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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Storytelling Science

            Okay, Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for seven months and change ago. It’s the end of the spring semester, when I get an email from a former student and friend who invited me to see Neil DeGrasse Tyson, live. I kind of geeked out at the offer. The guy is one of my heroes. I will meet him in person and thank him for all the work he’s done not just in science, but in education, and, well, the world.
            Anyways, I leaped at the opportunity. It was not to be missed, and I was not disappointed. Not long afterwards, I got his book Death by Black Hole—everyone should read or listen to this book, right now! I learned more about science, which is always awesome, heard some great things that he also went over in his show, and I’ve definitely got a bug.
            That bug, as everyone who has looked at my recent posts about science fiction, has been to work out the little details, the ones that can be worked out. In his live show—and the book—Neil poked at the scientific faux pas of films. One of the most famous ones was about the film Titanic, and how they got the stars in the night sky wrong. Not just wrong, but insanely wrong. Someone had taken a random picture, and mirrored it to put it into the film.
            It was lazy and completely avoidable. I don’t want to be that author. Yes, I know I’m going to get things wrong, it’ll happen. I’m human. I don’t claim perfection (wouldn’t want it, anyway). But I think the small details matter more than the big ones.
            Now for a niggle of my own, Interstellar. They promised that the movie would be scientifically correct. This would be hard sci-fi. They brought in people to consult so that the black hole and wormhole looked scientifically correct. And, yes, it did. The effects for the black hole and the wormhole looked great.
            But the rest of the film had a lot of simple problems. The rocket they used to get the ship in orbit was massive, much like a Saturn V. No problem. That ship was pretty big. They’d need that much fuel to get up there. And the rest of the ship was already in orbit. Great. I’m behind that. Cut to descending to the planet near the black hole. Houston, we have a problem. The ship is able to descend and then re-ascend without any kind of assistive propulsion. If that’s the case, why didn’t they send it up without the overly-large rocket?
            That’s just one example of many for this film that completely ruined my enjoyment of it. The science behind the time dilation was completely ruined because the characters, who were supposed to be the brightest engineers and scientists the planet had left, were not very bright.
            Again, my takeaway is to get the small stuff right. I think it’s more important to accurately calculate fuel for a rocket than to worry about the visual effects of a black hole. If I can be correct on a detail, then I should be correct on a detail, as much as I am able.
            Now if only there was a way to get Neil on my speed dial. . . .

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