Insert Magic Here

Science fiction is not science fact, and shouldn’t pretend to be, but it should have respect for the laws of science. It’s not that everything within a scifi movie or a scifi book has to be scientifically accurate, only that it’s scientifically plausible. Star Trek is a great example of this, with its vision in the 1960s of handheld communicators echoing our mobile phones, its non-intrusive medical scans being a forerunner of CAT & PET scans today.

Star Trek never pretended to explain its advanced technology, only to predict possible forms in which technology could plausibly be expected to adapt. We don’t have teleporters yet, but we are exploring the idea.

One area in which books have an advantage over movies is they have the time and space to stay true to physics, if the author so chooses. But movies have a strictly limited format of 2-3 hours running time, and this imposes a number of hurdles for script writers, challenges they often overcome with some magical slight of hand instead of following the science.

I don’t mean to be pessimistic or critical of science fiction movies in this regard, as they need to keep the pace and rhythm of the story going, but this often means a disregard for physics because an accurate scientific representation is inconvenient to the plot.

star-trek

Star Trek Into Darkness, as an example, has starships falling from somewhere close to the Moon all the way to Earth in a matter of just a few minutes, instead of going into some highly eccentric orbit covering hours to days.

In reality, covering the 238,000 miles between Earth and the Moon in just a few minutes  would mean atmospheric entry would occur in the blink of an eye, and the craft would either burn-up or plough into Earth like a meteorite rather than crash landing intact in the sea. Ah, but don’t let that deter you from seeing Star Trek, as it’s an enjoyable movie, so long as you suspend your disbelief.

In the same insert-magic-here manner, a journey at warp speed to a distant star dozens of light-years away takes mere minutes in the movie, being comparable to a trip down the road in your car rather than a flight through the vast empty void of interstellar space.

The absurdly large distances involved in space travel present numerous problems like this for script writers, problems they often simply ignore.

There’s a scene in the latest Star Trek where Kirk is on the edge of “the neutral zone” talking to someone on Earth using a portable communicator. As Kirk is in the process of travelling between stars, this presumably happens at a distance of several light years, but the conversation is conducted in real time, something that would be impossible.

Perhaps there could be some kind of quantum-entangled device that allows faster-than-light instant communication (even though current science sees that as impossible), but between that an the ability to teleport instantaneously between planets in separate star systems, it does make you wonder why they bother with starships like the Enterprise at all. Using teleporters and quantum-entangled cell phones, the tyranny of distance would be reduced in practice to that of walking into the next room.

Ah… Star Trek… Once there was a time where if you wanted a little science in your fiction you could look to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to entertain you, even with a little hand waving on the side, but we’re not seeing too much of that these days.

Perhaps in the next movie we’ll see the script writers push themselves to stay within the bounds of physics and explore where science could boldly go.

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