I am a fan of science fiction, especially stories that take place in space. I enjoy reading, but I really enjoy movies. I remember when I was very young I recorded Star Wars off HBO on my Betamax. I watched that tape so much I warped it. It was so fun to see people having adventures among the stars. When I was in college, I wanted to learn all I could about science, so I could invent a way to travel like they do in the movies. I took classes in astronomy, theoretical physics, biology, and chemistry. By far my forte was astronomy and theoretical physics (even though my major was human biology). I learned a great deal about space that rather zapped the idea of space travel from my mind, but I still enjoy science fiction movies.
I finally settled down into a more practical career, and I found myself working as a journalist (a good majority of that as a photojournalist). One of the things I learned very quickly was that most people didn’t share my fascination with science, and that many of them became writers. Some of these writers worked in television, but most wanted to work in the motion picture industry. Then I discovered that many of the people who were in that industry who are producers, directors, actors, and so forth were similarly less nerdy when it came to science. I, of course, don’t mean to say that everyone in TV and movies are ignorant of scientific principles (David X. Cohen is much smarter than I am, and he writes Futurama). I mean that, for the sake of dramatic presentation, most of what is shown on major entertainment is bad science. Seeing that bad science is all over big entertainment, I have come up with several rules that almost all mainstream movies seem to follow that defy reality.
Space trips have to be fast
Movie Examples: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Men in Black, Prometheus, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Space, Fifth Element, and many others.
By far the most irksome problem with movies is that the overwhelming distances between any celestial bodies can be easily traversed. Usually this is resolved by creating some method of FTL (faster than light) travel. Warp, hyperspace, light speed, FTL, and other forms of shortening the length of time between worlds is used to travel from point A to point B very rapidly. Douglas Adams lampooned this with his use of the Infinite Improbability Drive in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
I totally understand why any science fiction writer has to use an FTL. If they didn’t use this plot device there wouldn’t be a story. Since nothing can go faster than the speed of light, any interstellar travel would take eons using our current technology. Traveling at, or near, the speed of light poses all kinds of problems, which prevent any craft from reaching this tremendous speed. Even when they try to make things more realistic, there are huge problems. An example of this is the recent film Prometheus (I actually enjoyed this movie so much I saw it three times in the theater). They travel to the Zeta Reticuli system in two years. This system is approximately 39 ly from Earth. This means that the ship they traveled in would need to travel 20 c (c is the scientific constant used to represent the speed of light in a vacuum). Only Avatar had travel that roughly approximated sub-light speed. With the journey only taking, three years to get to Alpha Centari which is roughly 4 ly from Earth.
I suppose this plot device can be forgiven, but I find people tending to believe this type of travel is possible. In effect, science fiction is interpreted as science fact, and that is dangerous when it comes to people believing that we can continue to use Earth in a disposable manner, but more on that later.
Communication is instantaneous
Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Fifth Element, others.
Have you ever noticed that people can have long conversations, even when they are on opposite sides of the galaxy? If you have ever seen a news report, where the reporter is live from halfway around the world you will notice that there is a delay if they have to respond to a question. This is because the signal from the satellite uplink has to travel 26,000 miles into space and then back down to Earth. Because multiple satellites may be necessary for the signal to reach its destination the delay could be considerable. This is mildly irksome to the viewer, but impossible to avoid. The delay increases as the distance increases. A signal to Mars could take as long as 22 minutes to get to Earth. At that point, it becomes impossible to have a conversation, yet you see Pickard conversing with his superiors on Earth when he is light-years away.
Radio/Television signals are universal
Movies: Contact, Independence Day, Star Trek, others
This one really raises my hackles. I work in Satellite TV, and I have to tell people that getting a TV signal isn’t easy. While it is true that there are television stations all over the world, they aren’t all the same. If you took a television sold in the US and tried to use it in France, or the UK you would find that it wouldn’t work. The US uses NTSC, the UK uses PAL, and France uses SECAM. All three are television signals, but they aren’t compatible. That has been the case since the early days of analog television. Digital television is even more complex. There are many variables that have to be programmed exactly, or you won’t be able to decode the signal. There are different radio bands used for various purposes, different frequencies, modulations, error correction, data rates, symbol rates, broadcast standards, and potentially encryption methods. There is a reason why you can’t just take any old satellite dish and rake in the Pay-Per-View fight they advertise on Dish, or DirectTV.
