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Learning Real Science from Sci-Fi Movies
We must face the fact that children get their first exposure to science from science fiction movies. Unfortunately, many Sci-Fi films such as the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens defy the laws of physics to such a degree, that for scientists they are as unbelievable as Harry Potter flying on his broomstick. However, if viewed with a critical eye, there can be a lot to learn from studying the film depiction of science. Here we will analyze the Sci-Fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, MGM). When I was in grade school in the 1970’s, this movie had a profound effect on public education and I still remember a 5th grade lesson about Einstein’s Twin Paradox hypothesis (near speed of light travel slows relativistic time). I was too young then to understand the deeper meanings of this movie, but looking back it must have impressed the teachers who designed this lesson. This was also near the crest of NASA budgeting and our deepest involvement in the space program. The highest intellectual career back then was being a “rocket scientist” (an astrophysicist or aerospace engineer). This year marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The question is should our children’s’ heroes be Han Solo or Albert Einstein?
2001: A Space Odyssey was released in theaters before man stepped on the moon (1969, Neil Armstrong), before the use of Computer-Generated Imagery (1973, Westworld), and before most Star Wars fans were even born (1977, Episode IV). Despite intervening decades of scientific discovery, film-making advancements, and computer technology, it remains the best science fiction movie in terms of realism, prediction of future technology, mystery, and thought provocation. A good movie extends reality for the purpose of entertainment, but a great movie also suspends the viewer’s disbelief in order to be convincing. If something is depicted on film that makes one think “Hmm…that could never happen!” it spoils the experience. When Sci-Fi movies are viewed by scientists, an even higher standard of realism is required. Here are ten teaching points from this science fiction movie.
1. Albert Einstein was the third collaborator: 2001 was the product of the vivid imagination of Arthur C Clarke and the directorial genius of Stanley Kubrick. However, the unseen third contributor was Albert Einstein, the greatest theoretical physicist of all time. Although Einstein died in 1955, his theories of Special Relativity (which limits space travel below the speed of light) and General Relativity (which explains our current view of gravity and predicted black holes) were strictly adhered to in the movie. Einstein was never awarded his second Nobel Prize despite this concept forever changing our perception of the Universe. His Nobel Prize was for the Photoelectric Effect in 1921. Einstein’s theories were conveyed to Kubrick by NASA astrophysicists and engineers, who advised on the film. While the film was being conceived, NASA was spending the film’s total budget of $10,000,000 every day, which meant NASA had almost unlimited resources and the brain trust to back it up. This showed the brilliance of Kubrick for tapping into this genius pool and also emphasizes the tremendous secondary benefits of investing in space exploration. Some of the most useful technologies produced in this era were never launched into outer space.
2. Evolution of Humans: Kubrick’s intention was to make a movie that would showcase Homo sapiens place in the Universe, which is why he began the movie with the Dawn of Man, focusing on the advent of tools and technology. The opposable thumb and primate brain evolved synergistically which allowed early humans to manipulate and adapt to harsh environments and to survive a tenuous existence. Kubrick’s segue from a triumphantly hurled tibia bone weapon to a cylindrical Earth-orbiting satellite brilliantly encapsulated 4 million years of technology into 10 seconds of film. In keeping with the NASA influences on the film, each member of the Jupiter mission crew had a doctorate degree, as opposed to other space movies which typically have ragtag renegade flight crews (sorry Han and Chewbacca).
3. Realistic depiction of microgravity: The lunar travel scenes realistically demonstrated microgravity with the passenger’s floating pen and suspended arm, and flight attendant’s Velcro shoes. In the space station and Jupiter mission scenes, gravity is simulated with rotating centrifugal force. The film’s movie magic was accomplished by strapping actor Gary Lockwood in his seat upside down, rotating sets synchronized to actor movement, and suspension wires hidden by the actors’ bodies. In the documentary film Apollo 13, microgravity was filmed inside a free falling aircraft (nicknamed the Vomit Comet), but this zero-force effect is largely ignored in modern Sci-Fi movies. One exception is the movie Gravity, which is ironically about surviving a zero-gravity disaster.
4. Highly specialized spacecraft: Each leg of the space journey was accomplished with vehicles built for their specific function. There was no all-purpose Millennium Falcon with the speed to deliver characters from star system to star system while also possessing the agility to fly inside other spacecraft. The focus of 2001 was interplanetary travel within our own solar system which is realistic in terms of current and future technology. Once a spacecraft is accelerated up to speed, the vast majority of the journey is at constant velocity (conserving energy and momentum), allowing an untethered pod to travel parallel to a mothership as both move together at high velocity. Our furthest traveled (unmanned) spacecraft, Voyager 1, took 30 years to recently escape our solar system (August 2015). In Clarke’s 2001 book the mission was to Saturn, but Kubrick could not replicate the rings of Saturn with the film technology available at the time, so in the movie version the mission was to Jupiter. Indeed, the Voyager 1 flyby of Saturn in 1980 revealed that the rings of Saturn were much more complex than expected and thus a simpler film depiction would have anachronized the movie. The large scale model of the Discovery One (in the photo above) was so well-filmed with a motion-controlled camera and stationary model, that this scene was mirrored by George Lucas in the opening moment of the first Star Wars movie, Episode IV. The half-constructed circular space station in 2001 was no doubt the inspiration for the unfinished Death Star II in Star Wars Episode VI. Clever camera work earned 2001 an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Director and producer Stanley Kubrick started his career as a photographer.
