Tuesday, 21 February 2012

More Science in Movies

I my last posting I tore a strip off Star Trek, and while I think in most respects it does deserve it there are other shows that are worse with respect to science. Now the reason I'm going soft on Star Trek is simply because under a number of different definitions of Science Fiction it doesn't fit. Why? Because dear reader many people who have gone and bothered to define Science Fiction say essentially that it is fiction where  science is a major necessity in the plot. Or as Theodore Sturgeon says: "A good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content". And due to the lack of science content, or rather all the liberties taken in writing that have been disguised as science I don't believe it should qualify.

Now because I've given Star Trek a rather good beating, it's time to point out that this same problem exists with virtually every "science fiction" movie that has been made for many years. In fact this is the case with most movies and television shows that come out now-a-days (not just the science fiction ones). The lack of an understanding of basic science (either willfully, or simply through sheer laziness/ignorance) by the writers, directors, and many other technical staff that contribute is simply astounding. I'll go into these details in a later column, but for now I'd like to point out that this disregard for science is not wholly a problem with television and movies. Many books suffer from this same problem. And as a writer of Science Fiction stories I feel that this is important (otherwise I probably wouldn't be writing this - go figure).

So what's my beef?

Why do many science fiction authors seem to make no attempt (or very little at least) to incorporate science into their stories, and when they do why do they frequently get it wrong?

Okay, so the first thing you might say is "well it is fiction!". Okay point taken, but if you aren't going have any science you might as well call it a fairytale, and not science fiction. Back up in the first paragraph I quoted Theodore Sturgeon, here are a few other quotes that define science fiction:

Robert J. Sawyer: "Science fiction is the mainstream literature of a plausible alternative reality."

Barry N. Malzberg: "Science fiction is 'that branch of fiction that deals with the possible effects of an altered technology or social system on mankind in an imagined future, an altered present, or an alternative past'."

Sam Moskowitz: "Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the "willing suspension of disbelief" on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy."

John W. Campbell, Jr.: "The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along... The basic nature of fantasy is "The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!" The basic rule of science fiction is "Set up a basic proposition--then develop its consistent, logical consequences."

Likely the best definition of those above is the one from Campbell, which seems pretty simple to me. Unfortunately it seems to slip the minds of many science fiction authors. Now granted there are various sub-genres of science fiction such as "hard-science fiction" which usually does a very good job of getting it right, but it's not these authors that I'm whining about. Its the author who says "I write science fiction", but who has no idea what science is.

I've already talked a lot about Hollywood and how it's famous for this and maybe this is where these authors get their ideas. Now if a person had never seen anything from NASA, had never read Scientific American, or seen Discovery Channel, etc., and was basing all their science on "Star Wars", "Star Trek", "Jurassic Park", and any number of 1950s & 60s "B" movies you'd probably have to cut them some slack, but I doubt there are many of these people around. A couple of prime examples from this era are "Them" (1954) and "Attack of The Fifty Foot Woman" (1958). Sorry folks, but neither the ant's nor the lady's legs would have been able to support their respective bodies, bone simply isn't strong enough. In other words some of the science that is violated is so simple as to make the authors essentially look like fools (or worse).

The written word however is vastly different, after all how many times have you read a book, then seen the movie and thought it was crap? That's because the written page can contain so much more detail, and because of that the author has to do that much more research (or they should at least). Now granted compressing a couple of hundred pages of text into a movie is no mean feat, but still …

I'm going to continue on with this theme next time and give you some illustrations on some of the problems and maybe even how to fix them if you're interested.


Sunday, 19 February 2012

Science in the Movies (and television).

So far we have covered two very important parts of why it is very unlikely we have ever been visited by extraterrestrials, namely: first was the distance, and second why would they bother to come here. There have been literally thousands of television programs and feature films that fit the very broad description of "Science-Fiction" (over 5000 in fact according to IMDB) however, how many of them are scientifically accurate? Most are nowhere even close, and a great number do science such a disservice that they should really be classified as something like pseudo-science fiction. There is no way of classifying all the errors that some of these shows make, but the majority are things that any junior-high school student (and likely some elementary ones as well) know are not correct.

One of the biggest blunders that is continuously made is the sounds in space. Very elementary problem here - in order to have sound propagate you need air, and there is none in space so therefore there can't be any sound. The only movie I can think of off hand that got this right is 2001: A Space Odyssey. This same thing goes for explosions. "Bang" is a sound and therefore if there's no air there's no bang. This is taken to absurd lengths in virtually all films, and now-a-days when every space film seemingly has to have a battle sequence. Okay, I assume you get the point so I won't harp on it any longer.

