Comic Con 1: Abusing the Sci of SciFi panel

By Phil Plait | July 24, 2010 7:08 am

At Comic Con, I moderated a wonderful panel about how science sometimes gets screwed up by science fiction. Sponsored by Discover Magazine and The NAS Science and Entertainment Exchange, it’s the third time we’ve done this panel, and it’s been really fun every year. I already talked a bit about this — we had Jaime Paglia from Eureka, Kevin Grazier from BSG and "Eureka", Zack Stentz from "Thor" and "Fringe", and Sean Carroll who is a cosmologist and blogs for Discover as well.

We showed our picks for representative good and bad science in shows and movies, and I have to commend Sean for his pick of "Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure" for good science (the consistency of the time travel in that movie is wonderful) and "Big Bang Theory" for the philosophy of science — they discuss the physics of Superman, making the assumption that a man actually can fly.

We were short on time, and had to cut the Q&A off short, but as usual we got great questions from the audience and a lot of fun back-and-forth with the panelists. We’ll have the video up at some point, and I think you’ll like it when we do.

So far, I’ve seen two reviews: one from ScriptPhD, and the other from our own Science Not Fiction. You can check out my Comic Con 2010 pix at Flickr, too.

[Update: Eric Wolff wrote an interesting piece on the discussion of when to break the rules of science. I may write more on this later, but I don't think Zack Stentz's contention that science must bend to the story would faze any of us on the panel; we know we're talking about fiction here. Science won't bend when you're publishing in the Astrophysical Journal, but it must when put under the constraints of telling an engaging fictional story.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Science, SciFi
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Comments (37)

  1. Umm … First?

    I’d love to see a Discovery special dedicated to bad science in movies.

    Actually, it could probably be a whole series.

  2. I’ve never really had a problem with a sci-fi character breaking the laws of this universe so long as they are consistent within the realm of their universe.

  3. GAZZA

    Consistent time travel in Bill & Ted? Really?

    “The clock is always running in Sam Dimas”. Leaving aside that this is a nonsense restriction on time travel – it’s also blatantly violated about 5 minutes before it’s even introduced, when Bill & Ted meet their future selves (“Say hello to the princesses”). That wouldn’t be possible if San Dimas had some sort of cosmic time travel exception.

    Of course it really gets bad in Bogus Journey, but given you said Excellent Adventure I’ll assume you were excluding the sequel. :)

  4. Jeff

    are senior citizens allowed in? Or does membership in AARP disqualify people for this stuff. Just asking.

  5. I was particularly impressed by the science in the movie ’2012.’ Gotta love those arks with the sticking doors.

  6. Gary Ansorge

    3 Jeff.

    Maybe if you go on Wed you’ll get your 5 % senior discount.

    Looks like fun. I wonder what ever happened to John Campbells restriction of his writers(for Astounding/ ANALOG SciFi) to have no more than one impossible idea in ones story. THOSE were the days of real hard SciFi (unless you’re a fan of David Brin).

    Gary 7

  7. I would love to see these panels spun off into freestanding websites (or, at least, web pages) featuring a transcript of the panel discussion and the Q&A as well as any materials presented, with an opportunity to continue the Q&A online. I suppose ComicCon (and most other conventions) may have rules against this – trying to avoid diluting the product demand by reducing scarcity and increasing accessibility. Still, it would be great to see for those of us enable to attend the panel.

  8. I recently wrote an essay on “Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction” and got some responses on the misuse of science in sci-fi, leading me to consider an idea floating around in my head for a while: setting up some sort of science/sci-fi website or database, asking scientists in a pertinent field to comment on the science in a sci-fi movie or book. An attempt to educate and potentially (if it took off) encourage writers to really research their science.

    No idea if this is actually plausible – if anyone has an ideas, please let me know!

  9. KC

    Nice idea Harold – though that model has not worked well for the newspaper industry. (Why pay for the cow when the milk is free!)

