This post brought to you in part by Requires Only That You Hate’s recent links post, who linked to this review of ‘Hitman: Absolution’, which links to the Prometheus link.
Although I haven’t seen it, I just read a really good article on the science of the newest Aliens movie, Prometheus. It contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it or if it bothers you to read spoilers before you see a movie, don’t click. This is “Fixing Prometheus” by Mike Brotherton. This brings me to something that has recently bugged the hell out of me.
I understand that science fiction is fiction. I am willing to suspend my disbelief in certain aspects. After all, I read fantasy all the time. But within both science fiction AND fantasy, it is important to be internally consistent. If you establish a fact, you have to keep it until the end, unless you have some reasonably plausible explanation. And in science fiction and in some fantasy (set in OUR world or in a version of our world that leaves some or all of the science intact), you can’t just ignore current science because it’s convenient. You can extrapolate to future science/engineering. You can extrapolate to future applications of CURRENT science/engineering. But you can’t take the current stuff and just have it magically have a different outcome/result/application than is allowed by physics. Not only will you make some of your audience either chew through their tongues keeping quiet or start yelling at the screen (depending on if viewing at a theater or at home), but you often make people believe things about science that AREN’T TRUE.
As a nuclear/aerospace engineer (my degrees are nuclear, but I minored in aerospace and all of my research that I’ve done voluntarily, rather than assigned by a class or for money, has been in nuclear space propulsion), most of my angst comes from the use of “nuclear” to mean “magical stuff we don’t want to think about”, although there are occasionally bits of aerospace stuff or just general science – I can’t watch MythBusters for this reason. They don’t do actual science because they don’t use the scientific method, which has led to at least one of their conclusions being wrong. In determining if rolling a car’s windows down vs running the AC mattered to gas mileage, they only used a single, non-highway speed. Since the effect of having the windows down is going to change non-linearly with speed (not exactly sure what it would do with turns…that would take more math than I’m willing to dust off), not only can they not make that call based on a SINGLE DATA POINT, they couldn’t even make a complete determination of efficiency with TWO points. There are other episodes where their conclusion is likely right, but for the wrong reasons. Thus, I annoy the hell out of anyone I’m watching the show with when I start arguing with the TV.
In a brilliant, historical example of the damage the misuse of science can do, the movie The China Syndrome was released 12 days before the Three Mile Island partial meltdown. The movie (totally not worth watching – go watch Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb if you want a good nuclear disaster movie. My college chapter of the American Nuclear Society watched both and were terribly disappointed with The China Syndrome), combined with a complete lack of any clue about how nuclear anything works, contributed to the fear of what was happening at TMI. In the movie, the concept of the “China Syndrome” is that in the worst case of a meltdown, components would melt through the containment and into the earth “all the way to China”. This is wrong, on multiple levels. Not only would a meltdown NOT go through the earth, but a meltdown alone wouldn’t even make it through the containment (case in point: THREE MILE ISLAND). Chernobyl had no containment beyond the immediate reactor vessel (along with design flaws that made the reactor more likely to have problems and which made the tests that caused the explosion – which was NOT a nuclear explosion, it just spread a lot of nuclear material around in the STEAM explosion) and the issues in Japan from the earthquake/tsunami weren’t caused by a meltdown. Damage to components in that caused the meltdown, not the other way around (also, while there was detectable increases in radiation readings in the area, if you’re concerned about them, you should probably not consider moving to Denver or other high-altitude areas. You should also refrain from eating bananas and brazil nuts – you can find them with a geiger counter! Easier than you can find uranium and plutonium, too.)
And this brings me to, most recently, The Dark Knight Rises. Warning: this goes a bit long, since the issues in it hit on several levels of irritation at both public policy, the use of “nuclear”, and the utter lack of understanding of what “nuclear” is. Apparently, when taking me to see the movie, the ex knew I was going to get angry at the screen when this came up…Also, my use of parenthetical thoughts gets a bit out of hand, so I’ve put all of them in green to try to make it easier to follow.
Here there be spoilers!