William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Hey, Hollywood, I’ll do it for free

The Problem

This relevant scene appears in an uncountable number of movies. What happens when you plunge head first through a glass window? Anybody? That’s right. You die. It’s you that starts the jump, but it’s a shredded, bloody mass that finishes it. You will not stand up and brush shards of glass from your jacket. Instead, the mortician will politely aver to your widow that “Closed caskets are in this season.”

The accuracy of physics in movies is just barely above that portrayed in cartoons. While it’s funny to see Wile E. Coyote run past the cliff and only fall when he realizes there’s nothing but thin atmosphere between him and destiny, it boggles the mind to see essential plot points of movies and television shows revolve not just around unlikelihoods but impossibilities, especially when it’s so easy to correct the mistakes.

To prove it, I’ll first dissect the new Star Trek, then I’ll offer my solution to the dilemma.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The new Star Trek begins with a Romulan ship slowly poking through a black hold, time shifting itself into the past. Do you know what happens when anything passes into—but never through—a black hole? The gravitational potential is so intense that everything is stretched into a quark-thin spaghetti. There wouldn’t be enough left of the Romulans to even form a grease spot.

But let that pass.

This isn’t bad physics but screwy psychology: after the Romulans dust a Federation ship, nobody thinks to go looking for them. For twenty-three years. Well, people get busy. Let that pass, too.

The reason the Romulans had their adventure is that their sun had just gone supernova and wiped out their homeworld. Turns out Spock was on his way to that star to slip in some red matter (whatever that is) which would have turned the petulant sun into a black hole before it had the chance to explode—and thus he would have saved the planet (accepting the unlikely assumption the planet also couldn’t wander into the black hole’s gravity well) . He dithered, apparently, and only got there after the explosion.

Now, it is true that many stars end their lives by going super nova. But there are indications, subtle hints that can be gleaned that allow one to predict the cataclysm in advance—usually by at least a few million years. So it must be that Spock was substantially delayed. A woman, no doubt. Let that pass.

The advanced-time Spock also comes through the black hole and is easily captured by the Romulans. Later, the younger Spock pops in the cockpit of old Spock’s ship and trivially blasts his way free. Which only tells us that the advanced-time Spock was still distracted when he forgot his weapons. Sigh. I’ll let that pass.


Star Trek Monster!

Again not physics, but do you recall several months back when I said that every movie which features a monster has the beast not pounce and eat its human prey, but has it stop short, crane its neck, open its mouth, shake its head and roar. It’s the creature-feature version of monologuing, I guess.

Kirk was marooned with such a monologuing monster but was rescued when the elder Spock scared off the beast with a fire stick. Then Scottie transported himself and Kirk off their isolated rock using a new transporter formulation that allowed them to appear on a ship moving at warp speed half-way across the galaxy. All are amazed by this. Wow! That’s a long way!

Then everybody instantly forgets. Or else it would have occurred to them to use the same technology to transport a photon torpedo aboard the Romulan ship, thus saving everybody the hassle of tracking down the bad guys and face possible injury and property damage. But then we wouldn’t have got to see a score of panicked humans scurrying from a building in downtown San Francisco when the Romulans appeared out of nowhere! at the exact moment when every other ship in the galaxy were out of commission for tune ups.

Star Trek O2!

And we would have also missed the climatic scene where Kirk and young Spock bond while watching the Romulan ship disintegrate. It was imploding because a medicine-ball sized chuck of red matter had spilled out onto its floor. Earlier, it took just a drop of the crimson goo to destroy a single planet or star. But when a keg of it goes off, it does so slowly, which allowed time for Kirk to diss the bad guy. And it made him forget that a black hole would soon suck in his ship (a lot of failing memories in the future) and he barely got out in time.

Anyway, I still recommend the movie and rate it at $6 (via the Briggs Movie Rating System).

The Solution

A lot of bad physics in Star Trek. But it didn’t have to be that way. All of it was fixable because there were scores of us geeks who would have served as physics advisors for the movie—and most of us would have done it for free!

Thus, I hereby make the offer that I will, for no charge, give any Hollywood studio one hour of fact-based, solid physics critiquing. I don’t have to meet any actors, I don’t need to be introduced to the director, and I can do it all from my desk. You don’t even have to put my name in the credits. I will be satisfied to play a small part in the education of movie audiences.

You’ll (I’m speaking to you Hollywood) be gaining more than just better movies. You’ll keep annoying people like me quiet in theaters. We won’t have to stage-whisper to our seat-mates, “Let me tell you exactly why that can’t happen…”

22 Comments

  1. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

    May 18, 2009 at 6:19 am

    A gun can be fired in a vacuum. Gunpowder contains an oxidizer; that’s why it burns so fast.

