Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 6, 2013

Forgiveness, or Why I Like Stargate but Not Hoagland, Creationists, Planet Xers, etc.


I’ve thought about writing this post for awhile but never got around to it. Now, I’m writing it instead of going to bed.

If you couldn’t figure it out from the title, the purpose of this post is to discuss why I like some television shows and movies that incorporate some bad science and am willing to forgive that versus why I dislike the purveyance of bad science by people such as creationists, UFOlogists, IDers, Planet Xers, or individuals like Richard Hoagland, Nancy Lieder, Maurice Cotterell, or Whitley Strieber — to name a few.

In other words, why I forgive some, but I don’t forgive others.

For Entertainment Purposes Only

We’ve all seen this or heard this line, especially if we read the 2-pt print at the bottom of many websites for, e.g., astrologers. For them, though, it’s to keep themselves legal. For science fiction shows such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or Stargate, that really is the intent: To entertain. Well, to make money for the network, but to tell an entertaining story.

I think that Gene Roddenberry was right in that, to tell a good story, it usually has to be about humans and the human condition. That was part of his impetus for having Spock in TOS and TAS, Data in TNG, and later directors to have Kes / 7 of 9 and Neelix in VOY, the various non-humans in DS9, and we’ll ignore That-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. These were the outsiders looking in on and commenting on and reacting to the humans and how they dealt with new situations.

Star Wars is similar: It can really be boiled down to the classic Hero’s Journey and is about humans fighting for freedom and survival. Stargate is similar, as well, having Teal’c as the alien character looking in for SG-1, Teyla on ATL, and then UNI failed for many reasons, but I think the lack of that non-human character looking in contributed.

Is the science perfect? Abso-friggin’-lutely not. I recently (last week) re-watched the original Stargate movie and then first three episodes of SG-1. In the first episode, the scientist character (Sam Carter, played by the amazing actress Amanda Tapping) has a conversation with the archaeologist (Daniel Jackson, played by the actor Michael Shanks:

Sam: According to the expanding universe model, all bodies in the universe are constantly moving apart.

Daniel: So in the thousands of years since the Stargate was built-

Sam: All the coordinates could have changed.

Daniel: But why does it still work between Abydos and Earth?

Sam: Abydos is probably the closest planet in the network to Earth. I mean, the closer they are, the less the difference in relative position due to expansion. The further away, the greater the difference. In a few thousand more years, it won’t work between Earth and Abydos either.

Daniel: Unless you can adjust for the displacement.

Sam: Right. Now with this map as a base, that should be easy. All we have to do is correct for Doppler shift. Then I should be able to arrive at a computer model that will predict the adjustments necessary to get the Gate working again.

Purists might say there’s nothing wrong with that, in the movie they clearly state Abydos is in a distant galaxy. But, in the TV series, and later in this first episode, they clearly state the Stargate system operates within the Milky Way. You have to have much more power and “dial” an extra glyph to get outside the Galaxy.

Ergo, the expanding universe does not apply in anyway. Sam in supposed to be an astrophysicist. An intro astronomy major would know that this line makes no sense, that galaxies are gravitationally bound objects in this epoch of the universe. Stellar drift – which the script writers use later in the series perhaps because they were told expanding universe doesn’t apply – is a very plausible explanation. But, that doesn’t change the fact that I rolled my eyes and shook my head when I heard that line.

And the follow-up of using Doppler shift to correct for it is equally fallacious: If you’re going to a distant galaxy where expansion plays a role, Doppler shift only gets you the radial velocity towards/away from Earth. You still have to know the Hubble Constant – which they didn’t in the 1990s when SG-1 started – to convert that to a distance, and you would need to know the motion across the sky, which you can’t really get for a distant galaxy (though it would be small relatively speaking).

In other words, the science is wrong. But it wasn’t as though the entire plot hinged upon it. It wasn’t as though the producers were trying to tell us that this is what’s really going on in the world (unlike what William Henry may think).

