Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More Hollywood Antiscience

I don't want to harp too much on Hollywood's screenwriters; it's not like they have degrees in astrophysics or anything. They just want interesting plot devices for their stories, and they usually don't have the time or inclination to consult a qualified expert, even if they knew one, to see if their ideas are scientifically plausible. Consequently, they write scientifically preposterous plot devices that require great acts of suspension of disbelief from anyone with a scientific background. Now, I'm not saying that gross misrepresentations well-established laws of physics should keep you from enjoying the programs; I enjoy watching them myself. Just don't be fooled into thinking that there's a scientific clue being exercised in the writing studio, even if the show claims to be a "hard science fiction show". All that said, let's look at a couple of repetitive anti-science cliches that have come out of the TV industry.

Time Stopping

This is the supernatural ability of the character Hiro in the NBC series Heroes, as well as a plot point in Star Trek episodes like "Wink of an Eye" from the original series and "Timescape" from The Next Generation.

The plot gimmick in these shows is that time somehow stops or gets slowed tremendously for some characters while continuing normally for others. This means that you have some characters walking around and interacting normally with the environment while the rest are "frozen" by comparison.

Unfortunately, Hollywood writers never consider the consequences of someone experiencing time at a rate hundreds or thousands of times greater than others. As Mike Wong has pointed out on his website in relation to Star Trek, all kinds of things are time dependent that science fiction TV writers don't think about.

For example, the light by which we see is actually time dependent. A 100-watt lightbulb, for instance, is defined by the fact that it converts 100 joules of energy from electrical current into heat and light every second. If a hero alters time so that he's moving 1000 times faster than everyone else, then all the 100-watt bulbs he might be using to see become -- from his point of view -- 0.1-watt lightbulbs, and he's suddenly wandering about in the dark.

Interacting with the environment doesn't stop with sight, either. If you're going 1000 times faster than everyone else, you experience 1000 times as much air resistance as everyone else. From your perspective, the air might feel as thick as water (or worse). Even if your time-bending ability allowed you to move through the air normally, the friction created by your passing would create a super-heated shockwave wherever you went that would blast everyone you walked by (and you, too, when you allowed yourself to return to "normal" speed). If you exert five pounds of force to move an object, that object will actually experience five thousand pounds of force in normal time (which would be sufficient to damage many things you might want to move).

And finally, if you literally "stop time" for everything else, you can't do anything. You can't see, because no light is reaching your eyes. You can't move, because the immobile air is an impenetrable barrier. Actually stopping time would just be an exercise in sensory deprivation (until you suffocate from lack of oxygen, that is).

Sudden Evolution

Offenders in this category include the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Transfigurations", the Babylon 5 episode "Mind War", and the B5 TV movie River of Souls. These shows all describe an "evolutionary" change in which living beings of some alien race of the week transform in a bright flash from ordinary flesh-and-blood humanoids into "pure energy" beings who fly away into space (or do other things that only pure-energy beings could do).

To put it bluntly, such a transformation is not "evolutionary". In fact, it's the total opposite of evolution. If the general public got their understanding of the Theory of Evolution from shows like this, it's no wonder that they don't take the theory seriously. Evolution is about tiny variations that accumulate over the course of many generations, not dramatic changes in living examples of a species.

Moral of the Story

If you go to Hollywood for scientific understanding, you become the blind following the blind.


Anonymous said...

I saw one once where the nazis were supposed to have killed millions of jews in magical physics defying gas-chambers, thousands a day. The germans were depicted as evil monsters bent on destroying the world. I think it was Swindler's List or something like that. Anyway, take care!

Lord Runolfr said...

Wow! A holocaust-denying troll! That's a new one for the Saga. Where's my sword?

Bronze Dog said...

I wonder just what unspecified laws of physics those gas chambers defied. Care to elaborate?

Back on topic: I love Star Trek, but I avoid taking it seriously.

Martijn said...

re Sudden Evolution
The term is used inapproprately, but the actual event is less unscientific than it might seem if you call it metamorphosis and compare it to the process which changes caterpillars into butterflies or to the Mexican Axolotl, which changes from a neotene form to an adult when there's a lack of water. I agree that the knowledge of the gereral public regarding evolution is as deplorably lacking as water is for a full-grown Axolotl.

The Science Pundit said...

THe misuse of evolution in Star Trek that always bothered me most, was the idea of "directed evolution." As in "This species hasn't yet evolved the ability to ..." or "That society hasn't evolved the ..." As if our species and our society were the inevitable end product of evolution.

Lord Runolfr said...

Confusing metamorphosis with evolution may be common, but it's a huge blunder. Metamorphosis happens in practically all species, although for many it occurs in the womb.

The notion that the human form is somehow the "goal" of the evolutionary process is a typical piece of Star Trek inaccuracy. At least they eventually came up with the excuse that the "humanoid" prejudice is the result of alien intervention (in the episode "The Chase", if it matters to anyone).

David Harmon said...

Regarding time-stopping, the air-resistance issues go away if you assume the effect extends to a buffer zone around the person. Of course, you still have to worry about exhausting the local oxygen supply (and leaving a trail of depleted air behind you to choke people afterwards).

The light-supply issue is tougher, and there are many questions regarding interacting with normal-time objects (extending out of your buffer zone).

Star Trek in general, took Clarke's 3rd Law of Technology rather too literally, with advanced devices and beings following the traditional rules of outright magic. On the other hand, it gets some credit for consistently treating "gods" merely as "very powerful creatures".

Anonymous said...

There was a Wild, Wild, West episode involving hyperaccelerated people (it could have been "The Night of the Burning Diamond", as most episodes seemed to be named "The Night of the X", and diamonds featured in the story line). That one at least mentioned air resistance; it didn't cover the problems of the speed of sound or gravity or inertia or light.

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story--"All the Time in the World", I think--where an alien technology created a bubble of accelerated time. Presumably the boundary of this bubble somehow dealt with the problems of substances entering and leaving the bubble. Presumably the alien technology also took care of the light source problem.

Larry Niven had a Gil the ARM story involving a bubble of accelerated time. He dealt with the light problem (light going in was downshifted to radar, but light going out was upshifted to X-rays, and made a nasty weapon).