Science WAY Fiction 2/20/10


By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Not to long ago, I was watching a certain movie about an elite military squad based on a toy line that I used to mutilate as a child. The story line was bad enough. Apparently, this elite squad couldn’t stop their nemeses on open ground, in the city, in their own base, but could be victorious in the base of the enemy. Anyway, that’s just a writer’s way of building up tension for the final battle, but what the enemy did bugged me.

See, the base was built underneath the polar ice cap. As they realized that their base was lost, and the big wigs abandoned the base, they wanted to destroy the base, and hopefully the good guys along with it. To do this, the blew up the ice cap, so the ice would fall and take out the base.

Yes, that’s right. They blew up the ice cap, and the massive ice chunks fell down in the water exactly the way that ice doesn’t.

In fictional pieces, there is something called “suspension of disbelief.” This means that our minds let certain things slip by without really noticing it because, after all, it’s entertainment. This is an important thing. In a certain space adventure franchise, their ships can travel many times faster than the speed of light, their weapons apparently vaporize the target, and they can “de-materialize” matter in one location and “re-materialize” it elsewhere. I can forgive these flights of fancy, because they conveniently clean up many problems that would occur in reality, such as the millions of years of travel to go from one galaxy to another, or the laborious details of using shuttle craft to land on planets or link up with other ship portals, or bodies left behind after a major battle. But, ice falling down through the ocean? Is this the best writers that high budget movie productions can afford?

It’s getting to the point where some things are becoming so common that it’s barely worth mentioning. A certain British spy movie featured a helicopter, tilting at about a forty-five degree angle to slowly mangle pedestrians with the blade as it skimmed along the ground. Is it possible to do this with a helicopter blade? Well, sure, but with a simple understanding of vectors, it becomes comical to think of the helicopter moving so slowly.

Another movie franchise involving, apparently, a bunch of driving featured a driver bringing a huge cargo helicopter down by shooting it with a rope from the ground and dragging the helicopter down with the car. Seriously? A cargo helicopter of that size, brought down by a car?

This is a common theme for movies with helicopters and “tough guys”. As the helicopter is taking off, the super strong hero (and here I mean muscle-bound, not strong smelling, although it could be both) grabs hold of the landing gear. Then, with shear strength, prevent the helicopter from taking off because, what, they’re so…strong. I guess. But the problem is that, it doesn’t matter how strong the hero might be; the maximum force that the hero can use to hold that helicopter down is the hero’s own weight. If the hero were trying to hold on to some kind of anchor, that would be a different story, which would be far-fetched enough, but it would at least give “suspension of disbelief” a fighting chance.

Seriously, why don’t big movie writers work with physicists?!?

Back in 1979, I was actually thrown out of a theater. I was sixteen at the time, but, no, I was not thrown out for any of the usual reasons. This move was produced by a huge movie production company, and was their first foray into “serious” science fiction. The movie was named after a certain astronomical feature from which no light can escape, but, apparently, physics can. The movie was bad enough from start to finish, but I really lost it when the asteroid smashed through the hull of the ship. It was bad enough that the air didn’t immediately escape into the vacuum of space through this gaping hole, but instead of smashing straight through the ship, it actually hit the floor of a long hallway, and began rolling and bouncing along it. Apparently, my laughter was “too distracting”. I found the lack of a refund distracting, myself.

Apparently, the US is currently ranked 24th, out of 72, in STEM education throughout the world. This means that roughly 1/3 of the world is ranked higher in science than the US (and we are far worse in mathematics). I’m not blaming entertainment for this problem, but it does seem to be a symptom of the lack of concern for science and mathematics. How is it that we have come to a point in our society that people will pay money to watch ice fall through water? Why can’t we hold each other to higher standards?

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