As such, I’m willing to forgive this kind of thing for the broader entertainment value, just like I’m willing to forgive the fact that everyone somehow speaks English all across the galaxy.

Movies I sometimes hold to a higher standard. For example, I saw the new Star Trek: Into Darkness movie a few weeks ago. Towards the end, the Enterprise is in orbit of Earth, but at the distance of the Moon. No engines. From the shot, they are implying that it is orbiting at the same speed as the Moon around Earth In the space of a half hour or so, the ship is plunging through Earth’s atmosphere, sure to crash. Sorry, but no. Being at the distance of the Moon and traveling at the same velocity is a stable orbit. Or, it took the Apollo astronauts three days to get to the Moon, and three days to get back, under powered travel. Not 20 minutes. No way the ship would be plunging through Earth’s atmosphere so soon. And that bothered me. Perhaps because it was a higher-budget endeavor than a weekly TV show. But, I still enjoyed the movie and it didn’t affect my opinion of it overall.

Then the Others

And then there are the ones of whom and of what I spoke in the second paragraph. They make factual mistakes, too. Like Mike Bara talking about how Mars’ orbit is elliptical because of its large distance difference from Earth, or that the surface of Earth is darker than clouds because light takes more time to reach it than clouds when the camera is in space (and oceans are darkest “because the light has to travel all the way to the ocean floor before it is reflected back to the camera.”

But, they try to sell that “science” as reality, and that’s all they’re selling. Sitchen was not creating an alternate world with an alien race that created humans and lived on a planet that swings near Earth every 3600 years and trying to make money with sci-fi. He really thought that is true.

In-so doing, and in perpetuating their own mythologies as real, they in fact do harm. I’ve often stated in my podcast and blog that bad astronomy is much less harmful than things like bad medicine where people really die because they take a homeopathic pill rather than get chemo. Very rare for someone to die because of astronomy pseudoscience.

But, astronomy pseudoscience is where it can start. Someone listens to James McCanney and electric universe stuff and thinks, “Well that’s weird, I’ve never heard about this before from ‘establishment’ scientists, but this guy has degrees, he has a platform, maybe there’s more to this.”

Bad science in any form is like a gateway drug: If you’re credulous about one thing and you don’t go through the critical thinking necessary to understand why it’s wrong, it opens you up to being taken advantage of by pseudoscience that can do a lot more physical harm.

Final Thoughts

I think that’s why I give science fiction shows and movies a free pass when they get the science wrong (in most cases), but I don’t give people like Richard Hoagland a pass: It’s all about intent.

Stargate is meant to entertain and they usually try to get the science right. Richard Hoagland, on the other hand, does not. He tries to sell you books, sell his appearance on TV shows and conferences, and various other ways of making money on perpetuating a misunderstanding of how science is done and the conclusions from its process.

And I think this is a good post to leave you with as I get ready for TAM 2013!


November 12, 2012

Falling through Earth

Filed under: general science,movies,physics — Stuart Robbins @ 8:18 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Just a quick post for today (busy busy here as usual, stuff should settle down a bit come December …). What would it be like to take an elevator trip through Earth from one side to the other?

Apparently, in the remake of the hilariously (poor science-)fiction movie Total Recall, the remake which I have not seen, there is a plot point of taking an elevator trip through Earth’s center from one side of the other. Apparently this is the only way to safely travel from one city to the other … I hope it’s not just some stupid thing that seems “cool” that serves no other purpose than to spend a budget on special effects.

Anyway, I came across a Wired article today where a physicist spends great detail explaining what would it actually be like to travel through Earth’s center. As with all great investigations when we have too much time on our hands, he even does numerical simulations, though it looks like he graphed in Excel … but I won’t hold it against him.

He shows several interesting things, including that the elevator would reach speeds no slower than 8 km/sec (around 5-6 miles/second). That’s really really fast. If he includes the higher density of Earth’s core, then you reach speeds up to 50% faster than that, even.

