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Star Wars, The Moon Landing, Or Electromagnetic Induction? Let The Great Geek Debate Begin

Jibo founder Cynthia Breazeal, culture blogger Bonnie Burton, and Skully CEO Marcus Weller argue over whose force had the most influence.

Star Wars, The Moon Landing, Or Electromagnetic Induction? Let The Great Geek Debate Begin
[Source Photo: NASA, Alan L. Bean via Wikipedia, Star Wars: Courtesy of Lucasfilm/Disney]

Arguing the merits of the moon landing versus Star Wars and electromagnetic rotation is completely absurd. They were all incredible breakthroughs. And yet, as geeks, we like nothing more than a good speculative debate–especially when smart people are involved.

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As part of this week’s bracket competition to determine the greatest geek moment in history, we’re presenting daily debates that include technologists, culture mavens, software makers, and authors. They argued the merits of their personal favorite geek moments over email. And now we present those debates, lightly edited, for your reading pleasure.

Cynthia Breazeal, founder and CTO, Jibo, and director of the Personal Robotics group at MIT Media Lab First, it was really difficult to choose just one moment of all the amazing Geek Moments in history. But, being a women in high-tech, my favorite took place in 1821 when Michael Faraday made the fundamental discovery of electromagnetic rotation, the precursor of the motor, and so much more. The significance of this moment: It was the beginning of our understanding of how to make electrons do our bidding. So much of modern technology and its consequence on how we live, communicate, learn, work, and play harkens back to Faraday and this key insight. 

Culture blogger Bonnie Burton I was ironically going to pick the debut of Star Wars in theaters in 1977 as my favorite geek moment. After working at Lucasfilm for a decade, and being a lifelong geek, Star Wars is a pivotal point in my life, so I know the most about it. I’m not sure how to pit a sci-fi milestone against the discovery of electromagnetic rotation, but here goes.

The debut of Star Wars in 1977 was the biggest milestone in geek history, not just because it spoke to those of us who root for the underdog and believe in the fight against tyranny, but because the groundbreaking special effects and the story set in space made us all dare to dream what was possible beyond our own solar system. Just like Luke Skywalker strove to leave his uncle’s moisture farm for adventure, we all look to the stars hoping for our chance to explore other worlds and meet our destinies with wide-eyed excitement. Countless people count Star Wars as their inspiration to become not only directors, actors, and writers, but also astronauts, scientists, explorers, physicists, inventors, robotics experts, and the list goes on and on. 

Marcus Weller, CEO of Skully The Faraday suggestion was terrific. He was a great physicist and chemist. 

However, I think the greatest thing to ever evoke the collective geek imagination in the history of humanity was the moon landing in 1969. [Editor’s note: The moon landing was voted out of the bracket yesterday, overcome by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.] President Kennedy announced our intention to set foot on the moon in 1961, and just a few short years later, it was one small step for man, but one giant leap for Geeks like us everywhere. That landing has resonated through generations of imaginations and inspired us to dream ever bigger. It became our new yardstick for what was possible and redefined our expectations from science. It inspired decades of brilliant science fiction, and most importantly, to paraphrase the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan, gave us the perspective that we are but one pale blue dot in a grand and expansive cosmos with limitless possibilities. 

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Breazeal I thought I’d take a few moments to unpack why I chose Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic rotation by demonstrating the first electric motor as my favorite Geek Moment.  Recall that I chose this moment not just because of the significance of the discovery, but because of the truly revolutionary idea it represented–that we can put electrons and the invisible forces of nature to work for us. 
 
I also wanted to choose a powerful moment in science with huge impact not only at the time of discovery, but also in inspiring other fundamental discoveries as well as in the subsequent development of technologies that profoundly shape how we live today.
 
Imagine the time of Michael Faraday in the 19th century. The idea of moving a physical object without touching it would have seemed like magic. This is essentially what Faraday did when he discovered electromagnetic rotation and demonstrated it with a clever apparatus that converted electrical current into continuous mechanical motion.
 
Faraday’s electric motor catapulted him to scientific fame and was the beginning of a celebrated career in science where he and those inspired by his work for many years to come (such as Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Maxwell, etc.) would continue to discover how to manipulate invisible forces of nature (the relationship between electricity, magnetism, and eventually light) and put them to work for us in all kinds of ways.
 
Today we take it for granted that we can use these invisible forces to move physical matter, generate electricity, transmit information, and so much more. We can easily appreciate its far-reaching impact on automation, transportation, electronics, power, telecommunication, information technology, etc.–and how we use these technologies to shape many, many aspects modern life, culture, and society.
 
If one uses the metaphor of a tossing a stone to cause ripples across a pond, Faraday’s first demonstration of electromagnetic rotation for me is like a cast stone that causes ripples across an ocean. If you weren’t a Faraday fan already, perhaps you’re inspired to be one now.
 
Of course, there are other amazing people and geek moments worthy of recognition. But I was inspired to choose a moment that also has personal significance to my life’s work, which has been to pioneer the science and commercialization of social robots. It’s hard to imagine an aspect of designing or building a robot that isn’t touched by Faraday’s genius: the motors, sensors, power, computation, and wireless communications electronics, the algorithms that compile down to the 1s and 0s that ultimately boil down to electrons being put to work to make robots do all the cool things they can do.
 
Faraday was a person of historic genius, as well as of inspirational spirit and heart. Thank you, Michael Faraday. You totally rock.

Weller I agree that both of your moments are in the top five, but mine should be crowned the ultimate victor. And here’s why.

Our mission to land on the moon opened up the possibility for the survival of humanity after the inevitable demise of our sun and our earth. That lunar landing in 1969 allowed humanity to transcend our Earth, and in so doing, potentially transcend imminent extinction. In that moment we became the masters of our own destiny, and the pioneers of an entirely new and mind-bendingly awesome frontier. We can now confidently say that we will set foot on the red planet, and likely many other planets after that. The possibilities are literally endless. How can you not geek out on that?

Burton The moon landing is great and all, but even astronauts would rather travel to other planets and their own space station as Jedi. They even posed as Jedi in their latest official promotional poster for NASA!

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren even said this year in an interview on StarWars.com that “Star Wars is a cultural touchstone, and we’re in a generation of astronauts now that saw A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi when they were little kids. Star Wars is one of the many reasons that I became interested in space flight.”

And sure, electromagnetic rotation is dandy, but did you know that scientists more recently created light-matter like Darth Vader’s lightsaber? “The newly created photon molecules don’t behave like traditional light, but more like a lightsaber, physicist Mikhail Lukin told CNN in 2013. “The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.”

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In 2007, Michio Kaku, one of the world’s most prominent physicists and the co-founder of string field theory told ABC News that “I think the (Star Wars) influence is huge. Many people don’t realize that science fiction has been an inspiration for the world’s leading scientists.”

Star Wars has influenced and inspired so many notable scientists and scientific discoveries that Lucasfilm, along with Boston Museum of Science, created the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit just to showcase it all.

And did former president Ronald Reagan nickname his ’80s Strategic Defense Initiative after the moon landing or electromagnetic rotation? Nope, he referred to it as “Star Wars.”

Star Wars changed the world not just in science, tech, space, and of course filmmaking, but in people’s faith too. Unlike the Moon landing or electromagnetic rotation, people around the world identify so much with Star Wars that they chose Jedi as their official religion on their countries’ census reports. Just in the United Kingdom alone, its census listed 390,000 people stating their religion as Jedi.

So yeah, Star Wars IS the most significant moment in geek history.

This debate will continue throughout the day, and we look forward to hearing your arguments.