Monday, May 12, 2014
The Movies Lied To Us
What are these errors? Well, ignoring things such as warp drive, hyperspace, teleportation, phasers, and other bits of science fiction, science errors in movies generally fall into the following categories:
1: Ships move as if they are aerodynamic in airless space. I love the climax of Star Wars Episode IV. The X-wing and Y-wing fighters of the brave rebels against the TIE fighters and lasers of the Death Star. But the so-called spacecraft move as if they are flying in air, not moving in space and certainly not reacting to the gravitational field of a massive space station. Ships in space move in response to gravitational mechanics (see my review of Gravity for details) and/or as their various rockets make them move. I suppose it might be possible with computer-controlled retro and attitude rockets to make a spacecraft move like an airplane. But why bother?
2: Crew members jostled by ship movements on ships with artificial gravity. It's obvious why so many ships in science fiction movies and television shows have artificial gravity: filming a movie with people in free fall would be very complicated and expensive (viz: Apollo 13). But if a ship has artificial gravity, no one on board is going to feel the ship's movements, including when it gets hit with a photon torpedo. I know why they have crew members jostled around by photon torpedo impacts or ship movements: visuals. But it would never happen. The gravity tied to the ship would be as steady at the gravity on the Earth. And you don't feel the Earth's movements (rotation around its axis and orbit around the Sun).
3: In space, no one can hear you scream. There's no air in space, we all know that. And yet the TIE fighters howl as they zoom by on the screen. There is gas in space (interstellar medium between stars) but it's not thick enough to transmit much sound (about one hydrogen atom per cubic millimeter). Inside a spaceship with air you'd be able to hear sounds generated inside the ship (people talking, computers beeping, etc.), but nothing from outside.
4: Yes, Virginia, there is gravity in space and you have to deal with it. If there were no gravity in space, planets wouldn't orbit the Sun, the Moon wouldn't orbit the Earth, nor would all the artificial satellites. There is gravity in space and it's not "zero gravity" except maybe if your a couple of light years from the nearest star (micro-gravity would be more accurate). If you're in orbit about a planet you are in "free fall" not "zero gravity." (Again, see my review of Gravity for details.) Ships in space have to deal with the gravitational fields around them. If you are moving about a solar system, the star's gravity will affect your ship. You will be in orbit of that star and have to deal with orbital mechanics where you slow down to go faster and speed up to slow down.
5: Momentum equals mass times velocity. Remember that exciting moment when the TIE fighter is zooming toward the Millennium Falcon and at the last moment Han Solo blasts it apart? In the real world, Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewy would have all died immediately thereafter. Because now the pieces of the TIE Fighter are careening at the Millennium Falcon like a huge shotgun blast and will rip the ship apart. Even though you blow up the TIE Fighter, its pieces still have momentum and will still be coming straight at the Falcon with the same speed they had just before they blew up. That's because of the law of conservation of momentum. Oh, sure, some will be knocked aside by the explosion, but most will keep going oblivious to the fact they are no longer part of a whole, and will pepper the Falcon with holes.
6: Explosions in space will look nothing like they look in movies/TV. There's no air in space. And all that roiling and boiling that explosions do is in response to the hot gasses from the explosion reacting with the air. Explosions in space will probably be symmetrical: cones or spheres, and will die out quickly because there's no air to support the continued burning of the gasses. Plus, the big orange/red explosions we're used to Hollywood showing us are mostly gasoline and I don't think starships will have gasoline on board.
I hope these help make your science fiction writing more accurate. Because without scientific accuracy, you're not writing science fiction, you're writing space fantasy.