Press your spaceface close to mine

In Which We Dogpile On An Unsuspecting Scientist

Posted by Sunday on Aug 17, 2008 at 1:59 pm in Movies, The Future, Weird Science

This morning a comment was left by Dr. Chris Lintott, astrophysicist. ASTROPHYSICIST. Oh, I am squirming with delight right now. And seriously, if that isn’t awesome enough, he co-wrote the book Bang! The Complete History of the Universe with Brian May – yes, THE LEAD GUITARIST OF QUEEN, WHO IS ALSO AN ASTROPHYSICIST. Buckaroo Bonzai naysayers can stuff it!

In February of this year I wrote an offhand snippet about my adoration of the science fiction movie Sunshine that included a few one-liners aimed at Dr. Lintott. He had been consulted as an astronomer to comment on the movie, and I used his quotes in my own post.

Today Halcyon wrote a response to Dr. Lintott that I wanted to publish it here as a front-page post rather than a comment (both due to its length and my continuing interest in the subject). I am thankful that Dr. Lintott felt comfortable responding to my previous post here at GalacticMu, and I hope that he forgives us for responding on our own turf like this.

Your Captain,


(For ease of reading, I will reprint Chris Lintott’s comment here before Halcyon’s)

“I was asked to comment as an astronomer; to an astronomer, it’s hard not to notice that the science is, well, ‘complete rubbish’. That’s different from saying I didn’t enjoy the movie (which I did), but it does matter. The emotional impact of the film came partly from the fact that we believe this is our world we’re watching – otherwise why does the shot at the end of the Sydney Opera House under snow have such an impact? To me, that’s completely undermined by the fact that physics appears to work differently in the sunshine universe.”

Dr. Lintott, it is truly an honor. Thank you for stopping by our humble blogship.

I’m sad to say you seem to be arguing around the point of Captain Sunday’s post. There is a larger context here, which is explored thoroughly in a newer post. Here’s the gist: our community, the science fiction community, has taken an ugly turn toward realism… mundane fiction, as Sunday calls it. Part of the reason for this shift is that scifi authors have suddenly become quite concerned with what real scientists think of their work. Plausibility is running roughshod over imagination.

Science fiction, as Sunday points out, has never been about empirical science; it has always been about fictional science. The goal of SF is not to illustrate what is real, but to ask “What if?”

Many of SF’s greatest works completely ignore one or more fundamental laws of physics. Take “Fantastic Voyage” for example. The physics are preposterous. That’s a given, part of the contract Asimov makes with the reader at the beginning of the book. Everyone knows it’s impossible to shrink a human being down to the size of a blood vessel, but what if you could shrink a human down to the size of a blood vessel? How cool would that be? How many future scientists and doctors were inspired by that book (and the movie)? And what do you want to bet that Fantastic Voyage was the inspiration (directly or indirectly) behind today’s endoscopes? How about the camera-pill?

Scientific discoveries (and theories) inspire science fiction. Likewise, SF can and has inspired scientists. This reciprocity of inspiration is healthy. But it is lost when scientists take fiction too seriously and when authors (and auteurs) take scientists too seriously.

When SF creators become too concerned with how (as in: “how does this spaceship have artificial gravity”), they wind up sacrificing the what-if. SF becomes devoid of entertainment and inspiration, as dry as a scientific journal. A little suspension-of-disbelief is a small price to pay for a movie as beautiful as Sunshine.

Besides which, suspension-of-disbelief is good for you. It’s a healthy part of a scientist’s diet. Because almost everything you know to be scientifically valid would have been considered complete rubbish by scientists like yourself 100 years ago. And every new theory starts with someone suspending his or her disbelief about how our world works.

Always here to help,
Psych Officer
Galactic Mu

Chris Lintott’s personal blog.

The official Bang! The Complete History of the Universe website.

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August 17th, 2008 | Movies, The Future, Weird Science

7 Responses to “In Which We Dogpile On An Unsuspecting Scientist”

  1. xadrian Says:

    I would think a suspension of disbelief is mandatory as an astrophysicist – unless that person is a Newtonian, and then, well, there you go.

