RS Classic: Science faux pas (and my movie pet peeves)

>> Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Given that I had my trash-Armageddon earlier, it seemed reasonable to replay this one from the same theme.

I can be irritating to watch movies with. I admit it. Unless I’m blown away by characters and/or dialog, little errors will bother me. And I’m vocal about it. I’m a history buff so trashing history will irk me, ditto with characters that make no damn sense. But many people are irritated by that. One thing that really gets me are “science fiction” movies where science was clearly not well thought out. Yesterday’s Armageddon blog demonstrated that a single movie can pretty much throw science in the toilet. But even the better movies can do things that defy science.

Here are some pet peeves.

Momentum - Few things take a pounding in science films like Newtonian physics. Star Trek (movies and television shows) - we’re zipping along at Warp 8 and the engines go down. And we stop. Now, when it comes to warp speed, we really don’t know much about how it would work (if it even would), so I don’t have a problem with popping out of warp into normal space. However, in normal space, shutting off the propulsion will just mean you’ll keep going. In fact, you’re likely to be in more trouble than standing still. Standing still, you know, means you aren’t going to run into something.

Side note - There’s a very good short story called “Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin which is touted, and rightly, as an excellent example how physics (and science) doesn’t care about whether someone lives or dies. Unfortunately, the science is off. In the story, the transports are fueled with no contingency fuel, just enough for the planned cargo and crew. They’re on their way, when the pilot discovers a stowaway going to see her brother. Because there’s no contingency (which is, in my opinion, a dumb way to do business), she has to be spaced, despite her tears and her brother’s anguish. Tragic. (He gives her an extra hour by changing the trajectory, but that’s silly, too - her weight only matters while speeding up or slowing down or changing direction) Except, since they’d launched with her weight on board, they were already short on fuel. Physics, whew, a tough taskmaster.

Angular momentum - Star Wars - Hey remember those cool shots of the Millenium Falcon zipping through the cloud of Empiric ships, flipping U-turns and dodging like mad? Uh, I kept waiting for people’s bodies to punch right through the hull. Anyone with experience in a fighter plane will tell you angular acceleration will eat your lunch, and your plane, if you pull too many g’s. As fast as they were going, the poor folks inside (not wearing seat belts, of course) would be pounded to mush against any hard surface. Don’t go talkin’ about gravity generators or dampers, ’cause I’m not going to buy it. If they really had those, why are they always being jarred out of seats and stuff? Speaking of the latter, why do shows like Star Trek and Star Wars forgo seat belts? The old (and much loved by me) original Star Trek had people tumbling around engineering and the bridge like dice. Why would any ship that moved at sublight and light speeds have standing engineering positions? Or seats without restraints? You can get tickets for that in cars that never bust 70 mph (113 kph).

Ignoring vacuum - Star Wars - Ah, shooting laser canons through open portholes, shuttles landing in bays open to space, Death Star under construction - just like you could do that open to space, with folks walking about without masks. In vacuum. Red Planet - Our refugee has made a habitat on the surface of Mars out of cloth with open bottoms that allowed air in and out. Mars, at its atmospheres densest point, is 0.011 atm (that’s 0.165 psia). I don’t think so. Not even if you breath really shallow.

Orbital Mechanics - Red Planet - There’s an impressive leap from the disabled rescue ship to an unmanned satellite ~1 km away in spacesuits. Ignoring, for the moment, the likelihood that the satellite would have life support or could facilitate their arrival on the surface, going across a km of open space between two vessels in almost undoubtedly different orbits going several km/second? Not bloody likely. This also applies to any movie where an orbiting but suddenly disabled ship will decay “within hours”. Space junk, even released in low orbit, usually takes weeks or months; any ship that decays within hours was flying stupidly low.

Holodecks - Star Trek (and others) - Building whole sets, with tactile interaction, using holograms? I can buy visual, smell and audio, but we don’t have light we can see or “eat” or “drink” or “sleep on” or “sit on”. It’s not a matter of speculation; photons don’t make solids. Nice try, though. (Note, that in a sophisticated VR suit with tactile sensor and or something that could interact with brains to simulate the experiences as “dreams” or “visions”, I would not have the same problem).

