Why Gravity loses its pull

It’s called science fiction: Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Gravity


With the 2014 Academy Awards presentations taking place next week, this seems like a good time to look at science as depicted in movies, both present and past.

I enjoy intelligent movies with astronomical or space themes, such as Gravity, which is up for 10 Oscars this year including best direction and best picture. At least one reviewer called it the best space movie since 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the acknowledged clubhouse leader. Wow!

Excitedly, I went to IMAX to see Gravity in 3D on the huge screen. The opening tracking shot of astronauts working in Earth orbit, which continued for about 18 minutes, was superb. By the film’s end however, I left disappointed.

Sure, Gravity was beautifully shot; especially the opening. The scripting was taut, production values were high and the acting was excellent. But the basic premise that underscores the movie and propels the action along – debris from the Russian satellite explosion coming around every 90 minutes to wallop the astronauts – just wouldn’t happen. It’s an error as large as the IMAX screen.

Here’s why. Yes, most objects in low Earth orbit, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, where the astronauts were, and the supposed defunct Russian satellite, do complete one orbit every 90 minutes. The mistake is in thinking that the astronauts and the Hubble were stationary , while the debris from the satellite came around every 90 minutes to pound them.

In fact, all would be orbiting and would not ever come into contact with each other. This is a huge gaffe.

Glen Mackie, from the Swinburne University Astrophysics Department, agrees. ”Rather than debris from the satellite, there’s more potential danger from a meteor; and though more plausible, a meteor is still a highly unlikely scenario,” he says.

It set me thinking about other movies I’ve seen containing howlers; my shelves are full of them. None come out unscathed. Even 2001 has problems, mainly with the phases of the moon (and Earth) where they change within seconds from first quarter to last quarter. Plus, the director Stanley Kubrick has put the stars in the sky as seen from the moon’s surface, unlike their absence in the real Apollo footage from the lunar landing sites.

The most common mistake in other films can be found in the opening scene of Star Wars – the slow flyby of the enormous spaceship as it rumbles past. It can also be found in every thundering explosion or screech of weapons fire. In each of these cases, you would hear nothing of the sound they made. Sound requires a medium through which it can travel, such as an atmosphere or water. Their absence in space is ignored in most movies and television serials, in which sounds miraculously reach out via a vacuum.

The lack of an atmosphere in space appears to be no obstacle to filmmakers. In The Revenge of the Sith, for example, the distant stars still twinkle, spaceships make banking turns and the villainous General Grievous has a cape that flaps in the vacuum of space. None of these things would happen in space – they require an atmosphere.

It leads one to think an F in year 7 science is the qualification that guarantees a gig in Hollywood.

In the same film, the force of gravity is totally misunderstood or used inappropriately. During the opening battle scenes, the ship carrying Obi-Wan, Annikin and the Chancellor loses its artificial gravity in an explosion, yet nobody floats off and hovers above the floor. Instead, everybody slides downwards along the floor in the direction of the ship’s tilt. What?

Meanwhile, in more than 700 episodes of the Star Trek TV series and its spinoffs, we’ve seen breakdowns of every system possible. But we’ve never seen the artificial gravity machine break down. It’s infallible and impervious to any weapon, no matter how advanced their adversary. Even when most of the Enterprise is blown away, this system still continues to work.

It can never be switched off, either. In the latest instalment, Star Trek Into Darkness, there is a climactic scene in which the Enterprise is tilted at an awkward angle and Kirk is falling. We’re on the edge of our seats in fear for his safety, but nobody thinks to turn off the artificial gravity machine to save our falling hero.

Let’s not only reference the popular franchises, because basic science is also misunderstood in movies with a more serious intent.

Contact, from 1997, is an excellent science fiction movie. It’s based on the book of the same name by hot-shot astronomer Carl Sagan. Nothing wrong with the source material, but in the journey to the screen, errors have crept in.

The heroine, played by Jodie Foster, is searching for alien civilisations by using radio telescopes and listening with headphones, as though it was an alien radio station pumping out the hits.

John Lattanzio, director of Monash University’s Centre for Astrophysics, says: ”In reality, powerful computers are used to monitor hundreds of thousands of channels simultaneously, and humans listening with headphones is complete nonsense.”

Then, in a flashback to her childhood, she and her father have set up telescopes to observe a meteor shower. This is totally wrong; when observing meteor showers, telescopes are never used – only naked eyes – because you need to see as much of the sky as possible; no one can predict the exact spot a meteor will appear in. Even if you could, the meteor moves too quickly to be followed by a telescope.

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is another highly rated example. Despite superlative acting, high production values and superior drama, it seems the filmmakers ran out of money before they could hire a consulting astronomer who knew the features of the moon. In every scene where a lunar feature is named by one of the protagonists, the feature displayed on screen does not match and is a totally different feature, hundreds of kilometres away, with no resemblance to the one in question.

These are only some examples, and there are much worse films; 2001: A Space Odyssey is still the benchmark for depicting space well.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke got much of it right.

Most of the others didn’t let the science facts get in the way of a good story.

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