In the movie Contact, a TV signal, imbedded with complex schematics, is received and shortly decoded and analyzed. Analyzing video signals takes expensive sophisticated equipment, and even with the right equipment, it might not be possible to decode all the information imbedded in a signal. It would take years of careful analysis by experts in multiple disciplines to do the same thing that one know-it-all guy could do in a matter of moments. I could write a whole blog about how implausible it would be for us to receive the latest soap operas from Omicron Persei 8, but it boils down to the fact that they probably use PAL-N and all they have at Arecibo is NTSC. I’m not really touching the fact that even if we could find compatible equipment, the signal would be so weak we would be watching mostly snow.
Spacecraft are impregnable
Movie examples: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lockout, and others.
Many space battles take place inside ships with lots of ammunition missing its intended target and striking the bulkheads without penetrating. In all reality the materials used in aerospace is very light. The primary materials are aluminum, titanium alloys, and carbon composites. These materials are very strong, but not to things like bullets and explosions. The main reason they are used is weight, but in order to do that they have to be thin. In the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) used for the Apollo missions, the skin could be as thin as a couple of sheets of aluminum foil. An errant foot or punch would be enough to cause a hull breach. The impact of a bullet or concussive force of an explosion certainly is more powerful than that. Any breach to the hull would immediately allow the pressurized atmosphere to vent into space, and could kill the crew in seconds. In the movies, this never happens. It just bounces off or just scorches the wall. An explosion just sends people flying, but most of the time it doesn’t have any lasting impact.
Spacecraft can fly like Airplanes
Movies: Star Wars, Lockout, Battlestar Glactica, Armageddon, Lost in Space, Fifth Element, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, others
I have had my share of piloting small aircraft. I have flown everything from bi-planes to helicopters, but not spacecraft. One thing I do know is that there is a huge difference between flying in an atmosphere, and piloting in a vacuum without gravity. You don’t stop on a dime, can’t just shut off an engine to stop, or maneuver like a fighter jet. I will give some kudos to Battlestar Galactica for having fighters that acted more like spacecraft, but they still flew more like aircraft than spacecraft.
All spacecraft have a number of thrusters to control pitch, roll, yaw, and forward and aft thrust. The largest thrusters on any spacecraft is the primary thruster on the back, but there are several on the nose of the craft, as well as several maneuvering thrusters on the back. Maneuvering is done slowly so the amount of fuel used to perform the maneuver is minimized. Any change in attitude requires thrust to get it there, and then thrust to null the rate. Since all of this maneuvering uses precious fuel, it is kept to a minimum so there is enough to last through the entire mission. Unfortunately, space battles wouldn’t look nearly as cool if the spacecraft behaved like it is supposed to.
There is always gravity on the ship
Movies: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Prometheus, Alien, Sunshine, Lexx, Lockout, Serenity, Galaxy Quest, others
I understand why this is done this way. Space, as I’ve pointed out earlier, is difficult and expensive to get to, and movies don’t have an unlimited budget. Since movies are filmed on Earth, we have to have gravity on the spacecraft in our movies. Simulating microgravity or zero gravity environments can get tricky, and expensive. It also means that you can’t ramp up the action by having Captain Kirk run all over the Enterprise to prevent the next crisis.
When they filmed Apollo 13 they used a KC-135A to film the scenes set in space. This got a little pricy, because of the amount of time spent filming, since they only had about 25 seconds of weightlessness per parabola. Most filmmakers would rather just skip the realism and have gravity on the ship.
Scientists are either evil, dumb, or know-it-alls
Movies: Prometheus, Alien franchise, Star Wars, Star Trek, Sliders, Stargate, Indiana Jones, Batman Begins, Blade, and many others.
