Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Interestellar: the return of hard sci-fi (or it never left)?

This post is overdue. Interstellar, a huge success of a film, both critically and financially, has been out for almost a month. It has a rating of 8.9 out of 10 based on user reviews at IMDb and holds the #15 spot on the IMDb top 250. By this point, if you are a fan of space or sci-fi films, you have likely already found the time to see it.

I am not going to write a point-by-point plot breakdown of Interstellar, nor am I going to pick apart the science of the movie. Those kinds of reviews, of varying harshness and quality, have already been written variously by fans and detractors of the film. Such a post by me wouldn’t sway your choice to see the movie anyway. Instead, I’d like to take a look at what appears to be a changing trend in the style and content of sci-fi movies in the 21st century, and what the recent success of movies like Gravity and Interstellar may mean for the future of science fiction films. Is there a trend back towards hard sci-fi?

Wikipedia’s entry on “Hard Science Fiction” defines the genre as:

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both… The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible.

So which space-based sci-fis are hard sci-fis? A couple classic examples most people might be familiar with would be 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Solaris (1972).  These films were released right around the peak of the Space Race and the Apollo Program. The public could see and understand the romance and drama of  a simpler space exploration story without marauding aliens, warp drive, or laser weapons.

Another tempting franchise to include, Star Trek, was clearly influenced by the optimism of space exploration in the ’60s, as well. Star Trek, like the films listed above, was also in stark contrast to the earlier space operas that were little different than a cowboy adventure, only set in space. However, we can’t call Star Trek “hard” – after all, it has the warp drives and laser weapons I just ruled out. Star Trek has the veneer of science-focused storytelling, but lacks the “…credible and rigorous… use of current scientific and technical knowledge…”. However, in today’s era of the impossible physics of superhero and Transformers movies, which are clearly not science-based, the Star Trek of the 1960s sure looks sciencey by comparison.

So where do modern films fall on this spectrum? When you consider the most popular science fiction films of the ’90s and 2000s (Armaggedon, Star Wars, The Avengers, The Matrix, District 9, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Guardians of the Galaxy), there sure is a lot of fantasy going around. Even a little bit of science could go a long way. So is Interstellar really “hard”, or is it just another space fantasy pretending to know what it is talking about? Let’s look at some of the key science or engineering points of the film to get a feel for its realism (note, spoilers below):

  1. The world may have trouble feeding a growing population in the near future, and may suffer a population collapse as a result: This is plausible and backed up by a growing scientific consensus, due to climate change and population growth.
  2. NASA can’t work miracles: The film depicts NASA plausibly – having a hard time getting stuff done in a reduced budget environment. They can’t build the large space stations they want to and instead have to launch rockets and spacecraft of modest size to carry out their missions.
  3. Worm holes exist and it is possible to travel through them: Both facts are theoretically possible, mathematically.
  4. It takes a very long time for a spaceship to get from Earth to Saturn: Yup.
  5. Time dilation would occur on a planet orbiting a large black hole: this is the meat of why the film producers hired noted physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant. The water planet orbiting Gargantua was very plausible.
  6. Such a planet would have huge tidal waves: No. The planet would likely be tidally locked. There would not be a moving tide on the planet.
  7. There can be such a thing as frozen clouds on an alien planet: I’m not really sure what a “frozen cloud” even is.
  8. Don’t open an airlock if your spacecraft isn’t properly docked: plausible results here! And no sound of the explosion in space.
  9. High spin-rate spacecraft docking: not likely possible at the number of RPMs depicted in the film. But the characters are at least shown experiencing high-Gs in the scene.

That’s just a sample of some of the things I noticed (items 1, 3, 5, and 6 backed up by people smarter than me). So it seems clear that the filmmakers did make an effort to get many things right in Interstellar, while at the same time taking some creative license for the sake of stunning visuals or dramatic effect. Interstellar is probably somewhere in the middle-ground; farther towards “hard” than  Star Trek, but not at the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which  many people have been comparing Interstellar to, due to certain plot elements.

So, this is why the definition of hard sci-fi I quoted above mentions “trying” to be accurate. If we are going to be strict about the definition and say a hard sci-fi must be perfectly scientifically accurate, it may be very difficult to find a movie that is a true hard sci-fi tale. So, in order to draw the line somewhere – and since this is my blog – I am going to loosen up my definition of “hard sci-fi” but give more parameters than just “trying” to be accurate. Let’s define a hard sci-fi as having astronauts instead of adventurers (see, Dave of 2001 instead of Kirk of Star Trek), having realistic spacecraft technology (for example, artificial gravity is only possible through centrifugal force), and no unreasonable alien encounters. I like to think of these kinds of movies as “astronaut movies” – they are the ones that feel realistic to guys like me that work at NASA.