Are there are others? Sure. And, before I get blasted for being too hard on speculative fiction, let me tell you some things that don’t bother me: transporters (Star Trek), faster than speed of light travel, point to point travel/tesseract/wormholes (Stargate/Star Trek/others), replicators (Star Trek), simulated gravity, almost any biological anomaly or weirdness, hovercraft, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, complex robotics . . . the list goes on.

I also am pretty damn forgiving with such things as superheroes and other fantastic stories, including shapeshifting, amazing strength and imperviousness (yes, I like Wolverine), vampires, magic etc. There are plenty of things out there I can’t begin to explain. Except flying and that dumb thing where someone like Wonder Woman hold back a jet by digging in her heels.

But, hey, sometimes you gotta let go.


  • Roy

    I still wish there really was a Stargate. Can you imagine the cost savings on space travel with one of those? No new ships needed, no fuel considerations... However, I resent the writers' use of perfectly good (and beneficent) ancient gods as the evil Goa'uld. Although I have to admit they had a winner with Cliff Simon as Ba'al.

  • Aron Sora

    The Holodeck could have items slip in and out of VR by generating a chair or a drink by using the replicator just when it is needed.

    Star Wars...the hangers could have energy shields, but there are scenes when the ship is disabled yet the hanger works. The portholes and the Death serve my fanboy duty and defend Star Wars...but...I can't...I'm melting)

    The best part with Angular momentum, we have some sort of momentum canceling device...why can't we cancel the shock from a weapon impact, it would help if the crew wasn't tossed everytime the ship was hit.

  • Darrell B. Nelson

    Just a comment on the Holodeck, I don't like it as if it worked it would be the death of civilization.
    Everyone hits a time in their life when they feel everything is against them and want to give up. We work through that and it leads to us growing as an individual.
    Imagine if you had a holodeck and whatever tragedy happened could be undone. Your dead loved ones would be alive, your career a huge success, what ever you wanted.
    If you stepped into a holodeck during a moment of weakness you'd never go back into the real world and face your challenge.

  • The Mother

    You wouldn't have wanted to sit next to us in 2012. We laughed all the way through.

    And Iron Man 2 built a particle accelerator. In his lab. In an afternoon. With spare parts he happened to have lying around. And THEN, he shot the accelerated beam across the room, no vacuum required. UGH!

    (My geeky 21 yo informs me that COMIC BOOK science is just different, okay???)

  • Jeff King

    I see your point, but if it were true to life it might be boring, or not exist at all.

    When it comes to movies I let a lot go, but for books I am the other way.

    But of course I don’t have your knowledge or understanding of things so it doesn’t cut so deep.

  • Marilynne

    I'd go to a space flick with you if you'd promise not to debunk it until afterward. I'd enjoy your take on it - after we enjoyed the movie. Part of the enjoyment is allowing yourself to think, for a little while, that those things could really happen.

