Recent science articles expose bad science in Gravity movie

An artist's concept showing the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft is seen orbiting the moon as it prepares to fire its maneuvering thrusters to maintain a safe orbital altitude. (Credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry)

An artist’s concept showing the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft is seen orbiting the moon as it prepares to fire its maneuvering thrusters to maintain a safe orbital altitude. (Credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry)

Science facts and Hollywood have a tenuous relationship. There’s a little thing called “drama” that gets in the way. Recent science articles have taken the Gravity movie to task for its bad science. While suspenseful with superb special effects, the movie lacks accuracy in orbital science. When searching for good research paper topics, physical science majors could consider setting Hollywood movies straight and fix their dramatic yet erroneous science. Consult a science article or science journal to research the truth.

Gravity movie gets the science mostly wrong (Spoiler warning!)

In “Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Awesome Twitter Rant About Science Errors In ‘Gravity’” in Popular Science, posted October 7, 2013, Shaunacy Ferro collects the famous astronomer’s Twitter list of science errors:

• Why is Sandra Bullock’s character, a medical engineer, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope?

• The force “angular momentum” would keep the characters rotating in zero-g until another force acts upon them to slow them down or stop them.

• The Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station and the Chinese space station Tiangong are not in orbits that line up. They are one hundred miles apart: not within reach of a drifting human.

• Communication satellites orbit 100 times higher than portrayed in the movie.

• Most satellites orbit Earth west to east, yet the satellite debris in the movie moves east to west.

• When they were tangled, George Clooney’s character could easily have floated back to Bullock in zero-g, not drift away into dark space and certain death. Ferro remarked: “This was the most cringe-worthy moment of the movie for me. CLOONEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE. But he had to die. He just had to. For Sandra Bullock to find her inner strength. Sacrifices.”

• How could Bullock easily navigate vehicles designed by three different countries: America, Russia and China?

• It’s a shame that we enjoy watching the actions of fictional astronauts more than real ones.

In the article “Wake Up and Smell the Science, Hollywood!” posted  February 23, 2010 in Discovery News, Ian O’ Neill wrote that bad science in movies “does miss an opportunity to prove just how exciting real science can be without having to make stuff up. Movies can be an educational tool, why not depict science accurately?”

Is Hollywood expected to get the science right?

People generally don’t go to a Hollywood movie to learn accurate science. That’s what school and science books are for. But movies are popular entertainment, and what people see in them, hear catch phrases and equate with real science possibility permeates their thinking and their culture. As science is a part of our everyday lives, it could be dangerous when people believe fictional science in movies could actually be true. We need to be a science-literate culture, we need to believe in basic scientific principles, or else we’ll miss out on the ability to make scientific discoveries.

Some movies that earn scientists’ praise for their accurate science are Contact, Apollo 13 and Moon. But they are few. The worst Hollywood offenders have been The Core, Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon and 2012.

Hollywood could actually encourage science

Philip C. Plait, author of Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax” 2002, found on Questia.com, loved science fiction as a kid. As an adult and a scientist, he doesn’t hate Hollywood, and believes that suspension of disbelief is good when enjoying entertainment. “Although bad science in movies does reinforce the public’s misunderstanding of science, the fact that science fiction does so well at the box office is heartening,” said Plait.

“I would of course prefer that movies portray science (and scientists!) more realistically. Sometimes science must be sacrificed for the plot, but many times … correct science could actually improve the plot.” Plait acknowledged that even a bad science movie will inspire a kid somewhere to read a science book and learn the truth.

Science majors looking for good research paper topics can use Gravity or other Hollywood science-based movies. Choose a movie, and use biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, anthropology, health and medicine or other science field to analyze the good and bad information portrayed in the movie. Questia.com’s Science and Technology libraries of books, magazines, science journals and newspapers can offer great research materials.

What are your favorite Hollywood movies with bad science?

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