Using this definition, I have compiled a list of all the astronaut movies since Apollo 13 in 1995 (the pinnace of what a successful astronaut movie can be). By my count, there have been about 20 movies since Apollo 13 that have either been fair “astronaut movies” or have come close, but fail my smell test in some way. I have colored films that are clear successes in red and indie films (for which a flop/hit designation based on gross sales is meaningless) as blue. Three of the other movies made more money than they cost but not enough for me to firmly declare them as hits.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 9.30.41 PM

Note: Budget estimates taken from and gross sales figures from

Two things stand out to me in this data. The first is that even when we include the “fantasy” movies that are almost astronaut movies, but not quite, you still see a long drought of mainstream successful films of about 10 years or more. Second, in recent years there is a ramp-up in “indie” films in the astronaut genre, which is promising if you were a fan of MoonSunshine, or Europa Report.

Leaving in the three campy films of Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Space Cowboys makes the story look a bit better. But if you don’t like camp, then there really was a true drought of a good mainstream astronaut based film for nearly two decades. By all accounts, Prometheus (which I have not seen) is so full of non-scientific plot elements, not to mention aliens, that I probably shouldn’t include it. But since it features astronauts in spacesuits, I thought it was close enough to my definition to at least get a comparison.

It seems to me that Gravity and Interstellar signal a true return of hard sci-fi films to the mainstream. With Ridley Scott currently working on The Martian, starring Matt Damon along with other big names, the trend is going to continue for now. And if The Martian stays true to the source material, it really will be the hardest astronaut film since Apollo 13.

Those of us who pride ourselves on being nerds or geeks and have heard of Sunshine, Europa Report or Gattaca, or liked Red Planet, would be justified in saying that hard sci-fi never left film, it just went underground. But the fact that you have seen all those great films does not affect the public consciousness; they are not becoming a part of culture. What becomes culture is a mainstream movie that everyone has heard of and seen. It may seem silly, but a film like Gravity can do a simple thing like remind Americans that their tax dollars are paying for an International Space Station. A film like Interstellar may get a kid interested in black holes and she may voluntarily read some physics books. Why not get a little science along with your entertainment?

A good sci-fi film is still all about entertainment first, hard or soft. But a good hard sci-fi film usually has the side effect of being more nuanced, due to it being anchored in reality. This nuance allows such films, usually, to explore real life themes that can be both social and scientific. At a time when the public’s commitment to our space program (be it manned or not) is unclear, films that show that the simple act of exploration is both exciting and hip can go a long way to getting the public back onboard with why we have a space program in the first place. So, despite the fact that I only give Interstellar  a 7 out of 10 – and I don’t think it is anywhere near the 15th best movie of all time – I say it is an awesome adventure ride that deserves the hype. The film should be seen both for its visuals and the questions it poses:

What cost are you willing to pay for the future of humanity? Is man’s nature inherently selfish? Can love of family overcome that inherent nature? Or does love simply lead to more selfish acts? Is humanity worth saving if in the restarting, cultural history is lost?

These kinds of questions are the hallmark of a film that makes an effort to reflect reality back at us, rather than let us escape into fantasy. This is the kind of space adventure that will get people talking and thinking. I say give us more! Go see Interstellar.

More ways to feel optimistic

Speaking of sources of inspiration, there’s no better place to feel good for a space geek than the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

In my rocket surgeon t-shirt in front of the National Air and Space Museum

I’ve been there twice now (only once to the annex out at Dulles), and I could go a hundred times more. If you are a space geek and haven’t been then why are you still reading my blog and not on an airplane? You should visit DC for that museum alone, and then see everything else just because you happen to be there.

Why am I gushing about the Smithsonian? Because I was catching up on the latest episodes of Planetary Radio  today. The last two episodes contain material recorded from a show at the Air and Space Museum earlier this year, with interview guests John Lodgsdon (who was at the astronaut quarters at KSC the morning Apollo 11 left for the Moon) and museum curator  David DeVorkin. Something John Lodgsdon said really resonated with me and I think it bears repeating.

The role I hope [this museum] plays is to remind people what we have done and make them think about what we will do. It’s not a mausoleum. It’s a celebration of what we’ve done. I mean, in the annex of the air and space museum out near Dulles, just this past week, the Discovery shuttle orbiter has arrived. We should celebrate what it did but we should also be thinking about what’s next; where we’re going; how we’re gonna get there. That’s a story that museums should be telling.

Logsdon’s thoughts are in line with previous posts of mine about history and the end of the Space Shuttle. We need more people to think this way. We also need more people to understand the past: by visiting museums like the National Air and Space Museum. And we need more people to be inspired: for instance, by the types of initiatives ExxonMobil is apparently working on.

