Scientists to Hollywood: Please Break Only 1 Law of Physics Per Movie

By Smriti Rao | February 23, 2010 12:24 pm

1206022046_starship-trooper“More science, less fiction” is the message from the scientific community to Hollywood, even as the sci-fi film Avatar continues to rake in cash at the box office. Physics professor Sidney Perkowitz took to the stage at last week’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to encourage more science in movies, but also to beg filmmakers not to bungle up their facts. For example, a movie should only be permitted to break one law of physics, he suggested.

Perkowitz, a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange set up to advise Hollywood, singled out the giant space bugs in the film Starship Troopers for special scrutiny. He pointed out that if a real bug was scaled up to the size of the on-screen insects, it would collapse under its own weight. Perkowitz has come up with a set of scientific guidelines for Hollywood, and also encourages filmmakers to fact-check their scripts in a more deliberate manner so that audiences don’t dismiss a movie as absurd and stay away from the box office.

The Guardian reports:

The proposals are intended to curb the film industry’s worst abuses of science by confining scriptwriters to plotlines that embrace the suspension of disbelief but stop short of demanding it in every scene.

Perkotwitz hopes the new guidelines will prevent studio execs from making script snafus like those in the movie The Core, in which scientists drill to the center of the Earth to detonate a nuclear device aimed at restarting the rotation of the planet’s core. Perkotwitz said the science in the film “was out to lunch,” and blamed its obviously unsound premise for its box office failure. Many scientists have noted that the idea that the Earth’s core could stop spinning is deeply implausible, and have also reminded audiences that anyone who traveled to the core would be instantly vaporized by the heat.

The Tom Hanks vehicle Angels and Demons also got an “F” from Perkowitz for its science. In that movie, Hanks’ character, Robert Langdon, has to protect the Vatican from going kaboom. The weapon in question is an antimatter bomb, confined in a glass vial by a magnetic field produced by a small battery. Perkowitz told The Guardian: “The amount of antimatter they had was more than we will make in a million years of running a high-energy particle collider…. You can’t contain it using an iPod battery.”

TV shows that scored low on the science-o-meter included Heroes, for its dubious claims on invisibility. Meanwhile, Lost did well for its depiction of time travel.

And how did James Cameron’s visual extravaganza about blue-skinned Na’avi flying about on multi-colored prehistoric-looking birds fare? Avatar was actually pretty good, according to Perkowitz, and joins films like Gattaca on his list of movies that “reflect real issues of science and society, such as genetic engineering.”

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Image: Starship Troopers

  • MARK

    isn’t it called entertainment for a reason. people should be really concerned about a thing called: PREDICTIVE PROGRAMMING, which is running ramped although holly-wood.

  • Dennis

    Me to Scientists: Please Lighten Up!
    Come on – it’s Science FICTION.
    Some has better science, some has better fiction.
    Sometimes the former is more entertaining, sometimes the latter.
    But it’s all just entertainment, it’s not meant to be educational!
    The sci-fi genre, maybe more than any other, is built on the concept of suspension of disbelief.
    If a film goes too far, and exceeds its audience’s capacity to suspend disbelief, then it loses that audience.
    There’s also a fairly thin line between sci-fi and fantasy; I would’ve classified Avatar as fantasy.
    And how does Avatar get a passing grade from scientists?
    What’s the scientific explanation for those floating mountains?

  • Ross

    The floating mountains in Avatar were in a region of strong magnetic flux between Pandora and its parent gas giant planet. That stretched credibility too far but most of the rest of the movie appeared to operate in an internally self consistent universe.

    2001: A Space Odyssey must have the best claim to a film that tries to get the science right.

  • Femme Fatale

    So, does this mean we can police all the movies with awful plot-holes, too? Lots of people won’t pick up on the science being wrong, but when things are flat out contradictory, well, it’s hard to just let that go.

  • Cal Godot

    Cries that “it’s only a movie” or “it’s science FICTION” coupled with demands that film be “entertaining” and not “educational” are not only anti-intellectual but also ignore the fact that a film can be scientifically correct AND entertaining. Many examples abound. Additionally, the “entertaining” elements of bad-science science-fiction are not found in the bad science but in the good action, plot and characters. The Core would only have been a better, more entertaining movie had the fictional scientists had to deal with the real science issues and still somehow correct the “frozen” core. Let’s say the film is allowed one bad-science premise: the earth’s core is slowing or has stopped rotating. Imagine the plot possibilities as scientists try to figure out how to fix the unimaginable and impossible, while still having to obey the rules of science. It’s clear that most Hollywood writers lack both imaginative and scientific thinking. Believe me: that’s what I do for a living myself!

