On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, the University Honors Program celebrated Back to the Future Day with a special Brown-bag discussion, a costume contest, and free tickets to a screening of the trilogy.
Our activities were part of a worldwide celebration marking the date in which Doc Brown and Marty McFly arrive in the future in the second film.
Our brown-bag discussion was kicked off by Dr. Rich Cooper, a science fiction scholar and Lecturer in the Department of English, who described how the Back to the Future films relate to established sci-fi themes such as the promise of technological innovation for progress. Dr. Cooper posed the question: will we lose interest in the film now that we’ve arrived in “the future” and seen some of the predictions come true while others have not? He also described how film and books can help drive technological development by providing a vision for the future, as was the case with William Gibson’s Neuromancer and its influence on the development of the Internet. The conclusion of Dr. Cooper’s discussion was that films like Back to the Future retain interest because of what we can learn about ourselves and the milieu that produced them.
Dr. Nick Suntzeff, Mitchell/Munnerlyn/Heep Professor of Observational Astronomy
Astronomy – Astrophysics, provided a scientific perspective on time travel to complement the cultural perspective presented by Dr. Cooper. Dr. Suntzeff began by responding to the discussion about the proliferation of technology with a caution that it will only be a matter of time before an electromagnetic pulse from the sun would wipe out most electronics. “Nature always wins,” he said.
Dr. Suntzeff went on to describe the relative freedom we have to move in three dimensions (up/down, forward/backward, left/right) but that we are not free to move the same way in time. Referencing the concept of time as an illusion, Dr. Suntzeff described that if a clock were to fall into a black hole, someone from the outside would perceive that the ticking of the clock slowed to a standstill, while from the perspective of the clock, the entire history of the universe would be visible at once. Dr. Suntzeff briefly discussed wormholes and how they might operate, noting that mathematics says they should be possible, but we don’t have any way to build the structures that would be required to make them work.
Dr. Suntzeff closed his discussion by noting that much of theoretical math and physics operates this way, but occasionally the theories produce practical technologies, such as how wi-fi was developed from Stephen Hawking’s development of radio telescopes. In in this way, theory and fiction seem to be operating in similar ways to prompt humankind to dream of new possibilities.
Later in the day, students had the opportunity to win tickets to a marathon screening of the Back to the Future films by dressing in a costume inspired by the film. There was even a DeLorean at the theatre for a great photo-op!
Those who have interest in the overlap between theoretical physics and philosophy should note that Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for an Ultimate Theory of Time will be at Texas A&M in April 2016 presenting as part of the TAMU Physics Festival.
The University Honors Program is fortunate to have the support of the Association of Former Students to provide culturally-engaging and intellectually-enriching experiences like Back to the Future day!