through to characters’ health crises in soap operas. A key question science communicators ask about fiction is: does it reflect public ideas about science, or direct them? How do people use fiction as a resource to work through their questions about science? Our research shows people mostly don’t believe the science they see and read in fiction, because they are aware that fiction can take liberties with the truth. But when is that not true? And what kinds of truths can fiction communicate about science?

Fiction has been used for many practical purposes in the science communication realm. All kinds of films from Star Wars to The Blues Brothers have been used to teach science in the classroom. Well-loved television dramas including the UK’s Coronation Street and the pan-African multi-media Shuga series have successfully communicated health messages with audiences all over the world. Fictional characters like Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura and NCIS’s Abby Sciuto have been used to recruit people from marginalised genders and ethnic backgrounds to science-related careers. CSI and even Harry Potter have been the basis of travelling exhibitions in science centres and museums. Technologies shown in sci fi films like Minority Report have built interest in technologies that engineers would like to create, and attracted funders to pay them. Scientists have lobbied politicians for funding into Near Earth Objects by capitalising on the disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. Even inaccurate science provides a great opportunity for scientists to promote interest in their science, for example Jurassic Park’s featherless dinosaurs sparked immense public discussion about dinosaur biology. At the SPICE Hub we are interested in research in any of these areas, and through our teaching, workshops and outreach we train new generations of science communicators to use fiction as a core tool.

Doctor Who

The science fiction television series Doctor Who has depicted many science-related themes, settings, characters and plots since its inception in 1963. The show is rich in science-related ideologies, presenting a strongly pro-science agenda overall but frequently expressing concerns about some areas of science such as animal experimentation and industrial pollution. Because of its longevity and many diverse writers, directors and other crew and cast members over the years, Doctor Who is a great resource for tracking public discourse about science. Our research shows that Doctor Who has also contributed to many viewers’ ideas about science and even career choices, though in different and unpredictable ways. There is so much research yet to be done on science in Doctor Who and how audiences relate and respond to it, so if that piques your interest, come talk to us.

Aliens and Space Exploration in Science Fiction

“Aliens” are a common trope across science fiction. Yet, until very recent times, alien life is a topic that has little scientific backing – never have we encountered, discovered or found clear evidence for any sort of life beyond Earth. Yet, now more than ever, aliens are rife in popular fiction while billions of dollars are being invested in programs to search for signs of life, including intelligent life. What is the history of aliens in fiction, and how have these portrayals impacted the search for and increase of technology in the search for aliens?

Science in Comics and Animated Films

If you have always wondered where to study science and technology in comics and animated film at the ANU, you found the right place. We explore such questions such as:

How can we use the Joker – ‘spreading’ laughter in DC comics and animated films – to teach virology? Or what does Todd Phillips’s 2019 Joker blockbuster teach us about neurology? And how does the staging of evolutionary theory in 19th-century ‘freak shows’ reappear in the Hulk (2003)?

Science and Circus/Popular Entertainment

One of the most productive breeding grounds for the invention, amalgamation, and staging of scientific knowledge and creative imagination is the circus and related cultural phenomena, such as freakshows, carnivals, and 19th century ‘scientific’ museums. These sensational, kaleidoscopic institutions present(ed) manifold wondrous exhibits, including living automatons, magical lanterns, wax figures, extra-terrestrials and mummies, but they also presented scientific discoveries. Oscillating between respectabi­lity and fraud, science and deception, ritualised exposé and aesthetic cover-ups, they made hundreds of previously unseen phenomena – including scientific specimens – accessible to a broad audience.

Exhibitions and shows of this type united science with mystery, acted as mediators of knowledge, and were often the primary public source of information about the current state of scientific research. Their imaginaries and hyperbolic aesthetics live on in contemporary science and magic shows, movies and fiction. They are reminders that science and its pursuits are matters of perspective, and the product and producer of good stories. What do these stories tell us about scientific achievements – and the “two cultures” of the humanities and science?

Science and Humour

What does comic performance offer to understanding the public image and pop cultural narratives of science? How can humour – and what kind of humour – be used in science communication? What can we learn about science from comic scientists such as those in the Nutty Professor films or comic Frankenstein stories? What can we learn from the interplay between forensic science and comic zombies in splatstick films (from Braindead or Zombieland to iZombie) for the communication of science?

Humour and laughter are great ways to bring science to the public. However, humour and comedy as part of public discourse about science and science-based public culture have been conspicuous by their absence in science communication teaching at the ANU, despite a growing interested in humorous public science events, science stand-up routines, etc. We are thus offering students new insights in how to apply and communicate their science knowledge more effectively through humour, e.g. when communicating with a range of different stakeholders, while also promoting awareness of good practice and responsible, versatile use of nuanced humour in science contexts.

Pop Culture & Science at CPAS – Meet the Team

Brad is at CPAS and Mt Stromlo Observatory. He is interested in exploding stars, black holes, space travel, and how fiction increases awareness, inspiration and knowledge of these topics. Brad has consulted on science fiction films, books and shows, and is interesting on making the most effective means through these. In particular, he is looking at how portrayals of aliens and space travel in fiction is shaping research, public interest and funding of these areas.

Lindy researches and supervises projects on science and popular fiction. She has published extensively on science and Doctor Who, including editing the 2020 book Doctor Who and Science: Essays on Ideas, Identities and Ideologies in the Series (McFarland, co-edited with Marcus K. Harmes). She is particularly interested in the politics of knowledge in fiction, including how science is framed ideologically, and her Doctor Who papers examine such questions as how the show uses western science to reproduce racist discourses, how it characterises credible science as masculinist, and how it sidelines political questions by foregrounding science in plots about social change. Lindy has supervised numerous student projects in the science and popular culture field, including two PhD projects: Dr Rashel Li’s research into audience responses to sitcom The Big Bang Theory, and Dr Jarrod Green’s research examining audience perspectives on scientific realism in fiction.

Anna-Sophie works on mad and comic scientists, clown robots, freak performers and violent clowns (Joker!). She is interested in historical and contemporary links between popular entertainment and science/technology in different media – on popular stages, in fiction, in comics and (animated) film. And she is particularly fascinated by the cultural interplay between comic performance, science and technology (embodied, e.g. in ‘epileptic’ dancers, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and ‘human machines’). You can find more of her publications here.

Far out? – and yet so close! Get in touch with us, the team Stars*Who*Clown!

Dr Lindy Orthia – lindy.orthia@anu.edu.au  / Brad Tucker – brad.tucker@anu.edu.au / Anna-Sophie Jürgens – anna-sophie.jurgens@anu.edu.a

Academic staff