5. Astronaut exercise requirements: The first scene of the Jupiter mission showed an astronaut exercising in a rotating gyroscope. Exercise in space is not done out of boredom; it’s a necessity. NASA studies have shown that lack of gravity causes muscle atrophy and mitochondrial power loss, and therefore daily exercise is imperative on the International Space Station. Fighting gravity on Earth tones our muscles and triggers mitochondrial biogenesis when we exercise, giving us more energy. Lack of exercise with a sedentary couch-potato lifestyle has many negative health repercussions. This is a theme of my book with Greg LeMond, The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance.
6. Limitations and hazards of space travel: While it is true that there are inherent speed limits to low tech means of transportation (such as three-masted sailing ships), Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity says that there is an ultimate speed limit to how fast matter can travel, regardless of technology (current or future). If we were to travel at speeds approaching the speed of light (requiring ginormous amounts energy by the way) it would still take far too long to explore our own galaxy. Our Milky Way Galaxy is between 120,000 to 180,000 light years in diameter. Although we are “only” 27,000 light years from Galactic Center (sounds like a good meeting place doesn’t it) a black hole located there emits major x-rays and has gravity 4.5 million times that of the Sun (we would be zapped and crushed to death). This points out the frailty of the human body. We don’t live very long, we need food oxygen and water, and we can only tolerate about 3 g’s of acceleration for long periods. Therefore we cannot “jump to light speed” as in other movies, since we would be squashed like bugs in our seats. After taking a long time to accelerate to high speed, we would then be vulnerable to tiny specks of space dust that would disastrously perforate our spacecraft. To land at our destination, we would have to decelerate which would also require enormous braking energy. Thus, the interstellar planet hopping of Star Wars and Star Trek is a myth perpetuated by science fiction that is not feasible currently, nor will it be in the future. In 2001 there are no monsters or laser weapons. There are numerous inherent hazards in the harsh unforgiving environment of outer space to make space travel challenging and dangerous enough already.
7. No sound in space: When the deputy commander Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) has his lifeline severed and is hurled into the void of space, we cannot hear him screaming. Similarly, when mission commander Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is forced to transfer from his pod to the mothership via an emergency hatch, the exploding bolts are silent. That is because sound waves require air to propagate. It is not until the hatch is closed and re-pressurized that sound returns. The eerie whines emitted from the monolith are meant to portray its strong magnetic field and alarm signal (perhaps transmitted via solar wind), but this is not true sound. In other Sci-Fi movies the roaring of spacecraft, zapping of space laser weapons, and deep space explosions provide a satisfying auditory theatrical experience, but are not realistic in the void of space.
8. Predicted technologies and self-aware artificial intelligence (AI): With computer technology in its infancy in the 1960’s, it is amazing how accurately 2001 predicted advanced technologies: teleconferencing (Skype), computer guidance systems, flat panel televisions, tablet computers, computer gaming (chess), cryogenic suspension, zero gravity toilets, delayed speed-of-light radio transmissions, fiber-optic memory banks, and of course the HAL 9000 sentient computer (if you increase each initial by one letter it spells IBM). When Albert Einstein was alive, he feared that technology had already exceeded our morality. Stephen Hawking’s greatest fear is that self-aware AI could threaten human existence. In 2001, the HAL onboard computer suffered a homicidal psychotic episode when its inherent logic conflicted with its (human programmed) mission priorities. HAL was able to manipulate the human crew with chess-like moves and deception. In the present day we respond to digital instructions and data, so this is very conceivable. It was only after HAL confronted human ingenuity that “he” resorted to robotic and computer-controlled murder. Many Sci-Fi fans are disappointed that the current state of space travel lags behind the Kubrick/Clarke vision of the future. However, we have the technology. Our progress is hampered by economics and diverted by human strife.
9. Non-verbal story telling: In other Sci-Fi movies the plot is spelled out for the lowest common denominator audience. The 2001 movie was largely non-verbal and slow-paced, which is a complaint of modern viewers who want a literal explanation of the plot and demand constant action to drive the story. Kubrick deliberately deleted narration in the final film’s cuts which gives the movie an extra-terrestrial observed quality. The movie’s view point is that of the omniscient intelligence that placed the mysterious monoliths. Even Clarke’s book does not explain everything. Film critic Roger Ebert suggested that “MGM should require an IQ test before allowing people into the theater.” Kubrick’s movie relies more on its visual clues, classical music score, imagination, and mystery. Realistically, manned interplanetary space travel would involve long periods of waiting and anticipation, interrupted by brief flurries of intense activity.
10. Beyond the Infinite: The Jupiter monolith scene depicted fictional travel through a star-gate/wormhole. Such a distortion of the space-time continuum was predicted by the Einstein-Rosen Bridge hypothesis in 1935 as a means of intergalactic travel. Although wormholes are difficult to create, very unstable, and not survivable, they are theoretically possible. The final enigmatic “hotel room” scenes can be confusing, but brilliantly depicted Einstein’s Twin Paradox. If one twin travels near the speed of light, his non-traveling twin will age faster due to relativistic time distortion. Although Clarke and Kubrick were intentionally vague about the meaning of the Star Child, the implication is that in order to travel beyond our galaxy, we will have to transcend beyond the limitations of our frail and time-dependent human bodies. This mind-blowing concept, realistic cinematic depictions, and accurately predicted technologies elevate the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey to the top of its genre.
Movie stills are credited to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM Studios).
This article first appeared on Memeburn.com. Click here for the original.
Dr. Mark Hom is a Johns Hopkins University trained biologist, an award-winning medical illustrator, an interventional radiologist, an educator of young doctors, an Elsevier author, and an avid fitness cyclist. Dr. Hom’s work with Greg LeMond in their recent book The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance explains how the human body, various organ systems, and individual cells function in the biologic process of exercise. He is currently a member of the Department of Radiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, USA.
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