  10. Murdats

    @GAZZA

    when they saw their future selves they dialled the wrong number and when to a different ‘location’ in time.

    the idea is each ‘point’ in time has a number, the time that number goes to progresses at the standard speed of time, I assume it works in waves and at the end of a wave that number points to the beginning of that period of time again
    but that means if I dialled some point in time then you dialled that 5 minutes later, you would arrive 5 minutes after I did.

    as the previous night was a separate point meeting themselves did not violate this, they then travelled from yesterday night to the present where time had indeed progressed.

    ah the joys of being a geek :D

  11. MT-LA

    Harold,
    Why stop at a transcript? Think of a Hulu type distribution scheme, with full length videos of of the panel discussion, cut with commercials to generate revenue.
    Hell, you could skip the commercials entirely if you get the panel (and that panel’s online content) sponsored by, lets say, the next-blockbuster-summer-movie. The attraction is still there for the live audience because they get to squee like crazy, and they get to participate in the live QA.
    Is there enough demand for this kind of production? I don’t know. But there are a LOT of geeks, nerds, and dorks out there…

  12. Zack Stentz

    I wasn’t actually trying to be contentious on the panel, just make a point that if a pesky law of physics is standing in the way of telling the story you want to tell, then that law is going bye-bye. And Phil and the other science folks understand that. And I think there was broad agreement among the panelists that wherever possible, it’s good to use real science, and that good science can itself be a wonderful source of drama in a story.

  13. DLC

    Science fiction pioneer E.E. “Doc” Smith once explained that he liked to have the science in his science fiction be “barely possible, the more unlikely but still possible the better.”
    he also claimed he based his inertialess drive (the Bergenholm, or Berg) on an obscure Italian paper published around 1912. But then, Smith also thought telepathy was not only possible but likely to be developed. So, even superman trips once in a while.
    We’ve come a long way from “barely possible” to “make it work”.
    I don’t think it’s a case so much of bending science as it is some people just toss the science out the window.

  14. I have no problem with what Zack said at the panel. If you’re telling a story, story comes first; science can help, but isn’t the point. If you’re writing a physics textbook, science comes first; stories can help, but they aren’t the point.

  15. QuietDesperation

    But then, Smith also thought telepathy was not only possible but likely to be developed. So, even superman trips once in a while.

    While I’m a hard skeptic on such things, the idea of electrical crosstalk between two brains has never stuck me as impossible, especially if you factor in the idea of someone setting out to develop it via genetic or technological means. Or an alien that has evolved a crude form of radio right in their heads. I’m an EE. Trust me, it’s very easy for something to generate a signal if there is any charge in motion or in flux. A lot of modern devices have RF and digital circuits in very close proximity. It can be a real headache at times. One circuit’s signal is another circuit’s noise.

    Smith followed the rules he liked, but others are allowed to choose other rules.

    I think it’s a reaction to the level of psychic woo out there that gets a lot of folks into the “Never can be used! Not in even speculation!” mode. Like those silly “Left Behind” books. Yeah, the Rapture is nonsense, but what if it did happen? Speculate. They really are just simple speculative fiction. People need to lighten up.

  16. Procyan

    if it tells a good story that is consistent with the laws of science then its good science fiction.
    if it tells a good story that bends the laws of science then its good fantasy.
    if it just doesn’t give a toss, then it is television

    except BBT which is good television, but not science fiction unless you can grok Penny and you know Lenard.

  17. Jamey

    You know, there’s three shows that get a lot of attention for their science…

    Star Trek brought us inspiration in the form of the phaser, the communicator, the PADD, warp drive, the transporter & replicator, and other gadgetry.

    Dr. Who gave us the Sonic Screwdriver, the Tardis, psychic paper, and a few other things.

    Star Wars? Gave us the lightsaber and the woo-woo of the Force (and then tried to explain it away with the massive mistake of “midichlorians”).

    I think there’s a reason I’m far more of a Trekker/Whovian than I am a Jedi.

  18. Kevin F.

    “We were short on time, and had to cut the Q&A off short”

    Was it because of the pen incident? A guy was stabbed with a pen at Comic Con yesterday.

