Good and Bad Science in Science Fiction

By Sean Carroll | July 31, 2010 11:00 am

Spent a day last week at the bacchanalia of imagination that is San Diego Comic-Con. Really an amazing experience, anyone who gets a chance should go at some point. My own excuse was appearing on a panel sponsored by Discover and the Science and Entertainment Exchange, on Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi. I was joined by Jaime Paglia, TV writer and creator of the very charming show Eureka; Kevin Grazier, JPL scientist, blogger, and science advisor to both Eureka and Battlestar Galactica; and Zack Stentz, writer for Fringe and the upcoming Thor movie. We were ably moderated by Phil Plait, and Tricia Mackey provided technical wizardry behind the scenes. We packed the room to bursting, with a long line of people who unfortunately weren’t able to fit inside. There’s a huge demand for this kind of discussion. See also reports here, here, here, here, here.

And yes there is a video record of the whole event! (And other Discover videos.)

The rough idea was to point out examples of good and bad science in science fiction on movies and TV. Phil scored the best example of bad science, finding a brief clip from Armageddon where Bruce Willis is doing delicate work on the surface of an asteroid — in the rain. Jaime and Zack, who actually work in Hollywood, wisely foresaw the pitfalls of holding up someone else’s stuff as an example of badness, and graciously both chose examples from their own work. Sometimes the science must take a backseat to the story.

But not usually. In my own presentation I tried to move beyond the model of scientist as copy-editor, running through stories and films looking for violations of the laws of physics, wagging the finger of shame with ill-concealed glee. I think scientists should take a more creative role, helping fiction writers to develop consistent rules for their fictional worlds and extrapolating the consequences of those worlds, even if those rules are not the rules of our real universe. We should be more than scolds.

Update: since the two clips I showed were apparently missing from the video, I’m linking to them here. The first was a forward-looking philosophy of the proper relationship between science and narrative, and the second was an example of carefully exploring the logical consequences of an imaginary world.

  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com/ The Science Pundit

    I think scientists should take a more creative role, helping fiction writers to develop consistent rules for their fictional worlds and extrapolating the consequences of those worlds, even if those rules are not the rules of our real universe.

    It must seem awfully strange to a non-geek that a group of people could so quickly accept that some character can travel through space and time in a little blue box which is bigger on the inside than the outside, and yet spend hours complaining about predestination paradoxes found in that very same show.

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  • erik

    “I think scientists should take a more creative role, helping fiction writers to develop consistent rules for their fictional worlds and extrapolating the consequences of those worlds, even if those rules are not the rules of our real universe. We should be more than scolds.”

    I do have one conditional objection to this. The fictional science shouldn’t be presented as science. In my opinion, as long as they don’t go about trying to explain how it works I’m fine. A good deal of hand-waving would be nice. Beyond that, I think you’re absolutely right.

  • http://buffalodavid.vox.com/ buffalodavid

    Seriously, Thanks for posting this. I’m one of those geeks who only gets to go to one event a year. So this is really appreciated.

    Hey! When are you coming to TAM? I know you were there last year. Your lovely wife told me you were downstairs playing poker. We always need good speakers.

  • Don’t Panic!

    Can any physicists who float untestable pseudoscientific ideas like multiverses, Boltzmann Brains, anthropic reasoning, unobservable dimensions, string fantasies, WIMP fantasies, SUSY fantasies, etc., afford to be scolds without looking decidedly hypocritical?

  • Alan in Upstate NY

    I’ve never consider “Dr. Who” to be science fiction. It seems to deserve a “fantasy” label, and its popularity has always surprised me.

  • http://buffalodavid.vox.com/ buffalodavid

    To Don’t Panic:

    Most scientist are the first to admit that (so far) untestable ideas are just that. But just because an idea is untestable doesn’t mean its wrong, or even without value. Look for ways to test it.

    My problem starts when fiction (and not just science fiction) writers posit an outside the box idea like its as common as a milkshake… read time travel, telepathy or curing amnesia with a knock on the noggin.

    There is a clever device that many story tellers use to get around this. Have the hero or heroine state excitedly “Its a long shot, but….”

    Its a cheap tool, but better than ignoring the problem. ;-)

  • http://sarajdavis.net/ Non-Believer

    I’m OK with mythical science in a show as long as its based on unknowns or is necessary to premise of the show.
    But if you know something – for example there is no noise in space, and you hear loud explosions in space I find it distracting. But most of my friends don’t know it and so they are totally fine with it. And I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t know that drive the more knowledgeable nuts.
    I can live with odd space creatures, and time travel and even FTL travel – because they are either unknowns or are necessary premises to the fictional universe. For example You can’t travel too far in space unless you assume an FTL or worm holes or something. The whole premise falls apart without it.

