Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, by Tom Rogers

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics: Hollywood’s Best Mistakes, Goofs, and Flat-Out Destructions of the Basic Laws of the Universe

by Tom Rogers


This is a fun little book that spun off a website hosting detailed descriptions of scientific flaws and inconsistencies in current movies. I know what you’re thinking — note the name of the author, and make sure you never sit next to him on a plane. Yes, there’s a bit of that scientific pedantic-ness to this book, but not a lot — most of the criticisms he makes about current action movies had me nodding in agreement. It’s a pretty funny book, and some surprisingly detailed physics going on, for a book aimed at the masses.

To me, the coolest part of the book is when he stops critiquing the lame physics you actually find in movies, and offers up cool little nuggets of physics that should be in movies (and are true to the laws of physics, to boot). My favorite is his description of a cool movie version of assasination on the moon. Picture yourself far off into the future, a member of a moon colony, spending your days living and working on the moon. You also happen to be heir to the great fortune, worth billions of moon dollars (which are just like Earth dollars, but smell of cheese). Your distant cousin Ernest stands to inherit the fortune if some tragedy were to befall you while traipsing about the moon’s surface. And unfortunately, you’re a creature of habit — you line up at Starbuck’s (who even now have stores on the moon) every morning at 8:00 am sharp to get your cup o’ moon joe.

Now here’s the cool part — Ernest drives up in his moon buggy at 7:50 am, stops at the front of the line at Starbucks, pulls out a gun, and shoots a bunch of moon bullets straight up into the air at exactly 7:55. Then he hops in the buggy and speeds away. You saunter up at 8:00 sharp like you always do, just in time to be hit by the bullets that are now speeding back down after their brief stay in orbit. Since you’re on the moon, there’s no atmosphere, so nothing slows them down as they descend — by the time they reach ground level, they are traveling as fast as they did coming out of Ernest’s gun five minutes ago. In other words, you now become another statistic on CSI: Lunar Victim’s Unit.

This led me to wonder what else I could dream up along the same lines — a flashy, high-tech tidbit that could jazz up a movie, but based on actual science. Something your typical movie scriptwriter would never dream up.

If the moon were made of cotton, a typical sportscar could drive fast enough that if it got a little air coming off a speed bump or a hill, it would go into orbit. An orbit that was a couple dozen feet high, circling the moon over and over again, never quite reaching the ground. It turns out that the speed required to get into orbit around a moon-sized wad of something the density of cotton is just under 200 mph. Compare this to what speed you’d have to reach to do this on the earth: 16,900 mph.

Archaeology and fossils pop up here and there as the cool nugget of science behind an action movie — the bug trapped in amber in Juraissic Park, the… okay, I can’t think of any others. But hear me out, there’s an idea coming. We’ve all seen prehistoric little bugs and crap entombed in rocky fossils, right? Trilobites, little centipede-ish bugs, other assorted bug-eyed insectoids. None of them exist anymore as species, but many of them have descendants, in the form of present-day species directly evolved from those gross little bugs. Even the fly trapped in amber from Juriassic Park must have some distant relatives buzzing around, perhaps in your living room right now. Somewhere must exist the particular microbe or worm from which mammals, and therefore us, are descended. So, wouldn’t it be a dramatic movie moment for a fossil-hunter to dig up a rock containing the lowly bug from which humans eventually evolved?

What’s more, we know that when microbes divide, they just split in two, meaning that the offspring contain a portion of the material that made up the parents — the same little microbe organs, the same chemicals, the very same atoms and molecules that were in the parents, are now in the offspring. Of course after a few generations, material gets cycled through, but conceivably there might be a few molecules inherited directly from distant ancestors still floating around inside today’s microbes. Even us, we might have a speck or two of material in us (an atom here and there, maybe an amino acid) that came from our parents. For the most part, we’re assembled from the food we eat, but maybe just a trace is recycled from previous generations. In reality it would be preposterous, but in a movie it might be a cool germ of a plotline, to imagine that some tiny trace of a long-forgotten slimy ancestor might still be found in us, maybe just an atom or two. Could the fossil hunter be staring at the petrified remains of an ancestor, a minute trace of which is still circulating around in that very human?

Teleportation.  Yeah, that’s right — “beam me up Scotty, we lost another red-shirt to a piece of cellophane filmed in soft focus.”  While this idea is all over the place in movies, none of them get it quite right, which I suppose you have to forgive for the sake of plot.  Here’s the trouble — it’s really difficult and inefficient to disassemble someone, beam their constituent electrons through space down from the ship to the planet’s surface, then reassemble them in just the right form to rebuild the same person.  I mean, can you imagine having to do that?  What a pain in the ass!  After all, there are perfectly good atoms and electrons and whatnot lying around on the ground at your intended destination — why beam the original electrons over, when after all every electron is identical to every other electron, and you could just email out the blueprints?  In other words, after you break down the person up in the transporter room, and after you write down the position and state of all the atoms and molecules in the person (which you have to do, if you’re going to rebuild them on the other end), why not just send the instructions, the list of where each particle goes, instead of sending the actual particles?  Just send the list, which is just a data file (and easy to transmit) and can be broadcast through your telecom or however else you communicate.  The schleps on the ground can scrape together the raw materials down there, and rebuild Captain Kirk precisely identical to the original.

So, we’ve already improved efficiency by leaps and bounds, thereby performing the Starfleet equivalent of Six Sigma Continuous Process Improvement.  Oh, but there’s a catch — what do you do with all the old electrons and atoms and molecules?  Imagine you’re the one being transported — Scotty tells you to step into the booth, where you’ll be ripped apart bit by bit, carefully taking notes along the way, and the blueprints will be sent down to the planet where they’ll make another copy of you.  Oh, and your original atoms and molecules will no longer be needed, so we’ll send them down to the cafeteria where they’ll go into big blue pills that taste like steak.  Would you step into that thing?  If you do, are you sure that it will be “you” that wakes up again on the planet surface?  After all, we could keep you intact on the ship and simply build a copy of you on the planet’s surface, and the mechanics would be exactly the same.  The copy of you down on the planet will feel just like you, will be convinced that he is you, and so to him it will feel like he instantly beamed down from the ship to the surface.  He has every atom in precisely the same position as you have when he’s assembled, so he’ll have all your memories and sensations — there’s no reason he will feel like a clone or a copy.  So which one of “you” is the real you?

If you step into the transporter and get disassembled, basically, you don’t wake up again.  Your consciousness ceases to exist.  The other dude, however, keeps right on going, and to him, it feels like everything’s normal — he feels like he was just on the ship, and got transported instantly down to the surface.  Who’s right?  Who has legal ownership of “you”?  Seems like a bum deal to me — if I were in that situation, I’d develop a severe allergy to green-painted humanoid aliens, and fast.  I don’t know precisely what alternative technology would work for the needs of beaming people around space without the existential dilemmas, but I’d sure like to see a sci-fi movie include an understanding of the problem.  Maybe in the next Stargate movie?




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