Movie Misconceptions about Physics

Guest post by Guy Micklethwait

American professor Sidney Perkowitz has recently stated that science fiction movies should be allowed only one major transgression of the laws of physics. He has won backing from a number of his peers after creating a set of guidelines for Hollywood. Perkowitz comments, “I am not offended if they make one big scientific blunder in a given film … You can have things move faster than the speed of light if you want. But after that I would like things developed in a coherent way.”

I disagree. A film that contains a lot of bad physics allows the audience to realise that this is a science fiction film and they are then in a position to question all the physics in the film. Yet, if you had a film that was full of good physics but had just one violation of the laws of physics buried in the middle – as Perkowitz desires – the risk is that the audience might not think the film was science fiction, which might then create a misconception about physics for them. Sci-fi movies have been particularly effective in the past at blurring the distinction between fact and fiction,[1] and that is not a bad thing if it is clear that you are watching a science fiction movie.

Perkowitz added, “If you violate [my one major transgression rule] you are in trouble. The chances are that the public will pick it up and that is what matters to Hollywood. The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch.” In my opinion, The Core (2003) did not rate badly because of the bad science. Its budget was less than half that of Armageddon (1998), a film with a similar plot, which did much better, but whose physics was just as bad.

In summary, I think that the audience are less likely to notice bad physics if it is buried amongst the good, and that they enjoy watching devices that defy the laws of physics because they know that many of these inventions will one day become a reality.

Guy Micklethwait is doing a PhD in Science Communication at ANU. His research examines how the physics, philosophy and psychology of time used by filmmakers differ from the movie-going public’s understanding of time.

Image by flickr user x-ray delta one, used under a Creative Commons license.

[1] Barnett, M., Wagner, H., Gatling, A., Anderson, J., Houle, M., & Kafka, A. (2006). The Impact of Science Fiction Film on Student Understanding of Science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(2), 179-191.