A Frivolous Summer Column On Science Fiction

[ Posted Monday, August 13th, 2007 – 17:18 UTC ]

[Unlike the President, Congress, the Iraqi Parliament, and the entire workforce of France, I do not get a month's vacation in August. But I may occasionally write pieces like this one, so you'll just have to forgive me.]


This article should properly be titled "What's Wrong With Science Fiction Movies And Television," or even "Science Fiction Fan Bill Of Rights Should Be Imposed On Hollywood," or possibly "Chris Goes On A Rant." I rejected these for various reasons, but they more accurately convey my purpose.

I write this in a likely futile effort to instruct directors, writers, and producers of science fiction entertainment of some basic scientific facts which they have been ignoring. These issues are ones that Hollywood blatantly ignores, not just once or twice, but in almost every science fiction movie or television show they make. Which is a shame, because if handled properly, they could become essential plot elements. Or at least minimally scientifically accurate.

Now, I realize that certain scientific facts about space travel have to be sacrificed for literary reasons. Not many people would go see a movie on space travel that accurately describes how mind-crushingly boring it will likely be. The fact is that even a manned mission to one of our outer planets (to one of the moons of Saturn or Jupiter, for instance) would take years to make, and that doesn't exactly make for gripping television. So some facts have to be jettisoned for the sake of the art form.

But what I'm talking about are things that would not challenge the art form much, if at all. So here is my "top four" list of things Hollywood gets wrong over and over again.


In space, no one can hear.

This, for those old enough to remember, was the beginning to the tagline for the original Alien movie: "In space, no one can hear you scream." The ad campaign for this movie was one of the slickest of all time, it should be noted, and generated an immense amount of anticipation.

But the beginning of this is a true statement that Hollywood just ignores. There is no noise is space. "No one can hear" because there is no sound to hear. It's a vacuum -- which sound does not travel through.

No one can hear you fire weapons, no one can hear your engines going "whoosh," no one can hear explosions, no one can hear anything in space. Repeat after me: "No one can hear."

Almost without exception, whenever space ships (large or small) are shown in space, the viewer is put at a distance, listening to engines rumble, weapons PING or ZAP or CHOW-CHOW-CHOW, and explosions satisfyingly go BOOM! This needs to end.

The single example of Hollywood getting it right (as far as I am aware, please let me know about any others...) was Joss Wheden's show Firefly. He handled it perfectly. If you are onboard a pressurized ship or in a pressurized suit, you will only be able to hear things that happen to your ship or suit. In other words, if you're onboard the ship, you can hear the ship's engines. If you're in a space suit floating outside the ship, the only thing you will hear is your own breathing and your own heartbeat. Whenever the "omnipotent" point of view was used, Wheden had classical music play and no other sound at all. In one memorable episode, a space-suited figure fires a shotgun at a space ship, all in perfect silence. Except for the classical music, which I guess, since we're being omnipotent, is being played by angels (or something). But it worked beautifully. Not hearing the sounds the viewer has come to expect was the shocking thing. And, like I said, it was beautifully done.

Even 2001: A Space Odyssey (one of the best films ever which attempted to pay attention to the science) got this wrong and has engine noise in space.


Can you see a bullet fly?

That seems like a stupid question. "No," you say, "of course you can't see a bullet fly from a gun, it's traveling too fast." OK, but bullets' velocity is measured in meters (or feet, if you insist) per second. So why can you see "bolts" of light from a futuristic gun or "blaster"?

Light, after all, travels over 186,000 miles per second. It takes light about 1.2 seconds to get from the Earth to the moon (Wikipedia has a cute little graphic showing this).

Nonetheless, almost every science fiction movie gets this absolutely wrong. Star Wars should probably be blamed for much of this misrepresentation, which can be seen whenever Han Solo fires his blaster. Little bolts of light make their leisurely way across the room (obviously moving much much slower than, say, bullets) and then hit whatever Han's aiming at. The evil Stormtroopers' guns fire the same meandering bolts of light, except (of course) they're spectacularly bad shots, so they never seem to hit anything.

