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Hollywood’s Responsibility to Get Science Right

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was lurking Battleship on HBO the other night — I’m always curious if a movie is quite as bad as everyone claims it is.

The plot, acting and dialogue were all about as mediocre as I expected, but what really blew me away was how wildly inaccurate the science was.  Recently there has been a bit of a controversy over the historical accuracy of Lincoln, as well of a discussion of what, if any responsibility movies have to be faithful to history even at the expense of good drama.

Like Kevin Sorbo playing his twin brother, Barry.

It’s kinda pointless to have that argument when movies cannot even get basic science right.

The premise of Battleship is that instead of listening for alien radio signals (what SETI does), NASA sends supercharged radio signals out to stars. Aliens then hear that signal and come invade Earth. Given that this all happens over the course of several years, that the nearest star is roughly four light years away, and radio waves travel at the speed of light, the film implies that this supercharging process is allowing radio signals to travel faster than the speed of light. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

What’s really lazy about this is that the movie makes no attempt to explain how the theory of relatively as been beat. It doesn’t even acknowledge it. Star Trek dealt with this issue of interstellar communication by simply declaring that there is something called subspace communication — there’s this domain called subspace that you can send data through, and it will travel distances faster than the speed of light can in normal space.

“I’m sorry, there’s no one here by the name of Spork…”

The point is that you can have your cake and eat it too. You can acknowledge facts, and then for the sake of telling a good story, come up with some device that defies science — which is what the genre of “science fiction” is all about.

Firstly, I find sloppiness like this to just be embarrassing. I really do think that people in other countries are going to watch movies like Battleship — which in fairness is hardly unique in its total disregard for scientific facts — and think that Americans have never taken a 5th grade science class. (Part of the of the purpose of this blog post is to assure the people of the Earth that we’re not that stupid.)

And not to get high and mighty, but if there is any kind of entertainment that makes us dumber, it’s stuff like this. While, I’m sure viewers recognize that the movie is fiction, without the qualification of a plot device like subspace, I’m sure some people are walking out of the theater thinking on an unconscious level that some things travel faster than the speed of light. 

@Scotty1701 Beam me up now #klingons #shitjustgotreal

Why does something like that matter?

All of these little bits of misinformation add up and I just see no good from people being so terribly uninformed. To look at this from the other side, the original Star Trek series did get people excited about science by attempting to be somewhat grounded in reality, acknowledging to viewers where the science ended and the fantasy began.

Good can come from accuracy.

And frankly, being scientifically accurate usually does make for better storytelling — everyone loves explanations that explain how the impossible is possible.

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