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Physics in Films by Michael Lucibella


Image Credit: ittybittiesforyou, Creative Commons.

The fact that physics is not always faithfully depicted in Hollywood films probably should not come as a shock to anyone. Consider the following hypothetical scene from a movie that could easily exist:

Captain Stupendous pilots his intergalactic battleship across the galaxy to arrive at the space skirmish in the nick of time. With lasers ablaze, he blows up the enemy star frigate in a loud fiery explosion.

Sounds exciting, but what's wrong with this picture?
1) The fastest anything can travel is the speed of light, at 186,000 miles per second. It would take our intrepid hero years just to journey from one star to the next, much less across the entire galaxy.

2) Laser beams are only visible when they scatter off solid particulates like dust or smoke. Out in the vacuum of space there are no floating particles to illuminate the beams, so you would only see a bright spot where the laser hit its target.

3) There's no air in space, so there's no way the star frigate could explode into a blazing inferno. Fire needs oxygen to burn, so the spectacular orange flames shouldn't be there.

4) Additionally, because there's no air in space, you shouldn’t be able to hear the explosion even if there was one. Sound waves need a medium to travel through, and without any atmosphere in the vacuum of space, there can be no sound.

5) Lastly, even if there was this impossible loud explosion in space, you almost certainly wouldn't hear it at the same time you see it. Light travels much faster than the sound, so unless you were right on top of the explosion, you wouldn’t hear the blast for at least a little while.

It's pretty clear that Hollywood often makes full use of its artistic license when it has to. I’ll be the first to admit that bright lasers and loud explosions are much more dramatic than the more subdued alternative. Of course some movies do better than others. Films like 2001 "A Space Odyssey" usually gets it right, while "The Core" on the other hand, just plain doesn't.

Right now there are lots of efforts to bring more real physics into Hollywood films. Jennifer Ouellette, author of "The Physics of the Buffyverse" has been working to bring better and more accurate depictions of science into Hollywood. Working through the National Academy of Sciences, she helped establish the Science and Entertainment Exchange to consult with major studios and foster better depictions of all kinds of science in films.

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic that Hollywood is coming around to the idea that the laws of physics should apply. Two upcoming highly anticipated films have sought out additional expertise about accurate physics in the movies. James Kakalios, author of the highly successful "The Physics of Superheroes" was the primary science consultant for the soon to be released screen adaptation of the comic book "The Watchmen".

Director Ron Howard then upped the ante by collaborating with, and filming at CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland for the upcoming "Angels and Demons" James Gillies, spokesman for CERN said that though some elements of the plot require a bit of fictionalized science, the production team has "tried to get the science as right as is possible in the film". As a token of their respect for highlighting research at the enormous physics laboratory, star of the film Tom Hanks will push the button to restart the LHC in the fall.

How true to the laws of physics will these films be? Only time can tell. One film farther down the line holds a tremendous amount of promise for faithful physics. Steven Spielberg has teamed up with famous Caltech professor Kip Thorne to create a scientifically accurate science fiction story. Thorne is close colleague of cosmologist Stephen Hawking and one of the world’s leading experts of astrophysics. According to early reports "Interstellar" will tell the story of an advanced race of aliens contacting Earth through wormholes in space and time. I'm excited, and even though it may not be slated for release until 2011, I've already got my calendar marked.

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