He also addresses the concept of weightlessness. This is something that all physics majors learn about in detail in Classical Mechanics classes (Physics I on steroids after your first and usually second year). But, I’ve always found it somewhat difficult to easily convey why, without drawing diagrams of circles and triangles, you would be weightless if you were stationary at Earth’s center. He goes through that in agonizing detail before letting you know that, actually, in the scenario in this version of Total Recall, you’d be weightless the whole time because you’re in free fall.

So, as I said, quick post for today, head over to Wired if you have a few minutes to reach about the physics of taking an elevator trip through the Center of the Earth.

October 8, 2011

Why Movies Need Scientist Advisors – Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Never played with the toys, never watched the cartoons, never read the comics, never had any interest in them. But tonight I watched the Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie. It was intriguing, impressive CGI, somewhat boring plot but it did have enough twists and good looking actors to keep me interested. I found it entertaining for what it was worth. I am perfectly happy suspending my disbelief to enjoy some mindless entertainment for a few hours, especially after a long work week that will continue after I wake up in the morning.

But that suspension of disbelief only goes so far, especially when they are stupid little things that the writers/directors/special effects people get just plain wrong. It’s stupid, really really stupid, to get these things wrong, especially when they wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way. It shows pure laziness on the part of these people, and it demonstrates that they unfortunately don’t seem to care enough about the intelligence of their audience to worry about checking things.

I’ll warn you up-front, this post is a bit of a rant. This post is also why I’m part of the US National Academy of Sciences “Science and Entertainment Exchange” program that pairs real scientists with real writers and directors to act as advisors in these cases (I’ve already been tapped twice for some interesting projects!).

With that said, let’s see what Michael Bay got wrong. (Note: SPOILER ALERT.)

Opening Sequences

The movie opens with some pretty nice archival footage mixed with modern actors dealing with the Apollo 11 launch and landings. Unfortunately, there are a few things wrong with the sequence of Apollo 11 on the moon. I’m actually fine with Buzz and Neil losing contact with the public to start their whole secret mission thing (even though that didn’t happen in real life). Again, suspension of disbelief for the sake of the movie. My problem, though, is two-fold.

First, there are stars in the background. It seems that every movie* special effects director wants to put stars in the sky from the moon. After all, it’s black sky so it must be night so there must be stars, right? And they are on the “dark side” of the moon … but that’s later on and I’ll get back to it. As I cover in this post, no stars were easily visible to the naked eye because it was daytime. If Earth didn’t have an atmosphere, we would have a black sky during the day and still not be able to see stars.

The second issue I have with the sequence is that the astronauts are clearly on the moon early in the morning, as evidenced by long shadows cast (could be late evening, but they actually did land during early morning). At 5 minutes 45 seconds into the movie, they “lose contact” to go on their secret mission, and the movie has a Walter Cronkite impersonator state, “We now have had confirmation of loss of signal from the Apollo 11. The Apollo 11 is at the moment on the far side of the moon.”

This statement is insane. First, it’s wrong historically. Second, we would not be able to have any contact with Apollo if it were on the far side – the side facing away from us – because there would be no way to get the signal from them to Earth. We would never have sent people there without any way to contact them. Third, they claim they’re on the far side, but then they pan out and you can clearly see Earth bright and somewhat high in the lunar sky from the astronauts’ location. If they were on the far side, you know, that whole side facing away from Earth, you would not be able to see Earth. ‘Cause you’re facing away and you have the rest of the moon between you and the planet.

Then there’s the issue of equating this with the dark side, but I’ll get to that in the next section. I’m not even going to get into the fact they have sound on the moon where there isn’t any atmosphere to propagate the sound, for that would be a third point and I said I only had to big issues with this sequence.

These are things they could have easily gotten right and it would not have in any way detracted from the movie.

*Yes, I know there are a few that get it right, like 2001. But let’s be fair here — the VAST majority get it wrong.