  • Brian Utterback

    Some of the clips are missing and marked “unavailable”. Can someone describe the missing clips?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

      Which ones are missing?

  • TCs

    The first one missing is the K-T event(at 15:38). The second one is the next one after that, the “perfect simulation” with the “wall of water”(at 18:03), both Kevin’s clips and both yours (25:13 and 27:30), 4 so far.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

      I don’t have Kevin’s clips, but they were both simulations of a large asteroid hitting the Earth — one completely unrealistic, the other was quite good.

      I’ll edit the post to include my own two clips.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “But if you know something – for example there is no noise in space, and you hear loud explosions in space I find it distracting.”

    Interesting question. If there is a gas explosion in space, the gas molecules fly outwards on ballistic trajectories at a bit faster than the speed of sound (as measured before the explosion, that is). What happens when they hit the side of your spaceship? Do they make a sound?

    But I know what you mean. I tend to notice turbulent clouds of burning smoke. And of course the fact that all dog-fight space battles are held entirely within about a cubic kilometre.

  • hwm

    Comic-con has really changed a lot since I was a kid. I used to go every year, and believe it or not comics were once the main attraction.

  • jlive

    Where should one draw the line between too little constraint or too few rules and too much or too many? I was actually quite satisfied with Star Trek’s “red matter” for what it was … Of course, I would have been happier with something sort of close to realistic instead (and you’re right that it’s silly to think it would be less bad if simply dropped onto Vulcan’s surface), but given that it was “red matter,” it was enough for me that it had to be handled carefully and that a little bit could cause a planet to implode. On the other side, I think, is the Force and its relation to miticlorians (sp?). No explanation was needed for the Force and to give one actually hurt the believability of that universe for me. Do you think this only happens for things that are seemingly fundamental or basic? And if so, given that we keep looking for more fundamental things in real science, what’s up with that? Was it just that the explanation was pitched at the wrong level? (I think similar things can be said about time travel stories. A good time travel story doesn’t need to explain how time travel works and probably shouldn’t except to point at made-up technology, like time-phone-booths, TARDIS’s, or flux capacitors. Being self-consistent is a different requirement.)

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  • olderwithmoreinsurance

    My basic rule (and John Scalzi’s too, for that matter) is that a good writer shouldn’t get the science we know NOW wrong. Simple rule, actually quite easy to follow, almost universally violated by the writer’s on the panel mentioned here. Extrapolation, self-consistent new universes, new laws of physics are the meat of hard SF and always have been. It’s too easy to allow total schlock (Gresham’s Law etc.) if we let people get away with violating this Prime Directive, so to speak, of good SF. It’s a shame to see people who scold accomodationists in other walks of life be so willing to accept it in SF. If a writer isn’t willing to do a little research to keep their readers/watchers from not being able to suspendend their disbelief, then they’re unlikely to enjoy my patronage.

  • Ribert

    I think Isaac Asimov wrote some essays on how some stories (including his) had become outdated due to new observations and scientific theories (I particularly remember the jungle Venus concept). As #18 said, unless you’ve noted the reason why, stories should be consistent with currently known information. Beyond that, go for it.

    I’ve enjoyed authors that have disclosed the technology of their universes as a matter of course. The underlying concept is that if the stories are contemporary in-universe, the characters wouldn’t be describing what’s going on. Think of all the tech we use today without a moment’s consideration and you’ll see what I mean.

  • roselan

    As said, C.S.I is far from reality too. (what takes 5 minutes there usually takes 5 weeks in real life). Yet lots of people like it. Same for Dr.house, cops movies, and so on.

    So why is there good bad-science (SF) movies? I can’t tell, maybe it’s the accumulation of bad science which is problematic. What I know is that in most sf movies, I play a game to find out inconsistencies. wrong wrong right wrong, or try to find an explanation (infamous star wars laser blades) (you so want them to happen ^^).

    On a side note, when I was watching mars attack, I was the only one in the FULL theater laughing out loud a 1:30 of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM8SdkeL4SA. I had to explain why (in a high pitched voice) to my friends after the movie…. (and the idea is even better than the helium “leak” imo).

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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