I encourage you to go listen to some or all of the latest two Planetary Radio episodes, and be inspired yourself.

ExxonMobil gets it

It’s no secret that America’s investment – and proportionally, our superiority – in STEM education is nowhere near where it was when the Cold War sent us to the Moon. The problem these days is convincing people that it is a big enough problem for our elected officials to want to increase that investment, even in hard fiscal times. That’s why this video made me somewhat more optimistic (via NASA Watch).

Now, you may not like big oil companies, perhaps even especially ExxonMobil. That’s an ethical debate for another forum. Whatever you think of them, ExxonMobil is still the second largest corporation in the world (Apple passed them in market capital back in January). A company that big has a lot of weight to throw around; it seems they are throwing that weight in great ways.

I poked around their “Let’s Solve This” website to see if Exxon was just talking the talk but not walking the walk. I was happy to see that they are putting their money where their YouTube is and, among other initiatives, they have a free summer science camp for kids at at least 3 universities (in partnership with The Harris Foundation). They also work with the Sally Ride Science Academy to help improve science curricula and run a science academy for elementary school teachers.

There are a lot of people out there (like Lawrence Krauss, who I may expound on some other day) who think that how we invest in spaceflight is some kind of economical equation, and we should do whatever makes the most money sense. But those people don’t get it, or are forgetting. Human spaceflight is inspiring beyond almost anything else we can do. It is what made America a science powerhouse in the 20th century and it can do it again. By using that historic success in their video, ExxonMobil shows that they get it.

ExxonMobil is basically the largest company in the world and they have no direct ties to spaceflight, or NASA, or most basic science research. They are reaping in billions of dollars in revenue a year just fine. They don’t need to promote science education for the stockholders to see a reward this year, or next year, or even 5-10 years from now. Nevertheless, they are forward thinking enough to realize the long-term implications of a society that does not invest in the education of its populace, and especially in developing STEM expertise. That’s why this makes me optimistic. I applaud Exxon for this initiative and I hope it catches on.

I agree, we can “solve this”.

Alpha Centauri and the complexity of the ‘habitable zone’

There has been a lot of exciting news for exoplanet enthusiasts already this year. My Friday Links posts (here and here and here) have included some of my favorite new discoveries. But when i saw a post at Well-Bred Insolence about some research he had done about Alpha Centauri, I knew I had to highlight it as something special.

If you are new to my blog, you may have missed some of my earlier posts. I don’t expect you to go back through the archives of RFC and read everything, but if you are a romantic space fan like me you will probably enjoy my post that explains the name of my blog. SPOILER ALERT: the blog name has to do with the idea that humans may someday settle undiscovered worlds in the Alpha Centauri system and I picked the banner image because I imagine it as the view from the surface of a small moon near Alpha Centauri A – although perhaps the red shining of Proxima Centauri is a bit too bright. Or is it? Well, that’s kind of the point of Duncan’s research.

Duncan (a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh) ran some climate models for a theoretical planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, taking into account the changing affects of Alpha Centauri A’s sunlight over the 70 years that the two stars orbit each other. He found that the habitable surface area of such a planet could change by several percent (and probably more) on a 70 year cycle. The open question is how much would the gravity of Alpha Centauri A or even the tiny amount of sunlight from Proxima Centauri – more than 1/8th of a light year away – also affect the planet’s climate.

These are very relevant questions given the context of recent discoveries such as a planet in the habitable zone of the triple star system GJ 667. There was also a recent study presented at the AAS meeting about the effects of tidal heating on a planet’s habitability. With all of these factors in play, the typical diagram of a shaded donut showing a star’s habitable zone may soon become an outdated model. It’s so simplistic as to be misleading.

Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

This is an exciting time to be in the related fields of astronomy, planetary science, astrobiology, and climate research. Every time I read about these kinds of unanswered questions, I want to go get a PhD in astronomy and study stars and planets. It’s questions like this that make it obvious to me how asking questions about what’s “out there” can help us solve problems down here. Exoplanet research can help develop our climate models to better understand global warming and climate change here at home.

Even more than the practicality of it all, I love the fantasy. Duncan’s speculation about Alphan birds migrating every 35 or 70 years made me think of this artwork by Dan Durda. I would love to explore the jungles of some alien world like an interstellar Indiana Jones or David Attenborough.

Jungle Canyon by Dan Durda (via Bad Astronomy)

I just had a thought. Using humans flying the moon to inspire kids to study STEM is so last century. What we need to be doing is putting cutting edge and up to date information about the study of alien worlds into all of our science curriculum. This is the kind of thing that can excite and inspire just as much as human spaceflight. Who wouldn’t want to be the first biologist of Alphan ecosystems? Count me in.