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Do You Care If They Get The Science Right?

October 22, 2015

Yesterday was Back To The Future day (Where’s My Flying Car?) Thousands of words (including some of mine) were written on the movie version of 2015 vs reality. And while it was all in good fun, no one actually expects a movie to be able to predict scientific advances decades in the future. We can’t even predict science a year or two out. 

But, there’s no doubt that Back To The Future was entertaining and enduring. Stories are what make movies memorable, of course. But, when a movie creates a futuristic vision, do we care if the science is accurate? 

No. Not if the story is good enough and it’s internally consistent. 

Let’s start with the biggie: “Faster than light travel is not possible.” It’s not that we haven’t yet discovered how to go faster than light, it’s that phyics says we can’t. . .ever. You know that famous E=mc^2 formula that Einstein came up with? Here’s what it means

E = energy. The amount of energy to move an object for example

m = mass. This is how heavy the object you want to move is

c = speed of light. 186,000 miles per second. . .squared. 34,596,000,000 miles per second squared

So, do a bunch of math and you will see that the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object (even a small one) to the speed of light is greater than the energy that object could supply. So, you would literally burn up trying to accelerate to the speed of light. 

Okay, science lesson over. Think about all the movies that use faster than light travel. (Star Trek, Star Wars, Galaxy Quest, Space Balls.) Those movies absolutely violate the fundamental principles of physics. Did it detract from the movie? Not a bit. 

Let’s face it, our solar system is a pretty boring place. Not a lot happening in “Space war” area in our celestial neighborhood. It’s been 25 years since their launch and our satellites are only now reaching the edges of the solar system. And once Voyager leaves the solar system, it will wander for centuries before it ever comes close to our nearest galactic neighbor. We need a way to take the story to the stars that doesn’t involve long boring periods of “Are we there yet?”

Second example? A little problem called gravity. Vitually every space story has “artificial gravity.” It allows the characters to walk around a  space ship as easily as they would stroll down the street to the corner market. The problem is that artificial gravity has no basis in reality. Oh, we THINK there might be something called a graviton that is to gravity what the electron is electricity. Just as we move electrons around to manipulate electricity for lights and batteries and streetlamps, we could conceivably use gravitrons to manipulate gravity. The problem? We’ve never seen one. We’ve never detected one. We don’t even know if they actually exist. 

Of course, film makers use artificial gravity because it’s a lot easier to film a space opera on a budget if you don’t have to keep the actors suspended constantly. Ron Howard, the director of Apollo 13 went to the expense of filming on the “Vomit Comet.” A big airplane that plunges toward the ground for 30 seconds at a time to simulate weightlessness. (He should have won an Oscar for best picture. It was a crime he wasn’t even nominated. Curse you Forest Gump!)

I would suggest that sometimes science gets in the way of the story. The movie 2001 A Space Odyssey worked very hard to get the science accurate. Arthur C. Clarke, the screenwriter is one of my favorite authors. Stanley Kubrick, the director did a fantastic job of creating a realistic space station. They solve the gravity problem by building a spinning spaceship to simulate gravity. They don’t travel faster than light. (It takes them a LONG time to get to Jupiter.) But, and I know some film buffs were disagree, 2001 was a boring movie. It has some really cool lines

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.

But, I’ve tried to go back and watch it. I really want to like it. It kind of drags. 

Compare that to Star Wars. The entire world knows that Star Wars 7 is due out in December. It’s already setting records. It crashed the Fandango ticket site two months before the movie opens. The science in Star Wars? It ranges from improbable (blasters and light sabers) to impossible (hyperdrive and THERE ARE NO SOUNDS IN SPACE!) But, it’s a great story. 

We really don’t care that much about the science if the story is good enough. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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One Comment
  1. Em, interesting point here on the ‘faster than light’ issue. Your position is correct if we attempt to accelerate in a classic fashion. As an object approaches the speed of light it’s mass increases to infinity, but the only value actually prohibited for anything with a rest mass is the speed of light. On the other side of c the mass decreases in the same way. That is, a particle traveling at 2c will have less energy than one traveling 1.0001c. All we have to do is sidestep that pesky area around light speed. This is handled in most sci-fi by imagining a discontinuity in speed, a ‘jump’ that goes immediately from less than 1% the speed of light to many times that speed. We’re just not there yet, but there is nothing in physics currently that prohibits it.

    Of course, your original point about not letting the science get in the way of the story is absolutely correct. If Scotty stopped and explained this every time they had a warp drive malfunction in the original Star Trek they’d never get through a show.

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