Another problem that is very common in these films is that every alien is a bilaterally symmetrical biped, with stereoscopic vision (two eyes, both facing forward), two arms, etc. With the exception of the Star Wars series - which admittedly still lots of those good ol' bipeds there was at least a number of other aliens present (Jabba the Hut comes to mind). Now you'd think that with the huge budgets that Hollywood has for their films that they could do something a little original. Probably the biggest violator of this is the Star Trek franchise in which not only are they virtually all bipedal, but in some cases the difference between alien races is simply a few bumps on the forehead. In fact I can only recall one alien in the original series that looked alien and that was the Horta (an acidic rock dissolver, that looked like a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese). Now admittedly I am not a Trekkie, and I haven't seen any of the newer episodes but with seventy some episodes in the original series and only one alien-looking alien the odds aren't too good that they've had any original thoughts since.

I don't want to harp on the silliness of Star Trek too much more, but they take things to absurd limits by not only making virtually all the aliens look the same, but also allowing them to interbreed. Come on people this is really basic biology. The prime example of this silliness is Mr. Spock. Why is it silly? For starters he is supposedly an alien, whose bodily chemistry is based on copper (not iron like ours), his parent's Amanda & Sarek - yes I had to look this up - mated (with a little genetic help it is stated), and successfully conceived a child. Now the chances of this happening (even with significant genetic assistance) is about as likely as a human successfully mating with a rose and producing a either living person that would never have to use deodorant, or a flower that can do calculus. Why, after all they did say there was some genetic help? Simple the two races have a different body chemistry (copper vs. iron remember), different chromosome numbers (humans have 23 vs. Vulcans' have some other number), different gestational periods (nine months vs. who knows what), etc. etc. ad nauseum. It was stated at one point that all races in Star Trek evolved from an ancient one, but this is absurd as well as basic evolutionary law says that species that are isolated will eventually be incompatible mates with other species. So enough about Star Trek.

So come on Hollywood lets see some science in your science fiction! Mind you when it comes down to it there hasn't been much original work come out of Hollywood for many many years so I guess the chances of anything like this happening is pretty slim.


Friday, 17 February 2012

But Why Would They Come?

Okay, so we can all likely agree that the other stars are a long way from here. But if we ignore this by saying that another civilization is using multigenerational ships to travel say something like what I'm assuming they were trying to portray in the movie "Independence Day". I say assuming as they definitely didn't saying anything about faster-than-light drives, etc. and the only time we saw the mother ship is was either moving at a relatively normal speed for spacecraft, or it was in orbit (yeah I know this is assuming a lot but I figure they didn't mention it so we can ignore it). So for sake of argument an alien race shows up in our stellar neighbourhood, the big question would be why would they bother to come here in the first place?

Let's face it human's aren't exactly going to attract any other civilizations. We've only had the ability to transmit data electronically for under 100 years (1907 for radio, 1918 for television). These first broadcast signals were very weak compared to what w have today so we can likely shave a fair number of years off these as well as by the time they got out into space any distance their signal strength would be extremely weak. So for sake of argument let's say that we have been transmitting for seventy years at a decent signal strength to reach anybody who might be listening - that puts us in 1942.

So sometime in the last seventy years a spacefaring civilization picked up our signals, and figured out what they were. After all not only would the signal strength be very weak, but whoever was listening wouldn't know any of our languages. But is we assume that they puzzled out that they were from an intelligence race of beings and decided to visit then we have another problem, which relates back to the previous posting I made, and that's distance and consequently the speed their ship can travel at.

In order for extraterrestrials to be visiting us today in 2012, and assuming they left home as soon as they detected the signal (the ships were ready to go all they had to do was shut the hatch and step on the accelerator), and further assuming they can travel at the generous speed of ten percent of the speed of light then that means the furthest away they can be from us is three point five light years (which would give them a thirty-five year journey). If by some chance they can get extremely close to the speed of light (by the way I am intentionally ignoring the time dilation effects) then this allows them to be further away but only thirty-five light years. But why do I say thirty-five is the maximum?

I set thirty-five for a maximum because I first assumed we have only been transmitting for about seventy years. Which means that the signals from 1942 are just now reaching the vicinity of Zeta Lepus (which happens to be 70 light years away), but even if a ship left there right now, it wouldn't get here until 2082 if they could travel at light speed (or close enough not to matter) and that's seventy years from now. So we're back to thirty-five year issue (thirty-five for the signal to get to them, and thirty-five for them to get to us - remember we're assuming they can travel close to light speed).

