Monday, August 04, 2014

Does being a physicist ruin science fiction for me? Generally, no.

For the past few years, as I've been teaching honors freshman mechanics, I've tried to work in at least one homework problem based on a popular sci-fi movie.  Broadening that definition to include the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I've done Iron Man, Captain America, the Avengers.  Yesterday I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, and I've got a problem in mind already.

I've been asked before, does being a physicist just ruin science fiction books and movies for me?  Does bad physics in movies or sci-fi books annoy me since I can't not see it?  Generally, the answer is "no".  I don't expect Star Trek or Star Wars to be a documentary, and I completely understand why bending physics rules can make a story more fun.  Iron Man would be a lot less entertaining if Tony Stark couldn't build an arc reactor with enough storage capacity and power density to fly long distances.  Trips through outer space that require years of narrative time just to get to Jupiter are less fun than superluminal travel.  If anything, I think well-done science fiction can be creatively inspiring.

One thing that does bug me is internally inconsistent bad physics or bad science.  For example, in the book Prey by Michael Crichton, it's established early on that any tiny breach in a window, etc. is enough for the malevolent nanocritters to get in, yet at the climax of the book the author miraculously forgets this (because if he'd remembered it the protagonist would've died).  Another thing that gets me is trivially avoidable science mistakes.  For example, in a Star Trek:TNG episode (I looked it up - it was this one), they quote a surface temperature less than absolute zero.  I'm happy to serve as a Hollywood science advisor to avoid these problems :-)





9 comments:

Ted Sanders said...

Is a temperature below absolute zero really that crazy? It just means that entropy increases as energy leaves the system.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_temperature

Douglas Natelson said...

Hi Ted - The line in the show says that the planet has a surface temperature of -291 C, which is just a goof. As far as I know, it is not possible to have an equilibrium negative temperature.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Paul McEuen's Spiral? Perhaps, you would like to write your own science fiction.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, I did read Spiral, and I really liked it. It was far better than Prey in every way - just a much more tightly constructed story. The bad guys are extremely competent (except for one very specific little thing at the very end that allows the good guys to win), something which is rarely done in thrillers because it requires real ingenuity by the author.

Anonymous said...

Geordi was just an engineer, after all...

rob said...

i recall a Star Trek episode where the entered a geosynchronous orbit over the north pole.

gilroy0 said...

SO, what was the problem you thought up?

Vasilii Artyukhov said...

Ted: The situation you describe relies on a flawed definition of entropy, see the recent discussion in Nature Physics.
http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v10/n1/full/nphys2831.html
http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v10/n1/full/nphys2815.html

By the way, is it really a requirement that the planet's surface be in equilibrium?

Douglas Natelson said...

Vasilii, good point! I should've said "steady state", and that opens a potential loophole, I suppose. Perhaps the entire planet in question is bizarrely "pumped" into a weird regime of negative temperature, though I can't imagine how one could ever have negative motional temperatures.