When Worlds Collide: Physics in the Movies

220px-From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_VerneEarlier this month, Professor Jordi Miralda Escudé gave a public lecture at the University of York, which looked at the relationship between science fact and science fiction. In space, we know you can’t hear screams, but should you be able to see lasers and set things on fire? We know it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but how many billion light years away from Earth are alien invaders likely to be?

TAKE ONE guest writer Robert Weatherall shared his notes with editor Rosy Hunt, who has reproduced them below.

– You really notice the extraordinary number of casualties in sci fi films.

– Newton first described ‘escape velocity’. Anything over 5G for more than a few minutes has serious effects and can be fatal. Verne’s ‘gun’ method [pictured left] would have resulted in about 40,000G.

– Why did no one notice the ARMAGEDDON asteroid until it was 18 days away? Someone was lying down on the job.

– I was wrong about the no. of errors in ARMAGEDDON, it’s 167 and rising. The asteroid was way, way, way bigger than you need to annihilate all life on earth. I think it was ‘size of Texas’. Dinosaur one was 6 miles. To blow it up today we would be able to assemble probably a 100 megaton bang, max, and you’d need two trillion megatons. Then all the bits would keep coming and annihilate all life on earth (in the film they all miraculously miss).

Unit of vomit is a Garn Unit, Garn being the most profuse vomiter ever known in space.

– Effects of weightlessness: you know these. 45% of astronauts vomit. Unit of vomit is a Garn Unit, Garn being the most profuse vomiter ever known in space. So your Garn score is a fraction of 1, as you can’t match one Garn. Also you fart a great deal.

– STEERING – imagine people swooping through meteor showers, dodging baddies etc. Can’t be done. You can issue a little puff of nitrogen to change your altitude or head off in another direction, very carefully, but there is no friction out there. Fictional spaceships behave as if they were fighter planes in air.

– STARSHIP TROOPERS is a favourite of Professor J’s. The enemies live on the other side of the galaxy and hurl asteroids at Earth, effectively ‘throwing rocks’. We saw the hero on their territory and radioing for aid. The aid would arrive after 120,000 years.

– If a real asteroid comes, it’s better to move away from the target area than smash it up and make lots of different target areas.

– INDEPENDENCE DAY: the baddies come from ’90 billion light years away’. It is only possible to come from 13 billion light years away, and how did Will Smith know anyway?

Click here to find out more about York University public lectures.


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