  19. jearley

    Stabbed with a pen?? So, did anyone have sword too, so that the old argument could be settled?

  20. @ 19 Jamey:

    Star Wars? Gave us the lightsaber and the woo-woo of the Force (and then tried to explain it away with the massive mistake of “midichlorians”).

    It is a well known fact that the “prequels” and their nonsensical hoo-haw were conceived by a bizarro-Lucas and are not really part of the Star Wars canon. At least in this universe.

    May the non-biologically based Force be with you.

  21. magetoo

    I wasn’t actually trying to be contentious on the panel, just make a point that if a pesky law of physics is standing in the way of telling the story you want to tell, then that law is going bye-bye.

    That’s making it hard to suspend disbelief though, if you know a little bit of the science.

    (If you know the science well, I suppose you can just treat it like Roadrunner cartoon gravity and move on, but a little? I’d go “hang on, can you do that?” and pop out to the real world in an instant.)

  22. Chris Winter

    Hannah Waters wrote:

    I recently wrote an essay on “Why Scientists Should Read Science Fiction” and got some responses on the misuse of science in sci-fi, leading me to consider an idea floating around in my head for a while: setting up some sort of science/sci-fi website or database, asking scientists in a pertinent field to comment on the science in a sci-fi movie or book. An attempt to educate and potentially (if it took off) encourage writers to really research their science.

    No idea if this is actually plausible — if anyone has an ideas, please let me know!

    I like that idea. Of course, you’d have to undertake some provisions to avoid “spoilers” for people who hadn’t yet experienced the work being discussed. But that’s not so difficult.

    You might contact the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Located at Seattle Center under the Space Needle (where else?), it was funded by Paul Allen and opened in 2004. Donna Shirley, former manager of Mars Exploration at JPL, is its director.

    Here’s a link for the Museum at Seattle Center:

    http://www.seattlecenter.com/attractions/museum_detail.asp?VE_VenueNum=600
    Seattle Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame — currently pushing its “Experience Music” program.

  23. Chris Winter

    DLC wrote: “But then, Smith also thought telepathy was not only possible but likely to be developed.”

    I concur with him in that. However, I think it will be done by electronic devices, not by living brains. Consider: We can already localize functions like language to specific areas of the brain. We can couple nerves to electronic implants, allowing amputees to control a wheelchair or a computer cursor. It’s not too far-fetched to forecast some sort of system that can actually transcribe thoughts. Once you have that, you have telepathy — if you want it.

    (By “you”, I mean society.)

  24. olderwithmoreinsurance

    @magetoo I agree with your view. If a writer gets the science we know NOW wrong just to advance the story then he/she isn’t a very good writer and my suspension of disbelief is blown out the window (see the execrable last Star Trek movie for roughly a thousand examples of this). Now if the writer takes the time to plausibly expand upon the science we know now, to cover the violation of current laws, then that person is a good writer that, you know, CARES about the audience.
    @Hannah Waters That’s a great idea! An astronomer/sf writer I know, Mike Brotherton at Wyoming, has run several workships there where he tries to teach writers enough so that they don’t embarrass themselves……

  25. Gary Ansorge

    17. QuietDesperation

    Telepathy could be a quantum level phenomenon, something on the order of entanglement(though our current understanding doesn’t allow the actual transfer of info) but few outside physics would realize that(ie, it would work for the story).

    Actually, as long as the “science” in the story is internally consistent, it works for that story. What bugs me is whenever the author invokes deus ex machina as a save for his characters. THAT just sucks.

    I even love good fantasy for that very reason;the magic need not have anything to do with reality as long as it is logically consistent. (and I don’t care WHAT universe is being postulated as long as it doesn’t allow something for nothing. There’s always a price to pay).

    Gary 7
    PS; the “phasers” of Star Trek have their analog in our non-destructive laser stunner, which ionizes air to allow a charge to propagate to the target. We currently have those in development for the military. The only drawback is the power source. Microgram anti-matter charges, anyone?

  26. I was disappointed to learn from you that Eureka actually has a science advisor. I like that show, but the pseudo science is just too pseudo.