  2. Briggs

    May 18, 2009 at 6:29 am

    Little Knowledge,

    You’re right, dammit. How did I forget that? Lack of oxygen in the brain, or lack of brain. I fixed it.

  3. I have to chip in. I could never understand why the Enterprise never had seat belts.

  4. $6? It was easily an $8, if only to see a young Spock go ballistic on some Vulcan brats.

  5. Mr. Briggs,

    How many people go to a movie with you more than once? 😉

    Something new in the ethernet that may help in checking movie physics and other fun stuff:

    http://www33.wolframalpha.com/screencast/introducingwolframalpha.html

    It may be trying to replace you as well:

    http://www33.wolframalpha.com/examples/Statistics.html

  6. Briggs

    May 18, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Bruce,

    Hardly none.

    Thanks for the Wolfram Alpha links. I tried signing up as a beta user many moons ago, but no dice. I read that Wolfram claims his new toy can answer “all” questions.

  7. “…can answer “all” questions.”

    It might be able to give you an answer, but will it be correct? I will try some basic Global Warming questions and see what it does.

    This “super library” or all-inclusive knowledge base was a recurring theme in Star Trek, if memory serves me.

  8. Briggs, you would deny us the joy of seeing your name in the credits? How dare you?

    Also, Wolfram is silly.

  9. Not to geek out here, but Federation starships regularly stand physics on its head by carrying around enough antimatter to destroy a solar system, burning it as fuel to warp spacetime enough to travel multiples of the speed of light. IIRC, ST:TOS warp drives increased by the cube of the Warp factor, so that Warp 2 was 8 times faster than Warp 1, warp 3 was 27x the speed of light, etc. By the time they got to ST:TNG and “transwarp” drives (the USS Excelsior in ST:III was the first line ship with transwarp drives), each warp factor was raised to the 5th power, so that Warp 2 was now 32x faster than the speed of light, etc.

    Compared to a plain old black hole, which had no technology upgrades, there seems to be more power in the Starfleet physics-fu. If your engines can bend spacetime to make you travel 32x the speed of light at Warp 2, which is loafing by ST:TNG standards, then bending spacetime enough to pry open a black hole into a wormhole and enable travel through it seems like child’s play. The power necessary to travel at (trans)warp 5 is enough to exceed the speed of light by 3,125x, (trans)warp 9 is 59,049x the speed of light. A black hole is a rounding error.

    Would you want to chase down a giant Romulan starship that swatted away the USS Kelvin? After 25 years of Starfleet technical innovation, it took out six Federation ships in a couple of minutes before the Enterprise arrived, and that was after destroying a “Klingon fleet”. Many ships could have found the Romulan ship in the intervening 25 years, none of them would have ever come back from the experience.

    Another geekoid technical point: the Romulan Warbirds of the ST:TNG era used an artifiical singularity to provide their version of Warp travel. Most likely (though not explained in the movie), the “red matter” was used to make those artificial singularities, which is why Romulan miners who knew about Romulan warp drive systems recognized what the “red matter” was, and how you could use it to make black holes.

    Transporters don’t work through shields, Dr. Briggs. This has been canon for close to ever.

    My favorite physics boo-boo is the “disintegration” phaser and the transporter. Both involve turning 70kg or more of human/bad guy into energy, which would dwarf any hydrogen bomb of our current age. One could argue that the disintegration setting would simply involve breaking chemical bonds holding all of the molecules of a target together all at once, but even that would result in a tremendous non-nuclear explosion, as that is a whale of a lot of energy that has to go somewhere. Maybe “subspace”, which seems to be the common attic-Internet-superhighway of the ST universe.

    Also, battery technology appears to have improved by several orders of magnitude. 🙂

    The one thing they do get right about relativistic issues is that phasers are never used at warp speeds. That’s the main job of photon torpedoes, who apparently have their own tiny warp engines — though interestingly that would mean you wouldn’t be able to see them fired at less than warp speeds. They would appear to leave the ship, vanish, then reappear at the shield margin of the target at pretty much the same instant. There may be something about using them at warp speeds that lowers the yield.

    Dang. I need another hobby.

  10. On the head first trip through a glass window: No. I’ve done it. I tripped and fell while approaching a glass door, did a header through the door and rolled out. My arms and back were a mess, since I curled to cover as I rolled in & through the falling glass, but my head was just fine, thank you. It was embarrassing, though.

  11. Thus, I hereby make the offer that I will, for no charge, give any Hollywood studio one hour of fact-based, solid physics critiquing.

    Mr. Spock:“ Good luck!”

    Hehehe. For some reason, I find it amusing that Spock says this at the end of the movie. Yeah, heroes tend to have the best luck in the world and rarely die in a movie. It’s a movie!

    This is movie is entertaining and more action-packed. Go watch it! Oh…it would have been great to see some of the scenes in 3D.