In space battles between ships, these bolts of light behave much as tracer bullets do in today's weapons. There are three things wrong with this behavior. (1) They would not be seen by the human eye as "bolts" of light, they would be seen as a line of light, much like you see a laser beam. The original Star Trek television show actually got this right with the Enterprise's phasers -- which almost always shot a continuous beam of light at their target. (2) Light travels at the speed of light (duh), which means you couldn't see a short burst like this at all, you'd just see a momentary flash of light -- not cute little "bolts" that arc their way across space to find the enemy ships. The human eye simply cannot follow the speed of light. (3) Beam, bolt, whatever, you wouldn't see anything in space at all. Try this sometime. Turn off all the lights in a room, and shine a flashlight at the wall. Unless your house is extremely dusty, you don't see any "beam" at all -- you just see a spot of light on the wall. The light has to have something (dust motes) to reflect off of, or you just don't see it. This is why at rock concerts, they pump out lots of dry ice fog behind and above the band -- so you can see the spotlights' beams. Otherwise you wouldn't see these beams at all.

So why does everyone get it wrong? Because it "looks cool," I guess. This one you could argue would affect the art form, and should be left off the list, but I disagree.


You cannot make a U-turn in space.

Spaceships do not make U-turns. They just don't. This comes from everyone in the industry thinking that flying a spaceship ought to be like driving a car. It isn't. Because there is no friction in space.

Picture an ice skater. Picture him as a speed skater. He gets going as fast as he can, then his skates slip out from under him. What happens? He skids across the ice at high speed. But he also tries to change direction, or slow down. But he can't.

Anyone who has ever lost control of a car on slick ice knows this, too. Both the skater flailing around and you turning your steering wheel does not affect what direction, or what speed you are traveling. Because ice is almost frictionless.

Now picture that spaceship making a U-turn. The original television series Battlestar Galactica was probably the worst offender at constantly showing this, but certainly not the only one. The spaceship is in a worse position than even our skater, because ice (and air resistance) will eventually slow you down in your slide. In space, nothing will slow you down. Say you blast your jets for five minutes and get up to a speed of X. You suddenly remember you left the stove on, so you have to get back home. What you would do is stop blasting your jets and precess your ship (i.e., flip it 180 degrees). Your ship now points the way home, but you are still traveling at X speed backwards. So you blast your jets again, for twice as long as you did in the first place. After the first five minutes, this will bring you to a complete stop, then the second five minutes of blasting sends you back home at a speed of X (or "negative X" if you prefer vectors). Performing this maneuver in any other way is just stupid.

Likewise, there is no such thing as "space brakes." Star Trek (mostly the later shows and movies) gets this one wrong over and over again. If you are traveling at, say, half the speed of light, and you turn off your engines, your spaceship does not stop dead in space. It continues traveling at half the speed of light. Forever. Or until it smacks into a planet or a star or something.


What time is it?

Everyone gets this one wrong. There are two ways movies get this wrong, one conventional, and one Einsteinian.

If we sent a manned mission to Mars, and they got there successfully, we could not hold a conversation with them in any normal sense of the word. Houston mission control could get on the radio and say "Hello there Mars base, how's it going?" Because of the distance involved, this message would zip along at the speed of light for something like twenty minutes before the Marstronauts heard it.

When they did hear it, they could radio back, "Everything's fine, there's even a Starbucks on the corner here." This message would also take twenty minutes to travel back to Earth. Houston gets their reply forty minutes after they first asked the question. And every exchange in this "conversation" would have the same forty-minute gap. So Houston radios back, "A Starbucks? Are you guys high, or what?" but by the time the message gets there the Marstronauts are dead, since the Martians masquerading as a Starbucks store have eaten them in the meantime.

Unless you posit a faster-than-light radio (or "ansible" if you're a fan of Ursula K. LeGuin), this lag time is never seen in the movies, or very rarely at best. Which is a shame, because you could use it for all sorts of plot twists.

The second failing is to consider Einsteinian time dilation. If a starship leaves Earth for the Centauri system (four light-years away), travels near the speed of light and gets there in 10 years, then turns around and heads back, to the people on the ship 20 years will have passed. On Earth, however, 45 years may have passed. When you travel near or (assuming warp travel) greater than the speed of light, your shiptime will not be the same as the time rate on the planet you left.

But nobody even considers this time dilation aspect of space travel in movies or TV. Which, again, is a shame, because you could write all sorts of interesting plots around it. The best examples of this from science fiction books are probably Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars, or Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.


That's it for my list. If you've got any of your own peeves, I'd love to hear them.


