The STEM Read Podcast with Alex Garland: “Devs, Determinism, and Maybe-Dead Cats”

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by STEM Read Staff

“Science is actually incredibly lyrical and poetic and meaningful and also beautiful,” author and filmmaker Alex Garland explains in this episode of the STEM Read Podcast.

This may not be a typical way of describing scientific theories, but Alex Garland isn’t your typical writer. He sat down at C2E2 for an interview with STEM Read Director Gillian King-Cargile to discuss his creative process and discusses the ways he weaves cutting-edge science into his work.

His fascination with science infuses his fiction (The Beach), screenplays (Annihilation, Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina) and even video games (Enslaved: Odyssey to the West), but it’s his latest endeavor, the TV miniseries Devs on FX and Hulu, that provides him a medium to explore further his fascination with quantum mechanics and the juxtapositions that exist in the world around us.

Devs, FX on Hulu

Garland’s curiosity about quantum mechanics – particularly the relationship between time and velocity as well as the ways in which science can explain our own existence – is a result of a proverbial trip “down the rabbit hole” that set him on a path of self-discovery. As Garland explains to Gillian, one of his current interests is the relationship between the subjective and objective states of existence and what science can tell us about this relationship.

Need a refresher on quantum mechanics and quantum computing? Gillian also interviews physicist Rebecca C. Thompson, head of the Office of Education and Public Outreach at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (a.k.a., Fermilab), who breaks down in layman’s terms what quantum mechanics is, shares her thoughts on the future of quantum computers and her take on Devs, and explains how Harry Potter and Schrödinger’s Cat fit into the world of quantum physics.

Listen for yourself! Check out the Notes & External Links for further exploration.

For those of you engaged in distance-learning and e-learning, Devs and this episode of the STEM Read Podcast might be a great way to connect with high school and college students over popular culture, science, and philosophy. The series is now streaming on Hulu and clips are available on YouTube. The STEM Read Podcast is available for free wherever you get your podcasts. Here are some ideas on how you can use these resources.

After listening to Alex’s and Becky’s views on the beauty, power, and magic of quantum theory, here are some things teachers and students can think about as we continue the conversation of science and science fiction:

  1. One idea that fascinates Garland is how “our brains are not giving us a precise account of what we’re seeing – rather, they’re giving us their best guess even in an act of straight-forward observation.” What do you think he means by this? Where do you see this taking place in your own world?
  2. Garland says he was a reluctant student and felt “excluded from science” in his youth, but as a teen, his interest in physics was piqued by the connection between time and velocity and the concept of matter and “trying to understand the world.” What role do you think Art (books, TV, film) can play in introducing people to science concepts and careers? 
  3. In Devs, Garland explores the concepts of predeterminism (a philosophical theory that states that everything in the world already is known and/or has been decided) and quantum computing (computer technology based on principles of quantum theory). Watch Devs and think about the following ideas: Does the show change your ideas about whether or not life is predetermined? Why or why not? If you haven’t thought about the idea of predeterminism before, how do you feel about it?
  4. In our podcast, Thompson states with Devs, Garland is starting new conversations in science by asking “what problems can we solve numerically with numbers, with computing, that we could never solve before and is that a thing a quantum computer could do in our lifetime?” What problem do you hope a quantum computer might be able solve or confirm in your lifetime? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of knowing this solution?
  5. Alex Garland believes that most good things derive from curiosity and being open-minded. What does it mean to you to be open-minded? Why might this state of mind appeal to someone who creates science fiction or art in general? How could open-mindedness benefit people in other careers?
  6.  Which area(s) of science are you most curious about? Why does this area of science interest you? Brainstorm a science fiction story that could be created to explore that interest?
  7. Which scientific concepts play a role in the storylines of some of the books, movies, or shows you’ve seen? How do the storytellers use these concepts? How does the use of these concepts add to the storyline?
  8. How is science fiction different from fiction? Read a science fiction story or watch a science fiction movie. What ideas are representative of facts within the storylines? For example, Avengers: Endgame uses concepts such as time travel and quantum mechanics to stop Thanos. Research the scientific concepts you discover to see if they’re true.
  9. Name a crazy idea that you would like scientists to research or make a reality.