Sci Fi Sci-Comm

Tri-Con 2016: The Science (or lack of science) Behind Science Fiction

Tricon coverA few weekends ago I attended Tri-Con, a local convention hosted by THEMUSEUM. It was loads of fun. I got some swag, mostly buttons, and prints, and I got to see real-live cosplayers. I fangirled a little when I saw Korra and Asami from Avatar: Legends of Korra, Peebles and Marceline from Adventure Time, and some Old School Storm Troopers. There were tons of panel sessions on various nerdy topics but the panel I made an effort to attend was a session called “The Science (or lack of Science) in Science Fiction” hosted by Nerd Night KW.

The panel was moderated by Charlotte Armstrong, founder of Nerd Night KW. She is also the Outreach Coordinator of the Laurier Centre for Women in Science, and the Regional Coordinator for the Planetary Society. The other panelists were: Ryan Consell with a background in engineering, Greg a molecular biologist and biochemist, and Tibra Ali a particle physicist from Perimeter Institute.

A full Schedule

The discussion focused on the three big sci-fi movies of 2015: Jurassic World, The Martian, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Want to guess which movie got the most air time?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It’s not really science, but what science is there is pretty advanced
-Tibra Ali

The Starkiller Base

We started with the Starkiller Base. There were many critiques about the design and astronomy. For example, in order for the Starkiller Base and its star to be in the same frame, the planet-sized base would have to be very close to its sun. However, the surface of the base seems to be in eternal winter. But the shot sure looked cool.

Another issue where cinematography conflicted with actual science was the Starkiller Base’s laser. Again things in the movie were too close. When the Starkiller Base fired its lasers witnesses on the base watch the aftermath as though it were as close as our moon is to us on Earth. The reality is that the base’s targets were another star system away. It would be like us looking up as a distant star. We can’t see the planets from that far away; we can just barely see the star as a pinprick of light. WE certainly wouldn’t be able to see the laser reach its intended targets.

And that brings up another problem with the laser. Lasers are concentrated beams of light.  Lasers are so focused that we can’t see the light unless it hits something. In the case of a laser pointer, the little red dot is the end of a beam of light, we see the dot because it’s coming in contact with a screen but we don’t see the beam.

“If you could see the horrible death beam from the side it means that it’s a really lousy beam; it’s emitting energy sideways and it’s not energy efficient. By the time it got there [at the target star system], it would be like a flashlight.”
-Ryan Consell

How can so many aliens live together on the same planet, breathing the same air?

The audience was invited to ask questions and I thought this one was pretty interesting. On Rey’s homeworld of Jakku, many different species live together and share the same air without the use of visible respirators. Earth’s current atmospheric composition is great for us as humans. It’s got some oxygen, mostly nitrogen and a bit of carbon dioxide, water and other gasses.

Composition of Earth's atmosphere en

Our atmosphere is currently over three-quarters nitrogen and less than a quarter oxygen. However, it was not always this way. By User:Dbc334 (File:Composition of Earth’s atmosphere.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anything that evolved somewhere else may not like that kind of atmospheric composition. So the panelists suggest that only aliens that evolved under similar conditions can live together. Perhaps somewhere else in that galaxy far, far away there is a planet made entirely of oceans, and aquatic aliens live together. Or maybe an ammonia world where species with ammonia-based biochemistries (rather than water-based biochemistries) can coexist.

Another possibility, Ryan points out, is that we breathe, eat and speak through the same hole: our mouth. Not all organisms do that even here on Earth. Insects are an excellent example; they eat through their mouths, respirate through their thorax and abdomens and make noises by rubbing their limbs together. So what’s to say that aliens on Jakku or Takodana didn’t respirate through their sides and wore filtration systems on their chest instead of over their mouths which were only for eating or talking.

The respiratory system of a grasshopper has openings that run along the side the thorax and abdomen and doesn’t connect to the mouth at all. [Illustration]. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

What kind of power sources could be used for blasters?