  • mjt

    Avatar’s science is accurate?? Give me a break! The genetics are off, the botany is off, the mechanical biology is off and the physics is off–in nearly every scene. On top of that, the plot was a hackneyed, cliched, threadbare retread. Oh, but the pictures were pretty! Columnist Sydney J. Harris once said (about pornography)–if it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.

  • Mike

    A better idea. You can’t call it science fiction if it gratuitously breaks know laws of the Universe or masquerades magic as science. Including the word “science” in describing a movie about pocahontas trying to save her tree fort and magical floating mountains from the evil army machines.

    Movies like 2001 are the only movies that deserve the genre classification of science fiction. Everything else is just fantasy.

  • Mike

    It seems I didn’t finish my thought or edit it properly. >.<

    My point is, rather than trying to tell movies what they can and can't do, I am just saying there should be certain requirements for getting your movie classified as sci fi.

    Also, "Including the word…" sentence I meant to complete with "is ridiculous." :)

  • Brian Too

    Hollywood, screenwriters and authors are going to take this most seriously!

    Oh wait, no they aren’t.

  • Israel

    Who cares about if it tottaly impossible. ITS A F***ING MOVIE!!!

    [Moderator’s note: Edited the cuss word.]

  • Simon

    You know what would have made “The Core” a better movie? Better writing. If we had to abide by the “one fiction element” rule, we would not have most of the science fiction ever produced.

    Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek Voyager’s Captain Janeway, on the subject of bad science in sci-fi said something to the effect of, “Doctors hate watching doctor shows, and lawyers hate watching lawyer shows, but scientists love to watch science fiction.” We watch science fiction because we like to dream, and we like to ask the questions how can we make that fiction, reality.

    I’m a Physicist, and I enjoy sci-fi movies, television, and books, despite when they get the science wrong.

  • Tanin

    In contrast to fantasy movies, science and plausible science fiction cultivates our culture for future endeavors. It sets realistic visions of what the future could bring and sparks our interests in going there. Cell phones, iPhones, medical scanners, visualization software, our modern connectivity are all examples of how fiction based on science helped bring forth technologies and ideas that are proving useful today.

  • Jammit

    Hmmmmm yeah the guy has a point about the space bugs collapsing under their own weight, but he has never been there, so he wouldn’t know – would he.

    As the commander of the Starship Troopers, I must point out the fact that these are not carbon based insects from planet earth; they are a composed of bio-organic elements derived from Krypton and Upsidasium; which makes them super strong and almost weightless.

    I know – I have the proof, I was there.

    Perhaps the topic should be moved from must and must not – after all Science Fiction is big dreams and a few tall stories; onto Intelligent Facts and Intelligent Fantasy….

    Beam me up Jim.

  • Tom

    When science is stretched to the point of fantasy… Just call it that, fantasy. Avatar was more on par with Lord of the Rings in terms of fantasy than science fiction. I just because you have some robots or a scene in space anything becomes science fiction. Or what if there was a magical robot dragon flying through space? Fantasy or sci-fi? It would blow your mind eitherway.

    I think when movies embrace real science to some degree, the audience will respond better than to completely unbelievable situations. Maybe…

  • kristianna276

    Sci-fi have been around since the time of Buck Rogers, so why has it taken the science community this long to call for scientific correctness? What about Star Wars and the Star Wars program? Can I use the force to overpower my Seth advisory? The Journey to the Center of the Earth? Voyage to the bottom of the Sea? The Land that Time Forgot? The Planet of the Apes?

  • Dark Angel

    okay, fist of all, shut up about putting more science in movies. especially movies with sci-fi jesus christ, if you have a problem with the way other people want THEIR movies then maybe you shouldn’t watch them. if you want movies with more boring shit in them make them ur damn self. and i speak for all of us sci-fi nerds. we like it the way it is. stop trying to change something just because you don’t like the fact that it doesn’t bring in money because of the science. and breaking the law of physics in movies is the whole point of making a movie. Scientists think that science can explain everything but when in reality it can’t. like my ability to see spirists, science cant explain why i can. it’s just somthing that happens. and another thing, why would people put more science in good movies. if they want to kill people with boredom there are a movies called documenaries. don’t mess with other people’s fun. besides if people wanted to learn more about science or even cared about it they would probably study it or go to college to mayjor in it. but honestly…it’s just that boring most of the time. and besides who wants to be in the same place as snobby people who ALWAYS have to prove others wrong? science can ruin a person.


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