But once again why would they come? Thirty-five years ago the signals that were coming from good ol' Mother Earth were things such as "It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown", "Eight is Enough", "Soap", "CHiPS", and "The Love Boat" - not exactly anything that would attract an intergalactic civilization - unless of course they were intergalactic police, and wanted to protect the citizens of the galaxy from extremely poor quality writing (okay, Soap was relatively good, but the rest give me a break!).

You'll have noticed by now that I used the word "if" a lot in this article, and that is because there are a lot of questions that need answering (I mean other than why did "The Love Boat" last for nine seasons?). Also remember in the last couple of paragraphs I assumed that these supposed extraterrestrials could travel at just under light speed, which isn't likely. I'm not saying it impossible, but the technological leap that would have had to be made is a little hard to swallow.


Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Space is big, real big ...

I was doing a presentation at one of the schools the other day for grade six Sky Science (introductory astronomy for those of you not familiar with the Alberta curriculum) and a few of the students asked me about aliens, and UFOs, and such. I expected these after all this is what the various media outlets are feeding people now-a-days. In fact if you believed everything you saw in the media you probably think that every other person in the word was from another star system.

Now I don't want to sound like some type of a nay sayer, so to I'll make my stand clear. Yes, I believe that there is other life in the universe, and I hope that someday we will come in contact with them. This will likely be by detecting their radio transmissions, or some such as opposed to having a little green man knock on your door one morning and asking for a cup of anti-matter. But I don't believe they have ever visited us. Why? Read on for the first of my objections.

For those of you who have been weaned on a diet of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Independence Day" and various other gems from Hollywood the chances of aliens having visited us are pretty slim, in fact they are essentially non-existant. Why? I knew you ask so I here goes:

"Space, is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hughly mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Mr. Adams wasn't kidding either, and that's why I don't really believe that we've ever been visited - there's another reason too, but I'll get to that in days to come. So everybody agrees space is big, but how big is it? Well I just happen to have my copy the 2012 Observer's Handbook handy so flipping to page 291 (Table of Nearest Stars) we see that Proxima Centauri is 4.24 lightyears (ly), Alpha Centauri 4.36 ly, Barnard's Star 5.98 ly, and Wolf 359 7.78 ly distant. So this means that the light were seeing right this second from Proxima Centauri left there 4.24 years ago. For that matter if our sun was above the horizon as I write this the light that we would see from the sun left there 8.3 minutes ago (499.0047864 light seconds to be exact)

Now a light year is standard measure of distance. Sorry to break it to you, but Han Solo got it wrong in Star Wars IV when he said it was a speed factor. It is the distance light travels in one year. Now light goes 299728.458 kilometres per second (abbreviated as c)which when multiplied out gives you 9.458 x 10^12 or 9,458,000,000,000 km in a year (299728.458 x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365.25). A long way!

Now according to a certain rather famous scientist by the name of Albert Einstein it is impossible for an object of positive mass to reach (and therefore pass) the speed of light, so that means that any visitors would have to be travelling at a speed somewhat less than this speed limit. which therefore makes their journey that much longer. So if they were travelling at half light speed then Proxima Centauri is 8.48 years away.

By the way, for the time being I'm going to ignore all the hypothetical faster than light drives that have been postulated for many years in science fiction stories, as we have no idea if it is possible, and until someone rewrites the laws of physics as we understand them it really isn't worth worrying about. I'm also going to ignore the ideas of cold sleep / hibernation etc. in case your curious.

So what we have is a trip to Proxima Centauri that is going to take at least 8.48 years (at 1/2 light speed) and likely much longer (at 1/10 light speed it's 84.8 years). So what does this give us? Well, if a civilization was going to outfit a ship to travel from say Proxima Centauri to us, they would have to provide the crew with sufficient supplies (breathing gases, water, food, spare parts, etc.) to last the journey, and they would also have to devise a way for the crew to entertain themselves for the entire trip. Now I get bored on a car trip longer than a few hours, so I don't even want to imagine being stuck in some type of vehicle for 8.48 years (or 84.8 for that matter).

So as you can see one of the biggest arguments against us being visited is simply distance. Plain and simple. Now if you do accept faster than light drives, cold sleep / hibernation etc. this all changes, but that's what I'm going to talk about tomorrow.


"Being A Scot" by Sir Sean Connery & Murray Grigor

Publisher:London [England] : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008. ISBN: 9780297855408 Characteristics: 311 pages :,illustrations (chiefly ...