Right now we have nothing that can work to fuel a blaster if it’s a ray gun. Creating enough energy to make a laser lethal is pretty substantial. If we could miniaturize fusion into something small enough to fit into a handheld device, it wouldn’t be safe. And the amount of shielding you would need to make it safe, would make the power source too big to fit in a handheld device. Unless you were were inside of the shielding which would a bad idea. The issue comes down to converting some controlled form of energy into another form of energy that can do harm.

 At the end of the day we have to invoke unknown physics.
-Tibra Ali

But, Ryan pointed out that we already have things that convert energy from one form to another to hurt peopler: they’re called guns. They convert chemical energy into kinetic energy and launch a bullet. He suggests that a blaster round could be a physical thing, rather than a bolt of light. This blaster ‘slug’ could be undergoing a chemical reaction to launch and in mid-flight undergoes more chemical reactions, hence the glowing.

We spent quite a lot of time on Star Wars, both The Force Awakens than the rest of that universe in general. Not surprising, considering how important Star Wars has been for shaping pop culture. But eventually, we had to move on.

The Panel from left to right: Tibra Ali, Greg, Ryan Consell and Charlotte Armstrong

The panelists for the Science (or lack of science) of Science Fiction discussion from left to right: Tibra Ali, Greg, Ryan Consell and Charlotte Armstrong

Jurassic World

The discussion moved on to Jurassic World. We got an interesting question from an audience member about the Jurassic World aviary.

The helicopter crashes into the aviary, all of the animals that lived in there flew out and attacked the tourists. Would that really happen?

Greg, the biologist, took this question. His argument was that it was a Sharknado-style scenario. Would a shark that falls from the sky immediately begin eating everything in sight? No. It would have bigger concerns, like being out of water. But a shark that thrashes around without eating people would be boring. The same thing applies to the Dimorphadon and Pteradons that escape the aviary. In reality, they probably would just fly away, but that would be boring so they attack the tourists instead.

Apart from the obvious unreality of their behavior, there is also the issue of the biomechanics. Charlotte asked the question of whether pterosaurs would even have the power to carry a human being. Flying things have to be very lightweight, and there’s no way they could carry anything human-sized. There is always a tenuous balance between staying light and capturing food. The pterosaurs were piscivores (fish-eaters) for the most part, and fish aren’t that heavy. Greg commented that ones that have long beaks, the Pteradons, would probably impale a victim, get stuck and fall over. It would be a bit of comic relief, but that’s all they would be able to do.

One of the pterasaurs from Jurassic World Image Credit:

Anything in Jurassic world that really offended you?
Charlotte asked the above question and Greg was eager to describe his beef with this line of dialogue:

Dr. Henry Wu: You know that I’m not authorized to reveal the asset’s genetic makeup. Modified animals are known to be unpredictable.
Simon Masrani: It’s killed people, Henry.
Dr. Henry Wu: That’s unfortunate.
Simon Masrani: What purpose could we have for a dinosaur that can camouflage?
Dr. Henry Wu: Cuttlefish genes were added to help withstand an accelerated growth rate. Cuttlefish have chromatophores that allow the skin to change color.
Simon Masrani: It hid from thermal detection.
Dr. Henry Wu: Really?
Simon Masrani: How is that possible?
Dr. Henry Wu: Tree frogs can modulate their infrared output. We used strands from their DNA to adapt it to a tropical climate, but I never imagined…

As I wrote in my Jurassic World post back in November, transgenic organisms are not amalgams of two different organisms. The genetic manipulation is highly specific.

When you add DNA from one animal you don’t get all of. You get just a specific part.

That scene with Dr. Wu bothered Greg quite a lot. He lamented the inaccuracy to his wife and her immediate response was, “Oh no, he just lied. InGen hired him to make a weapon, so he lied.” Greg admits that it’s a complete headcanon, but it makes sense and makes him feel better about the science. However, a quick Google search reveals that the idea that Dr. Wu lied to his CEO appeals to others as well, though less from a science mollification perspective and more from the perspective of good story-telling.

What about the fact that there were so many dinosaurs kept together that were in reality separated by millions of years of geological time and existed under different atmospheres?