More Missions

Another short WRONG statement was about how all the other NASA missions collected more stuff from the cybertronian ship that they found on the moon. Historically this is simply wrong because the Apollo sites landed in different places all on the near side of the Moon. We have had orbital photographs of all the Apollo landing sites now for over two years, we know where they landed, and they were not in the same place.

If you want to somehow argue that Apollo were just the public ones and there were secret missions, well, think of how much of a noise (literally and figuratively) it made when Apollo was launched. Or the basic fact that the soviets were spying on us just as much as we on them and would have raised hell if we had a launch we didn’t tell them about it.

Again, this was a statement that did not need to be made at all because it didn’t add to the movie, it just took away.

Dark Side ≠ Far Side

Apparently the writers of this movie never read my blog, for I addressed this issue in one of my very first posts. I also addressed it in my first podcast episode.

At 58 minutes in, Sam (our hero) states that an engineer “may have messed with the code preventing [the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] from mapping the far side of the moon, which is also the dark side.” Seriously? I mean, the movie was fine with the plot point that the guy was working for the Decepticons (yes, the bad guys are called “Decepticons”) and was killed after they didn’t need him and he did something to a satellite so that we couldn’t find the crashed spaceship. There was absolutely no need to add the WRONG clause about the dark side being the far side other than to show further willful ignorance.

Or a statement that we couldn’t map an entire half of the moon? I think someone would have figured out very early on that there was a problem with the software or hardware. This would not be a hidden thing. (And for the record, the Lunar Reconnaissance Oribter maps the entire lunar surface about once per month with its wide-angle camera.)

It’s also plainly wrong when we go back to that opening sequence where they (wrongly) state Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon, but they show the astronauts in sunlight and casting shadows. Obviously, the far side is not the dark side.

Unfortunately, throughout the movie they make this mistake, compounding it by equating the two as opposed to just using them interchangeably. Using them interchangeably would still be wrong, it’s just less obvious and slightly more forgivable. For example, I could say at one time, “My favorite food is Doritos.” I could say another time, “My favorite food is ice cream.” Obviously one is not correct, but it’s somewhat forgivable hyperbole. Instead, the movie effectively says, “My favorite food is Doritos, which is ice cream.” Seriously, that’s what Sam’s statement is like.

Another time they equate these is during the meeting with the former Russian cosmonaut where he states that Luna 3 photographed the “dark side, the shadow side” and saw “nothing.” Duh. It’s in shadow. Night. Except the photos he’s holding up clearly show a late-afternoon or early-morning shot based on shadow lengths (morning/afternoon dependent upon which way is north). Then he said hat Lunar 4 did see the ship. It’s just … wrong! ANY astronomer would have told them to simply replace “dark” with “far.” Not that hard. Would not have taken away anything from the movie.

Final Thoughts

Okay, now that that rant is over, I feel a little better. The whole point of this post is that you can have a perfectly good movie that loses nothing by making sure that the basic science is right and not stupidly wrong. If you’re going to break science, do it intelligently and for a good reason. I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story (like in this case that we have intelligent, sentient machines locked in a long civil war that’s now playing out on Earth).

But when the writers show absolute laziness by making kindergarden mistakes with basic things like the dark versus far side of the moon, it detracts from the entire experience, shows that they are not being intelligent, and it shows that they don’t respect the intelligence of their audience. Even Leonard Nimoy’s voice could not overcome it.

To end with a quote of Isaac Asimov, “The most common mistake a science fiction writer makes is to downgrade science. Now, these days particularly, many science fiction writers have very little to do with science, and many science fiction stories have very little to do with science. But whether a science fiction story has science or not, it is impossible to write a good one if you are completely ignorant of science. You will make mistakes even when you think science isn’t involved. … There are other science fiction shows in which it is quite clear that the writers and the producer know nothing about science and don’t care and that shows, too, and it is impossible to be a self-respecting viewer and accept it.” (emphasis mine)

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