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Firefly in the accuracy of science fiction

Thursday 23 September 2010, by Webmaster


Six scientists tell us about the most accurate science fiction in their fields

Dave Goldberg, Physicist, Drexel University: If we count things like time travel, I’ve long said that (the actual device and the whole traveling nude thing aside) the original Terminator handles time travel better than any other movie I’ve ever seen. The entire thing is a completely self-consistent time loop, from John Conner’s parentage and survivalist training, to the picture of Sarah Conner that finds its way to Kyle Reese. No grandfather paradoxes at all, but there are information paradoxes.

2001 does a great job dealing with things like how long it would really take to get to another planet, and especially with the artificial gravity aspects of things. For that matter, I was kind of surprised to note that if you pay attention to the details, the trip to Pandora in Avatar seems well thought out. They mention (in an off-handed sort of way) how long the trip takes and why the soldiers need to be kept in cryo. It sounds like they’re taking a trip to Alpha Centauri. The whole thing about magical trees and unobtanium, not so much.

TV shows tend to do well in one area or another. Firefly, for example, is good because there aren’t any warp engines. Everything is done with (more or less) ordinary rockets. But they do fall into the familiar trap (or filming necessity, if you like) of introducing artificial gravity. I also like that all of the worlds seem to be terraformed planets in the same solar system. It explains why travel between them is feasible in days rather than in years or longer. What’s not clear is why the sun is so big and bright in the outer worlds. Whedon et al. also seem not to realize how big space is, even within our solar system. You can’t make a blockade in space. To give you an idea, the "asteroid belt" in our own solar system is supposed to be this incredibly dangerous region with rocks everywhere. In reality, the distance between big asteroids is more like a million miles. And that’s not hyperbole.

As for books, I’ve always been partial to Asimov’s Robot series. "Positronic Brain" is just gobbleygook, of course and the idea that the 3 laws MUST be imprinted (for stability reasons) makes zero sense, but the rest is quite good.

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