The issue that this audience member brought up was that although Jurassic World is called Jurassic World, it houses dinosaurs from the all across the Mesozoic era which spans 180 million years. The Mesozoic consists of the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous. T-Rex, Triceratops, Velociraptor, Galimimus, Ankylosaurus and Parasaurolophus lived during the Cretaceous. But Apatosaurus and Stegosaurus lived during the Late Jurassic and pterosaurs lived from the Late Triassic all the way to the Cretaceous. (They really should have called the park Cretaceous World).

The atmosphere in the Cretaceous period had far less oxygen than today. Researchers who study amber have determined that oxygen concentrations were around 10-15% of the Cretaceous atmosphere, which is about half of current levels. Carbon dioxide levels were five times higher in the Jurassic period than they are today. The biggest issue is that all of these dinosaurs that existed at different times under different atmospheric conditions are lumped together in one park under modern atmospheric conditions.

During the Mesozoic era (the bit in pink), global oxygen concentrations were far lower than they are today and across this geological age there were massive changes. Image Credit: Wolfram Alpha

During the Mesozoic era (the bit in pink), global oxygen concentrations were lower than they are today and across this geological age there were massive changes. Image Credit: Wolfram Alpha

Apart from atmospheric composition, the world was much warmer during the Mesozoic. So dinosaurs would struggle during our current climate regime. Though Greg pointed out that the park is located in the tropics, so that would alleviate the issues associated with temperature. Greg also suggested that ‘hand-wavy’ genetics are involved in fixing the problem. The Jurassic World scientists could have just added the frog DNA that allows dinosaurs to exist under current climate and atmospheric regimes. Regardless, it was an interesting question that I hadn’t considered before.

The Martian

The Martian was great in terms of story and science. It is the most scientifically accurate science fiction film in a while.
– Greg

Overall, the panelists had little to critique about The Martian. Greg’s only comment had to do with the potatoes. Mars soil is adequate for growing plants as far as mineral content goes. But the soil lacks organic matter and microbes like bacteria. In the film, poop was used for organic matter and to inoculate the ground with helpful bacteria for the plants to thrive. That was all completely plausible. Greg’s, very minor, issue was that the potatoes used were likely irradiated for them to be kept in vacuum sealed packages at room temperature and brought to Mars. So technically they couldn’t have grown because they would be dead.

Charlotte also pointed out that because the gravity on Mars is so much lower than the gravity on Earth our hero, Dr Watney, could have leapt instead of walked. Having recently seen the film, I imagine that, apart from the special effects involved, leaping and bounding across the martian landscape might have been risky for Dr. Watney. But aside from that, the science was pretty sound in The Martian.

The panelists were keen to answer questions from the audience (From left to right, Tibra, Greg, Ryan and Charlotte)

The panelists were keen to answer questions from the audience. From left to right, Tibra, Greg, Ryan, and Charlotte.

Cinematic tension

I was talking to a friend this weekend about how there is this tension between accuracy and cinematography in sci-fi films. What looks cool versus what’s plausible and accurate. Some franchises embrace their cinematic inaccuracies to provide a blockbuster ride. Star Wars and Jurassic Park are prime examples. But other films use the constraints of reality as a source of conflict and emotional resonance. The Martian is a good example, but so is a movie like Interstellar. The physics were a bit of a stretch, but the director, Christopher Nolan, did have a physicist on his team and the film’s representation of a black hole was the most accurate visualization to date based on the current math and physics.

All in all, I had a wonderful time at the discussion. The panelists were lively, humorous, and genuinly knowledgeable and passionate about their respective fields. My background is biology, so learning about the physics and engineering limitations was pretty fun. That said, I tend to watch movies just to watch them. I throw myself into the experience and deal with the inaccuracies later. Perhaps it’s different for physicists when the inaccuracies are so glaring. I notice things, but only after I think about it deeply.

What about you? Do glaring scientific inaccuracies grate on your nerves? Or do you just shrug it off as Hollywood blitz and bang? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Have a wonderful weekend,

Dr Ash Signature

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