Last week I snagged a seat for a fun event called “Out of This World: The Science of Space Movies,” held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles (i.e., the people who hand out the Oscars every year).
It was hosted by Adam Weiner, a high school physics teacher in La Jolla, San Diego and author of Don’t Try This at Home: The Physics of Hollywood Movies, which grew out of his use of science fiction films in class to illustrate physics concepts. So he was a great choice to spearhead an evening of science-themed film clips, punctuated with his explanations and several special guests (in person and via Skype) from both science and Hollywood.
Really, it was a lot like a stroll through memory lane for sci-fi’s greatest movie hits, many of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. Weiner kicked off with a scene from an early silent film, Dans La Voyage de La Lune, based on a Jules Verne novel, in which a group of scientists — looking like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings with their long white beards and academic robes — pile into a capsule and are shot out of a cannon to get to the moon.
It seems ridiculous by modern science’s standards, but the film was made in 1902, when we still knew very little about the universe, and when scientists hadn’t really given much thought to minor things like Earth’s escape velocity:
The first challenge for getting into space is how to get a rocket off the ground, and in principle, a cannon would serve that basic purpose — unless you wanted the “astronauts” to survive.
According to Weiner, they’d need to reach 11.2 kilometers per second in that cannon, which translates into a force of 6270 g’s — or 1 million pounds. Our valiant explorers would have been flattened to mush long before they reached the moon. (Gratuitous physics joke, via Twitter: “Yo’ mamma’s so fat the escape velocity at her surface exceeds 1040 km/h.”)
Hence the subsequent development of rockets, brought vividly to life in the film, October Sky, based on the real-life adventures of rocket pioneers like Homer Hickham. Weiner showcased one scene in particular, where the teenage Homer is accused of setting fire to a nearby township three miles away with one of his rockets gone astray.
He proves his innocent using calculus to determine the rocket’s parabolic trajectory (S = 1/2at2, for those who are mathematically inclined), concluding it couldn’t have traveled further than 1.2 miles — which was, in fact, where they found one of the rockets.
There was a clip from my all-time favorite space film, Apollo 13, and some commentary via Skype from NASA astronaut Gerald Griffin, who also served as technical advisor on the film (and for Contact), as well as Jeffrey Hoffman, the first NASA astronaut to log 1000 hours aboard the Space Shuttle.
The “weightless” scenes were famously shot aboard NASA’s “weightless wonder” (more popularly known as the “vomit comet”), and provided an excellent opportunity to discuss parabolic trajectories, why liquids form into spheres in zero gravity, and the equivalence principle. Weiner also uses the scene where the accident occurs to talk to his students about short circuits, Ohm’s Law, and why one tiny oversight caused such a very big problem aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft.
From there, Weiner took us on a tour of more advanced/exotic physics, using Planet of the Apes to talk about special relativity and time dilation; how the fictional “gravity drive” outlined in 1997′s Event Horizon (an otherwise forgettable film) could avoid the problem of time dilation; how a rotating cylinder on a spacecraft might create “artificial gravity” as depicted in Mission to Mars; and some hypothetical scenarios for building the “warp drive” made famous by the Star Trek franchise.
Of course, not every film uses science correctly, or well, and Weiner couldn’t resist poking a bit of good-natured fun at some of the more egregious examples of “Hollywood science.”
For instance, even assuming the space cowboys of Armageddon succeeded in landing on a moving asteroid, there wouldn’t be any gravity, or an atmosphere, on said asteroid. Furthermore, in order to actually explode an asteroid the size of Texas, they would need 18,500,000 atomic bombs — not just one.
There’s more: the invading alien species of Independence Day really didn’t need the laser death ray to destroy the White House and other landmarks. Weiner calculates that their massive hovering spacecraft would exert 300 atmospheres of pressure on any structures directly underneath — more than sufficient to lay them to waste. And the fictitious “red matter” that destroyed the planet Vulcan in 2009′s Star Trek reboot has been much ridiculed throughout the science blogosphere.
As for Star Wars, well, Weiner is not the first to point out that you had sounds in space, and spacecraft flying aerodynamically — not surprising, since those battle scenes were modeled on old World War II footage of fighter pilot “dogfights,” according to Richard Edlund, a founding member of Industrial Light & Magic who worked on the first three films in that franchise and won an visual effects Oscar in 1977 for his efforts.
Edlund also told of meeting astronaut Neil Armstrong after Star Wars was released and asking him what he thought of the film. Armstrong admitted to being on the edge of his seat: “I was right there with you.” Which just goes to show, good storytelling can make up for a few scientific inaccuracies.
The highlight, however, was the famous opening scene from Contact, which takes us on a journey to the furthest reaches of our universe. I was reminded all over ago again just how tiny and insignificant our pale blue dot really is — which just makes it all the more precious and rare.
Image (top): The “red matter” from Star Trek (Paramount Pictures) and a scene from mission control (bottom) during the real Apollo 13 drama (NASA)