  12. It was worth 10 dollars. You have to remember they didn’t have any tedious love story in the movie! Instead it was all action, jokes, and planet-pride! Love stories mixed with high action are worth 6 dollars.

  13. Darren,

    Actually, people do get beamed through shields on occasion. The episode “Relics” (TNG) has Scotty and Geordi beamed through the shields of the ship they’re using to keep the doors of the Dyson Sphere open.

    So there.

  14. I haven’t seen ST, but the ads say it’s this year’s Ironman.

    I saw that, non of this futuristic science fiction stuff, just real, down to earth present day technology and international politics.

    Although a few minor physics conundrums do pop up.

    I did look for that house in Malibu, when I was there a few weeks ago. Wasn’t on that hill though.

    Everything else was real though, especially the light traffic in SoCal.

    /sarc mode

  15. I think you guys have the wrong impression about warp drive.

    As anyone who knows anything about weaving will tell you, when you put together a piece of cloth, (or in this case a universe), you need strings. Specifically a warp string and a weft string.

    Warp drive, (they were going to call it weft drive but Kirk objected because it didn’t sound butch enough), works by grabbing a warp, (or weft), string and pulling your ship into a different dimension.

    Now, anyone who’s studied string theory knows that the extra dimensions that make up our universe are very small, therefore the distance between stars in these dimensions is much shorter and it takes you less time to travel from place to place.

    Since it doesn’t take that much energy to grab hold of a string, the power requirements are lower than you would think and can easily be generated by a few dilithium crystals.

    We can all agree that a black universe would be a pretty boring place, so our cosmos is made up of different coloured strings. Black holes develop when all the colours are combined, but sometimes there is a shortage of red strings, so when red matter is added, it can create disturbances.

    As for diving through plate glass windows, I believe it’s a law in Hollwood that in any building at least one window must be glazed with sugar glass.

  16. Ari,

    The only ST:TNG script copy I own, purchased at the only ST convention I’ve been to, is Relic.

    I will offer as rebuttal that the Jenolan was a very old ship with shields of questionable provenance compared to the Enterprise-D and the transporter system had been modified by Scotty. In this case, Scotty is the deus ex machina rather than the machina being the transporter. Most likely there is a jamming signal included with the shields that can be turned on or off, some times you want to beam out but you don’t want others to beam in.

    Every other time people beam through the shields (the Borg) it seems to be an “OH S#@!” moment, and Briggs’ point about just beaming a proton torpedo into a ship would seem to make ship-to-ship combat the way it’s been portrayed for the last 40 years rather pointless. The technology race would be to develop the longest-range transporters and sensors, and first sight would be first kill.

    I’ve always wondered why they didn’t FREAKING WRITE DOWN how they made the Warp engines 30% more powerful, or increased phaser output 40% for short periods, etc. That and they sure needed a QI officer on the original Enterprise. Just about the time they needed a communicator or phaser they would be drained of power or otherwise useless. Considering that guys go into combat these days carrying 8 or more magazines for their M4, you’d think Starfleet would issue spare batteries. Particularly when you can’t be sure of finding stable plug power on some of these planets. That and I have never figured out why the first person down on a planet is the XO and/or Captain, as well as the person who knows how to fly and fight the ship.

    And let’s not even get into the economics of the ST universe, or Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ observation that most human progess will stop when you can walk into a holodeck and get a massage from Cindy Crawford and her identical twin sister.

  17. Briggs

    May 19, 2009 at 11:55 am

    I think Kevin has it.

    Darren, what can I say? You have us all beat.

  18. It doesn’t rate 6 cents on my scale. Hell, its for little (not very bright) kids. How do you find time to watch it?

  19. Hey. Star Trek was Indiana Jones. Or the Mummy. Just in space.

    Was a good old fashioned rollicking adventure movie. And to get that you need to suspend all sorts of common sense. So why quibble about logic flaws.

    Sorry Trekkies and physicists, but Star Trek is now mainstream. And all the more fun for it. I loved it.

    PS: Is it me or did Kirk spend an awful lot of time hanging off the edge of things?

  20. Star Trek isn’t Indiana Jones in space, it is “Wagon Train” is space. Which would make DS9 is “Fort Appache” in space. Voyager is “Lost in Space” with better looking actors.

  21. pedants 'r' us

    May 27, 2009 at 2:01 am

    As you’ve written an article with the title “words I hate”, I find it odd that you employ the phrase “for free”. You may get something “for nothing”, but that means that it is “free”, not “for free”.

    “For free” may be in common use, but that doesn’t make it grammatically correct.

  22. Briggs

    May 27, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Pendants ‘r’ us,

    I agree with you. Thanks. I hadn’t thought of it, but I won’t use that phrase again.

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