  27. ERic

    @Lugosi — I just happened to watch 2012 this weekend, knowing that it was going to be horrible. And it was. I laughed my way through it.

  28. mike burkhart

    I think this is a good topic for a panel. Scifi dose “screwup” sciance but I think we have to look at things that we can do that science once said was impossable : Going into space I had a teacher who was in school during the time that project Mercury was launching men into space (project Vostok to ,forgive me for forgeting the Rusian Progam) her textbooks said that it was imposable for men to go into space I bet they had to rewrite those textbooks Moon landing many reputable scientists said we would never never land on the Moon in 1969 they were proven worng .I would say that the reson scientists said these things were imposable is that at the time we did not have the tecnolgy to do them .Once we did, we found that many things were posiable .So who knows want the tecnolgy of the future may make posiable that we now say is imposable . To get off topic a bit I mention the film Damnation Alley ,last week a good movie (loved the landmasters) but had one bit of bad science I think may be Phil can tell us wheather it is or not : The nucler war knocks the Earth off it axis causing the skys to look strange (the Earth axis corects itslef at the end of the movie ) and strange wheather . Now I think it would take a powerfull explosion to knock the Earth off its axis munch more then a simple nucler war ,say a collsion with a planet sized object?

  29. Ann Nunnally

    So will you be going to GenCon in Indianapolis? Wil Wheaton, lots of bad science, Cthulhu–geektastic!

  30. QuietDesperation

    To get off topic a bit I mention the film Damnation Alley

    Killer cockroaches!

    Did you know it was loosely based on a Roger Zelazny novel? In the book there were constant and very high winds (many hundreds of miles an hour) above a certain altitude due to storms- that’s the whole reason for the journey- no air travel.

    In the movie they decided to add “radiation effects” in post production at the last minute at very high cost. Dumb, but it is sort of neat looking in parts.

    The Landmaster is currently owned by a collector who restored it. It is still operational and shown at auto shows.

    That little car next to it looks familiar. From some other 70s SF film, but I can’t quite place it.

  31. QuietDesperation

    Telepathy could be a quantum level phenomenon, something on the order of entanglement(though our current understanding doesn’t allow the actual transfer of info) but few outside physics would realize that(ie, it would work for the story).

    In one of David Brin’s uplift novels, a guy has part of his brain removed by weird aliens and quantum linked back to the main mass. He’s not very smart or functional until he gets within range of the missing part of his brain and it works as a whole again despite being billions of miles apart.

    People pick on that series, but I find it wonderful, unapologetic space opera, which is exactly what Brin says he intended. I also liked the idea of hyper advanced alien races that had levels of religious fanaticism that humans could never match if they tried. Although Alan Moore did the dolphins as space navigators back in his Halo Jones series in the 1980s.

  32. Eugene

    This reminds me of the old writer’s rule of “Big Lie; Little Lie”. In a work of fiction, a reader is willing to believe the Big Lie (superman can fly, the world is actually a computer simulation, bruce willis is dead), but gives almost no leeway to the Little Lies: how things work mechanically, how people work physically, when/how things happened in history, etc.

    Figuring out when a lie is Big or Little is up to the writer. In high fantasy, for instance, there are lots of Big Lies; in Sci Fi, it’s usually the reverse.

  33. Gary Ansorge

    34. QuietDesperation

    I love David Brins work, mainly because his characters are logically consistent. When they do something stupid, it’s because we’re already aware THEY’RE STUPID. Some characters make mistakes but they are the kinds of mistakes anyone can make under pressure and the reader is kept appraised of the circumstances leading up to those choices. His “heros” are realistic people coming to grips with trying circumstances and his bad guys have real motivations to do the bad. THAT’S great writing.

    I’m not familiar with Alan Moore. Now that you’ve mentioned him, I’ll have to look him up on Alibris.

    GAry 7

  34. Chris Winter

    “That little car next to it looks familiar. From some other 70s SF film, but I can’t quite place it.”

    Hmmm… Just a guess, but it could be the ground car from Logan’s Run (the TV series, not the movie.)

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