Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hollywood physics

I found that the arXiv (an online archive of mostly physics "preprint" articles) has sections for popular physics and for physics and society. I found a nice article about physics in Hollywood productions.

n this article, we examine specific scenes from popular action and sci-fi movies and show how they blatantly break the laws of physics, all in the name of entertainment, but coincidentally contributing to science illiteracy.

The authors of the article seem to think that what people see on film contributes to how they expect things to work in real life, and that this ultimately is bad for society because people tend to lose their understanding of how things really work.

I'm not so sure. Because I like to practice critical thinking myself, the first question I ask is whether people really think that the mechanics of superheroes is an accurate depiction of how physics works in reality. This would be interesting to study: show a large number of people some really bad movie physics (and maybe some realistic) and then ask them how they percieve it.

The people around me are perhaps not representative, but my friends like to discuss and try to explain (or complain about) strange or unrealistic things they see on film. Just look at how the recent film Sunshine has been discussed in fandom, where most comments have mentioned how lousy the science in the movie was. See the review on the Locus editorial blog for a thorough discussion with a listing of the problems, including physics as well as the logic of the story.

On the other hand, there are a lot of little things that you see often enough on film to maybe unconciously absorb it as real. Like how people are thrown backwards by bullets, or jump through windows, or are serously beaten up without dying of it. (The last point is potentially really dangerous.)

Then again maybe we have passed into the time where physics is arbitrary, because we live in computer generated worlds. In science fiction literature it is common to encounter people who live almost entirely in simulated (or heavily edited) realities, where things work the way they want them to. This can be seen as a science fiction extreme of how things really are. Forget Second Life, we already since decades get a large portions of our lives from tv and the internet, where physics is not like in the real world. Why do the fictional worlds need to follow the same rules as reality, or any rules at all?

Yes, I know. Because reality is the bottom thing, the ultimately real (or is it?). But it is an interesting thought, that for some people it might not matter. I finish this little reflection with a quote from the short story "Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan.

Anthrocosmology was used to justify the inward-looking stance of most polises: if the physical universe was created by human thought, it had no special status that placed it above virtual reality. It might have come first---and every virtual reality might need to run on a physical computing device, subject to physical laws---but it occupied no privileged position in terms of "truth" versus "illusion". If the ACs were right, the it was no more honest to value the physical universe over more recent artificial realities than it was honest to remain flesh instead of software, or ape instead of human, or bacterium instead of ape.

(Why do I love science fiction? It's where all the interesting things are discussed.)


Elliot said...


Anactoria said...

Speaking of physics and science fiction and time travel (we were talking about time travel, weren't we?) I have a movie recommendation for you - Primer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primer_%28film%29). Its not in the Donnie Darko category of time-travel-sci-fi-awesomeness by any means, but it is interesting will get you thinking and trying to puzzle it out.

Well, you'll see. ;)