  2. quagmire Says:

    Me thinks Dr. Lintott is more concerned about his credentials and how he is held by the ‘scientific community’ than candidness about theatrical movies and imagination.
    There is a larger issue here than just trying to respond to a question in a ‘scientific’ manner. There is the issue of bashing a person’s creative work for the sanctity of sounding like a ‘scientist’, even if addressing another ‘scientist’ on the plausibility* of same. (*see ‘Dark Matter’ example further on)
    Mr. Lintott, I ask you, why then didn’t you just tell the interviewer something along the line of … it’s a scifi movie, it’s entertainment, just watch it as such? Why buy into the interviewer’s myopic mentality of tearing apart perfectly well produced visual-candy by judging it on the basis of ‘realism’?
    I, for one, (among many … for we are Legion!), don’t give a flying-fuck whether you or some ‘interviewer/astronomer’ think it’s viable, possible or even remotely accurate. If it’s well made, tells a good story and dials-in my w0w factor, then it rocks me. Doesn’t have to be ‘believable’ or based on accepted science. Hello … did your empirically-trained eye overlook the ‘fi’, in scifi? Can we say ‘FICTION’ class? Not to be confused with it’s do-goody twin, FACT.
    Is your field of interest (astrophysics) rock-solid and based on complete and founded ‘Fact’ sir? Obviously it is not. Is String Theory rubbish? Actually, based on your criteria for the unknown, that answer would have to be a resounding yes. Do a lot of respected scientists believe String Theory to be plausible? The answer again, is yes, they do. Could a futuristic beer keg-sized munition jump-start our Sun? Well friend, why the fuck not? Is a lightening bolt hotter than the surface of the Sun? Matter-of-fact, it is indeed. ‘What? That’s baloney!’, says the average adult upon hearing it for the first time. Does Dark Matter exist sir? Well, I think it does. Can you show me incontrovertible physical proof of that sir? No, you cannot, but I believe your fellow scientists.
    Why then, good sir, do you refer to a very talented writer and film maker’s imagination as ‘complete rubbish’? I don’t call your Dark Matter rubbish … but then, I don’t live within the constraints that you and your ‘science’ fan-boy buddies do.
    May I reiterate here: it is simply frelling (wouldn’t be at all surprised if you have no idea of the origin of the word) good enjoyment after dealing with the hard-assed world of scientific realism all day!
    I cherish the ability to suspend disbelief and blot from my mind, publicly masturbatory scientists and tabloidy-pandering writers/interviewers who waste my time with their pathetic, unqualified and self-important musings on entertainment.
    I find it extremely revelatory that a scientist takes the time out his/her schedule to comment on beautiful, well made movies, yet never bother with the miasma of terrible releases out there.
    Once, after exiting a theater where Sunday and I saw a particularly excellent and totally implausible and inaccurate scifi movie, she turned to me and asked what I thought of it. For some unknown reason I turned to her and said, ‘Ya know Sunday, I’ve started sitting down and watching a movie for what it is, simply entertainment and nothing more. I’ve quit judging on whether the content is credible or even possible. And ya know what? I enjoy the hell out of movies so much more now.’
    Sunday remembers this conversation well. I know this because we have had many discussions, prompted by my decision, for many years now.
    I smile when I think that maybe the ‘crazy old man’ influenced his daughter just a nanobit and helped her to just have some good ol’ scifi fun … without concern for ‘current’ science. Who the hell wants to see a boring scifact movie anyway?
    Lightspeed to all who think beyond that which is considered ‘real’ or ‘possible’!
    … and Long Live Rubbish Movies!
    Braaak Aaak Akk, Earthlings!
    -quagmire longshanks and his spacedawg buddy, Atmo

  3. Sunday Says:

    Newcomers: please consider Quagmire’s passion as a positive thing.

    I don’t actually think that Lintott cares more for his personal credentials, I think he’s acting empirically. He never “bashed” the movie, he just – as he said – answered what he felt about the movie as an astronomer. Like, not “sounding like” a scientist, but being a scientist. We don’t know how he would have answered if they’d asked him how he felt about the movie as a mere movie-goer.

    Down, Quagmire, down!

  4. Dan Coulter Says:

    I totally agree with Mike. Science Fiction needs its black boxes. I don’t care about the hows and whys of the sun dying, but instead, the human reactions to the situation that they are in, improbable as it may be.

    Isn’t that what science fiction is really about?