  • Unknown

    Wow . . . !!! What an amazing piece of scientific thought. You trash a movie due to inequities in scientific logic. Let me point out a few errors in your argument:
    Momentum - So we're doing warp 8 and the engines shut down, and you are OK with us being at a standstill ? Standstill in relation to what or where ? If you hadn't noticed, the entire universe is moving in a whole bunch of different directions. Since the only agreeable point of reference would be the point of ultimate origin ( the centre of the "Big Bang" ), standing still would only increase your chance of collision - agreed ?
    Angular Momentum: Not many have experienced what it is like in a modern fighter - more than likely you included. G's exert on us only when there is a gravitational factor involved. What external gravitational factor could have been exerting itself upon the crew of the "Millenium Falcon" to have been throwing them around in the first place, or didn't you think of that first ? - Angular momentum only works when there is an exerting gravitational force. Those guys were in open space.
    Ignoring vacuum: Given, I can see your argument here regarding the ignorance of this - but . . . A laser cannon ( that's how it's spelled, it's not a camera ) is a concentration of light, yeah ? - So then it should pass through any transparent or even translucent field, huh ? - Just the beings operating them ( or the Death Star workers ) were not adequately protected against the vacuum of space ( or was there some kind of field maintaining air pressure within the confines ? ). The whole vacuum point you missed was how we somehow can hear ship's engines in space, and lasers that can't even really be heard with such distinction in an atmosphere . . . ???
    Orbital Mechanics: I've not seen Red Planet, but I totally 100% agree with you on this. A 1km open space walk between two ships of different trajectories at different orbital speeds would be very difficult to calculate accurately.
    Holodecks: Who ever said holodecks utilized light ? It could only ever work by temporarily converting energy into matter that could be manipulated by a computer from elemental stage into complex compounds. We can interact with matter, it doesn't matter if it's natural or manufactured, the sensation is still real. It is totally possible to create a manufactured environment that can be brought into and out of existence. Einstein's Relativity supports this, and even Hawkings validated my point about 6 months ago when he stated that a "God" was not required to create the universe, and that it was possible for matter to appear from nothing and return to nothing.
    Finally: In the end son, it's just a movie. If you spent as much time criticizing modern science instead of science fiction ( Remember that word : "Fiction" ) movies, maybe the human race could make a few more advances and stop making so many silly mistakes.
    These movies are all really cool. They are fantasy, and allow us to escape to a place where the rules are different - where problems can be overcome with technology and everyone is accepted. If you wanna spend your time breaking them down into ridicule, then how about take a good look at your own life and find some improvement there, huh ? If you can't face that, then try to look at reality and human problems, and try to find a way to solve them, huh . . . ??? Being critical opens you to criticism. I hope you enjoyed being criticized as much as you enjoyed criticizing the efforts of others who only wanted to entertain us and make heaps of money. I am happy both ways because you entertained me, and it cost me nothing.
    To Project Savior: I totally agree. It would be just like drugs. Any escape from reality to a place with no problems would certainly detach us from our daily lives to the point of self destruction. That's what dreams are for !!! :))

  • Stephanie Barr

    Paulie, dear, go back and study your Newtonian physics. But first, my name is Stephanie, not "son." Just saying.

    Momentum: (Newton's first Law) - an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by a force. This is as basic as it gets. The framework can move relatively, the so does the object. It is a delta movement. For instance, the earth spins and we spin relative to it (along with many other motions). However, if we strap a rocket to the back of a bike, it will propel us forward (depending on how you orient it) and we'll keep going forward until air and ground friction (or the force of brakes) slows us down (or we hit something). We move within our frame of reference.

    Angular momentum: Sorry, bud, gravity has NOTHING to do with angular momentum except that force can be described in g's (and, in fact, many other units). In fact, if you spun the planet fast enough, it would provide a counterforce to our gravity, but I digress. Now, while making a sharp turn UP in a plane, gravity can increase the angular force just like diving can reduce it. Do you feel it in open space? Damn straight (it is, in fact, why space stations were often planned to spin to simulate gravity by walking along the outside of the large ring. To get more g's you either need a larger ring or a faster spin).

    Lasers can go through transparent materials, but not necessarily without change. But that's not what I'm talking about; I'm talking about cannons that stuck out an open porthole and were moving around in that open porthole. You are correct about sound (and it's true of explosions as well) but once I have people traipsing about without masks in an open shuttle bay, that seems too trivial to lose sleep over.

    Holodecks: Wow, if I could make matter into anything I wanted (into sentient beings even), what the hell do I need to seek out an explore for? I'll just hang on the holodeck. But, my husband, the serious Star Trek reader tells me that it's very clearly described as light and force fields and very limited replicated matter. Either way, it's so wasteful of capability, I think it's silly, but that's not a professional opinion.

    I write fantasy and science fiction. They are not interchangeable. The problem with a movie misrepresenting science is that regular people, who don't have a strong grasp of science (like basic Newtonian physics) think many things are possible and get mad at the real scientists who have to make things work in the real world. A good science fiction movie, like Avatar, based on sound science (so good I can't even pick it apart), is at least as fascinating and awe-inspiring as a movie where science is badly misused. You can tell a great story with real science. Honest. As for this:

    "If you wanna spend your time breaking them down into ridicule, then how about take a good look at your own life and find some improvement there, huh ? If you can't face that, then try to look at reality and human problems, and try to find a way to solve them, huh . . . ???"

    I work in space safety where I spend my time criticizing real engineers and scientists so they can do amazing things for the rest of us while keeping the astronauts (and the other ground staff) safe. Believe it or not, I think that's pretty important, grounded in reality and working for the future where technology can make our world better. In a real way.

    Next time, check your science before you criticize. That's how I keep from being embarrassed.

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