[Consider this whole column "light summer reading," and I promise I'll get back to serious stuff later in the week.]


-- Chris Weigant


12 Comments on “A Frivolous Summer Column On Science Fiction”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Hi Chris,

    I'm with you all the way on this one! What I want to know is when they show "worm holes" in the movies where you can jump from point A to point X in the blink of an eye - is that accurate according to our science today?


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I got one right off the bat and then I am crashing.. I'll come up with some more tomorrow.

    The new Battlestar Galactica has some space scenes that are really killer... It's like you say.. There isn't hardly any sound.. And the way their ships fly it's like they are really in space.. The flip in all sorts of vectors and still travel in the same line until such time as they hit their thrusters to move in a different direction..

    Now, in the later episodes, they seem to have gotten away from this, but the early episodes of the new BSG really stand out as far as how they depict space..

    As much as it pains me to say it (I have a personal beef with Ron Moore, one of the producers of BSG. It's a long story..) I have to admit that he has done some pretty incredible things with BSG..

    If you are not following it now, I highly recommend you catch a few of the early episodes.. I think you will be as impressed as I was..

    Just let me close tonight by also pointing out that (if my memory doesn't fail me here) there was a series called "The Stainless Steel Rat" that also addressed the issue of time vis a vis interplanetary war...

    But if you read many of the Star Trek novels (I know they are not canon, but they still have a lot of good info) the concept of Warp Drive addresses the Einsteinian conflict of space/time... I would recommend THE FINAL FRONTIER and FEDERATION for more info on that...

    Anyways.. Hasta :D


  3. [3] 
    jlapper wrote:

    Well, it's been a while since I've commented here as writing about and promoting movies has become a full time venture - and here you are writing about movies. How fortuitous.

    Now with 2001 I have never heard any sound in space in it and I've seen it well over twenty times. There is music when the ships are seen from outside and engine noise when inside. But when Poole is floating free in space there is no noise - nada. And when Bowman ejects himself into the airlock not a sound is heard until air once again enters the chamber.

    As for time-dilation this is portrayed in Close Encounters as the pilots from flight 19 exit the mother ship after having been taken over thiry years prior yet they are not thirty years older.

    And fstanley, a theoretical wormhole would allow you to jump from one locale to another but Dr. Hawking has surmised that any wormhole in existence would not be large enough to accommodate much more than a proton. It would not be a large swirling whirlpool locked into a specific postion.


    Good to see you're still a regular poster here.

    Oh, and one more thing. I can't stand it when filmmakers make computers perform extraordinary functions far beyond their programming capabilities. Case in point - Star Trek IV where Scotty sits down at a computer that can't have more than a 500 mb harddrive and surely no keyboard/graphic interface and quickly designs an animated model of transparent aluminum. Uh huh, yeah. Computer, oh computer - a keyboard, how quaint.

    Jonathan Lapper

  4. [4] 
    CWCunningham wrote:

    I've got two things, one science fiction, and one about those cop shows.

    The likelihood of aliens having 2 eyes, 2 hands and walking upright are pretty slim. I suppose this might be tough to get around since 4 armed actors demand higher pay. On the upside, visiting aliens can shop for clothes at the mall.

    Off topic, but to this day, I always laugh at those cop shows where they desperately try to keep the bad guy talking on the phone in an attempt to trace the call. Maybe the new warrantless wiretapping laws were really all about letting Hollywood law enforcement use caller ID like everybody else.

    I'll do a cartoon about that someday, maybe saturmday.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Jonathon -

    I admit I may be wrong about 2001, I wrote that from memory. But in one of the longshots... I believe it was the first longshot of Discovery (the first time you see the Jupiter mission ship)... you see the stately ship moving through space, and I believe you can hear the engines rumbling.

    I remember it because I was so disappointed. You are correct, though, the rest of the movie is extremely accurate. When Poole and Bowman are in space suits, you (correctly) only hear them breathing, nothing more. Arthur C. Clarke had a lot to do with the making of this movie (the movie was done before the book was finished, if I remember correctly), which is why they actually paid attention to the scientific aspects.

    But I fully admit I could be wrong about the engine noise. I'll have to rent it and see it again.