This is particularly evident with the Alien franchise. In the latest film, Prometheus, the scientists don’t really behave like scientists. As soon as they land, they promptly run out to the nearest structure and explore it like a bunch of amateur spelunkers. No one really analyses it to see what kind of material it’s made of, its structural integrity, or any other properties it may exhibit. They don’t even investigate the entire outside. They just walk up to it, and waltz right in like it’s their local shopping mall. As soon as they find a breathable atmosphere, they take off their helmets and breathe in deep. There isn’t any thought about alien virus or bacteria, or gas their instruments weren’t calibrated for. Then they wander around aimlessly despite the fact that they deploy mapping probes. They go around touching substances that they can’t identify, and act like they have no idea what scientific disciplines they studied. The geologist, doesn’t seem to take any interest in the rock formation, and can’t even read the map that his probes made, so he gets lost. The biologist isn’t even remotely interested in the alien remains they find, and when confronted by a creature that looks and acts like an agitated cobra he tries to approach it like it was an unfamiliar dog he wants to pet. Worst of all no one seems to be doing any sort of documentation. It isn’t like finding evidence of extraterrestrial life is some sort of monumentally important scientific discovery worthy of meticulously documenting. When one of the anthropologists gets sick, he just keeps it to himself, and doesn’t mention the fact that he saw a worm like creature in his eye to anyone so he could be placed in quarantine to spare the rest of the crew from infection. None of these “scientists” behaves as if they made it past their undergraduate programs, let alone their doctorate.
On the flip side, the scientists in the earlier films go out of their way to bring an alien life form back to earth, even after they determine it to be a dangerous organism. Either these scientists are deluded into thinking they can domesticate this alien, or they are incredibly evil.
The worst are the know-it-all scientists. These people seem to know everything about everything. In my experience, specialists are just that, specialists. They study one particular aspect of their field, and don’t really worry about science that is outside that field.
An example of a scientific specialist is Dr. Martin Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham. He appears on YouTube in the Periodic Table of Videos, and has remarked several times that he isn’t as versed in every chemistry related subject, like organic chemistry, because his field of study is fundamental chemistry, particularly supercritical fluids. When the subject goes into an area outside his expertise, he often refers Brady, the photojournalist behind the videos, to another member of the staff who specializes in that particular kind of chemistry. This doesn’t mean that Dr. Poliakoff isn’t a very smart person or that he doesn’t understand chemistry very well (quite the contrary). It means that he understands his primary specialty better. It also means that Dr. Ploiakoff wouldn’t be my first choice for an in-depth discussion on string theory, but I would love to take a chemistry class from him.
In most movies, there is always one guy that knows everything about everything from biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, every language ever spoken, and how to pilot alien spacecraft he has never seen before. There is also at least one person that can easily learn any alien language no matter what the circumstances. There are many smart people out there, but I have yet to meet a person that was so smart that they knew everything about everything. Most scientists know a lot about very little, and then there are people like me, who know a little about a lot.
Space junk just floats around
Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, others
When the fleet was destroyed over Vulcan in the latest Star Trek reboot, and when Alderaan was destroyed in Star Wars the remains just floated around, posing little or no real threat to anyone. In reality space junk is a very real, and very dangerous problem. Space junk doesn’t just float around harmlessly through the void. It moves very fast. In most cases, the debris can move 17,500 mph. That is faster than a bullet. Spacecraft travels at similar speeds. That means that if a spacecraft hits a piece of space junk moving in the opposite direction the impact speed could be in excess of 35,000 mph! At those speeds, the impact would be catastrophic, even an object as small as a simple fastener could punch through the bulkhead of a spacecraft, and obliterate anyone or anything in its path.
In reality, the Death Star would sustain crippling damage from the destruction of Alderaan, and the Millennium Falcon would be destroyed when it encountered the debris field. The same thing would happen to the USS Enterprise when it dropped out of warp over Vulcan. The Romulans wouldn’t have had to fire one torpedo to destroy the Enterprise. It would already be pulverized by the remnants of the fleet.
I doubt that TV, movies, or books will ever be able to tell stories that more closely resemble reality, because the simple fact is that reality isn’t nearly as exciting as fiction. It’s our own fault things are this way. I don’t watch NASA TV because it’s about as exciting as watching grass grow. Perhaps if we get Michael Bay to take over NASA we could have the excitement of watching a rocket lift off, with the added bonus of several car chases, lots of explosions, and a scantily clad Megan Fox trying to defuse a bomb that threatens to spray confetti over the audience when the countdown clock reaches zero.