  5. quagmire Says:

    Arf! Throw me a biscuit or a larquit (insider Spacebuddy joke) and I’m down.
    I stand corrected. Lintott did not ‘bash’ the movie … just called the [fictional] science therein, ‘complete rubbish’.
    I guess that’s meaningful observation he felt necessary to make as a scientist. Some of us may have come away thinking it was depicting reality.
    quagmire believes strongly that everything a person does in life should be done with passion … it’s more important to our survival than opposable thumbs.
    As a lettered philosopher, quagmire also believes the word ‘reality’ is overrated and abused.
    NOTICE: All of quagmire’s amazing wisdom and platitudes are solely the product of his own fertile mind and do not reflect the opinions of GalacticMu’s AI or the Captain and crew.
    PAX y’all.

  6. Chris Says:

    Thanks for this; I’ll look forward to reading more responses. For now, let me try and illustrate what Sunshine got right and wrong in presenting science in scifi. I think it’s particularly interesting that examples of both lurk in the same movie.

    Firstly, please read the whole piece that came out of the interview I gave to the Guardian : . There are positives here, even from an anal astronomer’s point of view.

    Secondly, as a scifi fan, I’m happy with changes to physics in fiction, and one of the joys of the genre is that we can explore the consequences. In Sunshine, I’m happy to accept that in their world the Sun is switching off (as I say in the Guardian, I’d love to know how that happened but I accept it for the purposes of the film). I also thought they handled the ‘bomb’ quite well – rather than invent pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo they just assert that it will work and that’s fine with me (cf. famous comment about how the Heisenberg compensators work in Trek).

    These examples are things beyond my experience; the Sun might start cooling tomorrow, and if it did who knows what we’d come up with to fix it. The setup is great. In the article, I’m specifically annoyed by the cut off of communication due to a Sun which is LESS active than the present one. Radio waves are old technology, I know how they work and this would not happen. If you want to bend physics to suddenly cut off communication then you can do that, but you need to follow through on that. If radio communication is weaker than in our Universe then light will behave strangely and so on and so on.

    Scifi at its best, to me, contains the most glorious of thought experiments. There’s still a requirement to do such experiments well, and cutting radio coms for plot points is not being consistent. If you allow that, then you might as well allow characters to click their fingers to get out of any dead end. And yes, this sort of thing does bother me where switching off the Sun does not.

  7. Sunday Says:

    I agree that there has to be a level of consistency, even in science fiction. No one likes a deus ex machina. Except one of my exes, who had it tattooed across his abdomen and possibly didn’t know what it meant.

    It is amusing to me that as much as I am a defender of reasonable science, when it comes to scifi I tend to zone out. As much as I can accept that for whatever reason communication is cut out in the movie, I also understand that making it an issue of radio waves vs. the sun is going to be distracting for the discerning intellectual.

    Unfortunately, by the time I was writing about Lintott in my original post, I was already pretty riled up at solar physicist Anjana Ahuja who summed up the movie as “(…)Cillian Murphy’s beauty, some metaphysical silliness and Michelle Yeoh’s shorts.” There are an awful lot of Hollywood movies that are primarily about an attractive lead actor and how little clothes a woman can wear and Sunshine is not one of them. While I have no formal education in solar physics or astrophysics, I do know scientists and other human beings, both of which are treated respectfully in the film. Compare to the mega-buster of The Matrix and the LOL-worthy attempts at understanding the evolution of bio-cultures (and the value of skin-tight latex vs. the value of shorts and flip-flops) and at the end of it, I hope my defense of Sunshine appears reasonable.

    For the most part, it sounds like all of us are in agreement. Sunshine had some creative physics, but our enjoyment of it was effected it varyingly small degrees. Most scifi sacrifices some ability to explain itself in order to pose fantastic scenarios, and if you like the genre then you’re okay with that. Occasionally I encounter someone who doesn’t like scifi and who defends their opinion by saying something like “I don’t see the attraction to reading/watching something that just isn’t real.” In which case I have no argument. You’re right, it isn’t real. But it is that lack of reality, those fringe cowpokes who ride the outer ranges, that are expanding the world for the rest of us, whether they are just imagining smaller computers or intergalactic travel.

    At which point Quagmire dusts off his philosophy degree again and starts on about the nature of reality. Which is why we love him.

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