    Also, I had forgotten about the Close Encounters shot. You're right -- they didn't make a big deal out of it, but the people had not aged. Good example!!

    fstanley, Jonathon is right, wormholes are theoretically possible (I think Hawking is a big fan of them), but getting a space ship through them would likely be impossible, due to the crushing gravity effects.

    Jonathon also points out the "magic computer" fallacy which is used EVERYWHERE, not just in strictly sci-fi movies. The mistake that bugs me no end is that on screen NOBODY EVER USES A MOUSE! The computer whiz turns to the computer, starts typing madly (clickety clickety click!) and the computer then forecasts the winner of the World Series (or whatever). But nobody ever touches a mouse, because it doesn't make a cool sound effect. Grrr!!

    Michale -

    I actually wrote this after finishing watching the first season of the new BSG. You are right, they try more than most do -- I love watching the ships precess and flip around. But they still get two things wrong -- the Vipers are ALWAYS blasting (falling into the "if the engines aren't on, the ship must not be moving" trap), and yes, I did see several U-turns during the first season. They just couldn't help themselves, I guess...

    Anyway, thanks to all for commenting. Live long and prosper. May the force be with you.


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To all -

    There are a few more comments about this article on another blog which may interest you. Check it out.


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    German Scientists Claim To Have Broken The Speed Of Light..


  8. [8] 
    clarkman wrote:

    You've omitted one of the most egregious blunders of filmic SF: gravity, or the lack thereof in outer space. Too many movies and TV shows simply equate zero-gee with vacuum.

    How many times do we see zero-gee outside the airlock door while there's always one full Earth-gee just a few inches inside the hull of a spaceship?

    I know F/X and set design people here in LA, and they point out that zero-gee scenes can astronomically increase the cost of a movie. You have to string actors up on wires, and/or do lots of CGI for the effect (or, as Ron Howard did on APOLLO 13, build a spaceship set inside a vomit-comet and take your actors and film crew on a weightless joyride).

    One convenient but lame way to cover this is to have a character blurt something like: "Thank Zod we've got one of those artificial gravity machines!" This provided some of the only meaningful techno-babble on the various incarnations of STAR TREK, for example.

    The 1990s syndicated TV show BABYLON 5 had Earth spaceships (and the titular space station) utilizing a centrifugal spin to generate gravity. Sure, they encountered many alien races with magic gravity machines, but it was nice to see a show where, even in the far future, we humans are still subject to laws of physics.

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    clarkman -

    You're right. I almost included this one, truth be told. I would have put it as "the ship's gotta SPIN if you stick to the floor" or some such.

    But Star Trek has their "gravity plating" (which they used to good effect in one of the movies, the zero-G assassiation scene, forget which movie it was). If you posit that (1) we still don't understand why gravity works, and hunt for the elusive "gravitron"; and (2) breakthroughs are possible -- then you can project that we might solve the problem some day. Maybe.

    But only INSIDE the ship. You are right about that. Once you don a space suit and exit the ship, you should float.

    I do understand that it's expensive to do, though, which is a mitigating factor, and also that when you do it half-assed, the result looks pretty cheesy. See David Bowie's music video for "Major Tom" for an example of the cheesiest zero-G you've ever seen.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting!


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:


    Chris, Chris, Chris....

    Michale shakes his head sadly

    >But Star Trek has their "gravity plating"
    >(which they used to good effect in one of
    >the movies, the zero-G assassiation scene,
    >forget which movie it was).

    That was Star Trek VI THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, probably one of the BEST Trek Movies of all time..

    You are hereby suspended from wearing a TREKKER tag for 1 week and may the gods have mercy on your soul!!

    For the record, it was on a KLINGON ship and, as everyone OBVIOUSLY knows, Klingon technology is highly inferior... :^/

    You can also refer to STAR TREK VIII, FIRST CONTACT for an interesting take on this.. They actually had Picard, Worf and "Hawk" (A really good actor from the series TRAVELER and the movie TIMELINE) walking on the outside of the Enterprise-("there are lots more letters in the alphabet")-E and even walking upside down...


  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Hey, all I remember was that the blood was purple! And that it was a cool effect to show the blood floating as spheres (droplets) in the air, and then fall to the deck suddenly as the gravity was restored.

    But you also need to turn in your phaser for a week -- they were walking on the outside of the Enterprise using magnetic boots, not gravity plating, weren't they?



  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    Touche' :D


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