Alan Duffy/Swinburne University of Technology

An Astrophysicist Reveals What Sci-Fi Gets Wrong (And Right) About Science

It's all about the physics.

JACINTA BOWLER
1 MAY 2017
 

This article has been sponsored by Bethesda for their new game Prey – out on 5 May 2017.

Science fiction has been captivating audiences since before the 19th century, allowing humans to explore the far reaches of the galaxy, meet aliens, and build exceptional robots – all without leaving Earth.

 

But not all sci-fi is created equal. According to astrophysicist Alan Duffy from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, one of the biggest problems with sci-fi today is that it tends to exaggerate things... that, and the fact that most games still don't let you shoot backwards from a spacecraft.

"It's one of the simplest of things and it always bugs me," Duffy told ScienceAlert.

"Dogfighting in space really isn't a problem, you'd just fire a little nozzle of steam water at the front of your craft to rotate you around 180 degrees, and you'd be facing the enemy chasing you."

"You can shoot them back and continue turning back to your original course all without losing any speed," he adds.

But overall, Duffy says sci-fi is an incredible thing for science – and has even led to breakthroughs of its own.

"Science fiction is fantastic for science. We get to explore ideas, we get to better understand the science by having these explorers and visionaries, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, [who] can take us to the very limits of our science," he explains.

 

"Geostationary satellites were proposed by Clarke, and we take for granted that we have continual satellite TV, but for these kind of inventions, the science was understood, but the applications were first recognised by the sci-fi writers."

More recently, the supercomputer used to render the supermassive black hole in Interstellar was so powerful that it actually revealed a new phenomenon of black holes that scientists had never noticed before.

Thanks to the film's advanced graphics engine, scientists discovered that light from the disk behind a black hole is actually bent up and around by its gravity, creating a halo of light.

"That's something that you would only get when you take this kind of careful precision analysis with the science of general relativity," says Duffy.

But sci-fi definitely doesn't need fancy graphics or world-changing ideas to do science justice. Duffy's favourite, and pick for most accurate sci-fi film, is still 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in 1968.

"The physics are done beautifully," says Duffy. "It understood the basics well, and rocketry is nothing but a basic physics problem such as the conservation of momentum."

 

"Then there's the idea of exploring space taking many months and a human team working together with an AI to control the ship. Those are real considerations at NASA at the moment. Because of the time lag it takes light to travel, Houston can't control the ship, it has to do it itself," he explains.

"That's why that film can still be so relevant today."

In the future, he thinks we'll begin to see more sci-fi tackling the issue of space radiation and the large distances that separate us from any potential alien life out there.

But closer to home, a Moon base, similar to that seen in the video game Prey, is something that we might see in our lifetimes.

"It's just a question of scale," says Duffy.

"For example, in 2018, SpaceX wants to send two paying customers to orbit around the Moon. You can imagine that when you have that kind of possibility, you can begin to create small space stations. That's totally feasible."

And who knows what new ideas it might lead to.

"Any sci-fi book, film, or game that brings together creativity and a respect for science is going to be something valuable for all of us, not just scientists, to enjoy," says Duffy.

This article has been sponsored by Bethesda for their new game Prey – find out more about the game here.

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