A Physicist Examines the Scientific Accuracy of Physics Shown in Major Movies: Batman, Gravity, Contact, Interstellar, Star Trek & More

Ever had a friend who can­not bring them­selves sus­pend dis­be­lief? It’s not a moral fail­ing, but it can be a tedious qual­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions like, say, the movies, or the cin­e­ma, or what­ev­er you call it when you’ve paid your day’s wages for a giant tub of car­cino­genic pop­corn and a three-hour dis­trac­tion. (These days, maybe, an over­priced stream­ing new release and Grub­hub.) Who doesn’t love a big-screen sci­ence fic­tion epic—science be damned? Who wants to lis­ten to the seat­mate who mut­ters “oh, come on!,” “no way!,” “well, actu­al­ly, that’s sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble”? You know they nev­er passed intro to physics….

Dominic Wal­li­man, on the oth­er hand, is a physi­cist. And he is not the kind of per­son to ruin a movie by going on about how goofy its sci­en­tif­ic ideas sound, though he’s like­ly to express appre­ci­a­tion for films that get it right. He doesn’t get bent out of shape by artis­tic license and can appre­ci­ate, for exam­ple, the cre­ative use of visu­al effects in Inter­stel­lar to rep­re­sent a black hole, which would oth­er­wise appear onscreen as, well, a black hole. “I’m okay with bad physics in movies,” he says, “because the job of a movie isn’t to be a sci­ence doc­u­men­tary, the goal of a movie is to tell an inter­est­ing sto­ry.”

Even so, if you sit him down and ask him to talk specif­i­cal­ly about sci­ence in movies, as a friend does in the video above, he’ll tell you what he thinks, and you’ll want to lis­ten to him (after the movie’s over) because he actu­al­ly knows what he’s talk­ing about. Over the years, Wal­li­man has mapped var­i­ous domains of sci­ence, like chem­istry, com­put­er sci­ence, biol­o­gy, math­e­mat­ics, physics, and his own field, quan­tum physics. His visu­al expla­na­tions make the rela­tion­ships between dif­fi­cult con­cepts clear and easy to fol­low. In this video, he com­ments on some of your favorite sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy films (stand­outs include the first Bat­man and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons) in ways that are equal­ly illu­mi­nat­ing.

Big win­ners for rel­a­tive accu­ra­cy, in Walliman’s opin­ion, are no sur­prise. They include Grav­i­ty, Con­tact (writ­ten by Carl Sagan), even a clip from the incred­i­bly smart Futu­ra­ma. It is soon appar­ent that the use of a fold­ed piece of paper to rep­re­sent space­time through a worm­hole has “become a bit of a cliché,” although a help­ful-enough visu­al aid. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “bor­ing” (with apolo­gies), a judg­ment that might dis­qual­i­fy Wal­li­man as a film crit­ic, in many people’s opin­ion, but does not tar­nish his sci­en­tif­ic rep­u­ta­tion.

One of the biggest sci­ence-in-film fails: 2009’s Star Trek, whose vil­lains have dis­cov­ered a sub­stance called “red mat­ter.” A sin­gle drop can destroy an entire plan­et, and the idiots seem to have enough onboard their ship to take out the uni­verse with one care­less oop­sie. Wal­li­man is maybe not qual­i­fied to weigh in on the pale­o­bi­ol­o­gy of Juras­sic Park, but Jeff Goldblum’s expla­na­tion of chaos the­o­ry fits with­in his purview. “So, this is not a good descrip­tion of chaos the­o­ry,” he says, “at all.” It is, how­ev­er, a fab­u­lous plot device.

If you’re inter­est­ed in more engag­ing­ly acces­si­ble, non-cin­e­ma-relat­ed, sur­veys of sci­en­tif­ic ideas, vis­it any one of Walliman’s many Domain of Sci­ence videos here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Math­e­mat­ics in Movies: Har­vard Prof Curates 150+ Scenes

Arthur C. Clarke Cre­ates a List of His 12 Favorite Sci­ence-Fic­tion Movies (1984)

Info­graph­ics Show How the Dif­fer­ent Fields of Biol­o­gy, Chem­istry, Math­e­mat­ics, Physics & Com­put­er Sci­ence Fit Togeth­er

The Map of Quan­tum Physics: A Col­or­ful Ani­ma­tion Explains the Often Mis­un­der­stood Branch of Sci­ence

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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