On Neil deGrasse Tyson vs Star Wars

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Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Twitter-review on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and pointed out its ‘scientific inaccuracies’. He said that BB-8 would have skidded uncontrollably in the sand, and that Starkiller base would have vapourised from sucking in all that energy from a star.

Of course, many people did not take too kindly to these tweets (just look at the replies to the two tweets I linked above). Slate argues that Tyson misses the point of science fantasy. Though Tyson says the spirit of his tweets are ‘All done with the intent of empowering the viewer to see and appreciate a film more deeply’

Here, let me throw in my perspective. I’m a physicist who also writes fiction, and I can sort of see both sides of the argument here. The problem is, determining what constitute a scientific (in)accuracy in fiction is a complicated issue, largely due to the inherent nature of fiction, which, by definition, carries  fictional elements.

[Spoiler warning: Some spoilers for The Force Awakens]

The issue here isn’t that Tyson isn’t unaware that Star Wars is fiction, or that geeks and fans should not ignore scientific misinformation in their beloved SF properties. Instead, what I believe is happening is that Tyson and the fans are operating on different planes of assumptions, and thus we lost the potential of very educational and interesting debates. What ends up happening is that Star Wars fans are perceived to be overly sensitive and defensive of their beloved stories, and also Tyson is perceived to be elitist and pretentious about science.

In arguing what is or isn’t a scientific inaccuracy, let me make the following distinction:

  • In-universe logic: These are the ‘rules’ and events which are established to be possible within a fictional story. For example the Force abilities in Star Wars, or teleportation in Star Trek, or that faster-than-light travel is impossible in Firefly.
  • Real world physics: As the name suggests, the laws of physics as applies to our world.

Now, one way I propose to decide whether a given Tyson tweet is valid is to first see where it lies on the following Venn diagram:

venn

It is easy for Tyson, or any scientist, to point out if any event depicted in a movie/book/game is scientifically inaccurate. But that’s just…pointing things out. If we really want to empower ourselves to appreciate a film more deeply, as Tyson claims he wants us to do, then we need to engage the scientific content in terms of the established world built by the fiction.

We don’t want to just judge the scientific content while ignoring how the fiction addressed it – that will seem smug, elitist and dismissive. On the other hand, we shouldn’t just roll with whatever stuff that’s unfolding in the story, because that’s boring and we would be less engaged in the story. (For example, the events in The Martian wouldn’t be as tense and exciting without the heft of scientifically accurate limitations placed on the characters – otherwise we’d get a movie like Armageddon where the writer would have to present artificial stakes and it would immediately appear fake to the audience.)

Let’s take a particular tweet, where he says:

This one is interesting because it seems to carry factual information, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to mean anything. It’s correct that the energy generated by a star is enough to vaporize a planet. But it’s also like saying the energy created by a nuclear bomb would destroy a city, so it would vaporize your plane if you were to carry it on board.

But all this was already addressed consistently in the movie! The whole point of Starkiller Base was to vaporize planets, and to do so they needed to absorb energy from a nearby star. The members of the Resistance were even shown discussing how is it possible for a base to contain that much energy without exploding. Ken Leung’s character speculates about a “thermal oscillator”, which we can safely file under technobabble for in-universe logic. This ultimately leads to the climax where the Resistance tries to destroy the oscillator so that the Starkiller Base could actually be vaporized, as Tyson wanted all along.

If the entire point of this (as in Tyson’s tweets) exercise was in favour of science education, there are plenty of interesting science facts that could be thrown out in reference to the events of the movie. A few examples come to mind:

  • The Starkiller Base absorbing an entire star, hence its mass, would have increased the surface gravity of the Base. Thus during the Rey vs. Kylo fight, both of them might be struggling to stand upright.
  • Since star systems and planets are so far away, it wouldn’t be possible for the destruction of the Hosnian system to be instantaneously visible on Takodana, where Han, Chewie, Rey and Finn are. (A little bit of digging shows that it shouldn’t even be visible at all, since Takodana was in an entirely different part of the galaxy!)
  • Kylo Ren is shown Force-freezing a blaster ray midair. That’s one of the most awesome Force abilities I have seen so far, but that’s impossible according to Special Relativity; which states in any frame of reference the speed of light is always the same, so there is no situation where you could find a blaster ray frozen in place! Light, however, does slow down slightly when entering something dense such as a piece of glass or water. So we could imagine Kylo somehow Force-creating something really dense such that the blaster ray slows down until we could barely see it moving on screen.

When it comes to science, for me, I’d much movie where the audience tacitly understands that something is not meant to be scientifically inaccurate. Because on the other hand we would have movies who loudly claims to be based on “real science” but subsequently pushes pseudoscientific nonsense in its plot.

Also, in terms of advancing science education and literacy, instead of just mechanically enforcing scientific accuracy everywhere, it would be much better to encourage the spirit of science, and the attitudes towards the scientific method in movies instead. For instance, having women and persons of colour to portray scientists and positive role models.

I would argue that seeing Rey being proficient in fixing the Millenium Falcon is a more powerful influence in inspiring young kids to be unafraid to tinker with things, use their imagination and make their own stuff. Whether or not BB-8 is shown to be rolling correctly on-screen is besides the point.

An example is Avatar, while the movie isn’t that good, I would praise Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal as a scientist. Or Doctor Who, where it takes too many liberties in terms of scientific accuracy, but it nicely portrays the Doctor’s approach to understanding and solving problems, and also his penchant to overcome obstacles without the use of violence.

Because honestly, whether or not something we see on screen is scientifically accurate isn’t something we remember long after we see the movie. What truly sticks with us are the stories and the characters. It is the characters that inspire us to learn science and understand nature.

 

 

 

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