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Science myths on the big screen

Oct 27

Science myths on the big screen

Education is important. Not just to get a good job, but also to understand the world around you.  Knowledge and understanding help us put things into perspective.  It helps us make sense of our surroundings and stops us from being tricked by false information.  People always say “don’t believe everything you see on TV”, and that’s for good reason.  Hollywood has perpetuated some of the worst myths around, and I’m going to bring the axe down on some of the more egregious science and math related ones. Hopefully by the end of this you’ll have gained some knowledge, or garnered some interest in the wonderful fields of Math and Science. Education is great and even more so fun – let’s explore that fact together.

Zoom and Enhance

Digital Image Processing


From CSI to Bourne, the general command from a higher up to the IT guy to “zoom and enhance” an image is always met with an immediate “Aye aye!”, and an equally immediate ‘Zoomed and Enhanced’ photo, detailing exactly what’s needed to push the plot forward.  In reality if you zoomed and enhanced a blurry photo you’d just end up with an enlarged version of a blurry photo.

Sure, in the realm of computer science there are ways to clear up a less than perfect picture, but you’ll never get a crystal clear result.  To add on to this, no matter how much “enchancing” you do you can’t discover details in the image that weren’t in the original – the baddie got away in a car, but the license plate is so blurry you can’t make out the number? Too bad. No amount of enhancement is going to get you those numbers.

The principals of enhancement in computer science are grounded in having the computer look through the image as it is and emphasize the details already present. More advanced procedures may even have the computer guess at what could be missing and put it there, though the results may be dubious to say the least.  We can soften edges in images to reduce visible noise (which is, essentially, blurring in the image). On the other hand, we can intensify edges in an image to make the image crisper (this is often called “sharpening” and has the unfortunate consequence of adding noise to the image in most cases). We can even use a combination of these along with other techniques to make powerful algorithms, but no matter what we do we can’t perform magic.

“Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning”

Faster than light travel


Star Trek, Star Wars, and many other Star Somethings all feature the amazing technology of faster-than-light travel, letting the stars (forgive the pun) of the show travel across the galaxy over lunch, often with time to spare! Sadly the reality of the situation is not so fun and fantastical. In reality nothing can travel faster-than-light – well there are a few special cases, but we’ll get to those later.

Thanks to the brilliant contributions of physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the relevant ones being his namesake equations, we were able to conclude that the speed of light in a vacuum (such as the vast openness of space) is about 300 million metres per second (about 185 hundred thousand miles per second). From here another famous physicist that you might have heard of, Albert Einstein, created his famous Theory of Relativity.

Think of this: You are currently reading this somewhere on Earth.  Earth is rotating about 450 metres per second.

How about this: Earth is orbiting the Sun at about 30 thousand metres per second, the galactic center at about 200 thousand meters per second, and is moving along with the galaxy through deep space within our galactic cluster at an even faster speed… You don’t really notice any of this, do you? According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, you wouldn’t.

If you were in a dark room with no ability to see the outside world, it wouldn’t matter if you were moving 10 m/s or 10 thousand m/s.  Either way you wouldn’t be able to tell you were moving at all!  Assuming the room you’re in is also a vacuum and you tried to measure your speed by measuring the speed of light, you would measure the same 300 million m/s at both speeds!

This leads to us giving the speed of light the title of “universal speed limit” because both time and space will bend before it lets you measure the speed of light as anything other than 300 million m/s.

Due to this spacetime wibbly-wobbliness it gets harder and harder to get it so someone else sees you moving even anywhere near the speed of light. The faster and faster you get relative to someone else, the more and more spacetime funkiness occurs to make sure you are still under the speed of light.  Theoretically it would take infinite energy to accelerate someone to light-speed. That’s just not feasible, ridiculous midichlorians or not.

Here’s the thing though: you might remember that I mentioned there are some special cases, and I think they merit some discussion.

cern-higgs-boson1-600x316The first exception: Tachyons.  You might have heard of this exotic particle through any number of means, but suffice to say they are particles defined by their ability to travel faster than light. More accurately though they are defined by the fact they always travel faster than light. There is no two ways about it.  This has an interesting side effect though, because if you remember things get funky when you travel near light speed.  If you end up travelling faster than light speed then things get really weird. As in “time flows backwards at all times” weird. That’s right, tachyons are time travelers – they go backwards in time just as we go forwards, it’s their natural state of being. There are some nuances involved that make physicists debate whether tachyons even exist in the first place, but we’ll get to that later.

The second exception:  If we have a limit to how fast we can move in space, why don’t we just move space itself? Sadly this isn’t as easy as it sounds, requiring ever exotic materials and substances that just plainly might not even exist, but it sure sounds fun.  Probably the two most notable examples of this are the Einstein-Rosen Bridge and the Alcubierre Drive.

Einstein-Rosen Bridge is just a fancy way to say “wormhole” – those things you keep hearing about all over fiction. A wormhole is a “tunnel” in space and time that connects two points in the universe. Though, that is a bit of a misnomer. In reality that “tunnel” is a fourth dimensional “bridge” (theorized by a joint effort of Einstein and Rosen, hence the name “Einstein-Rosen Bridge) between two points in our three dimensional space-time. The way this loophole works is that at no point are you actually travelling faster than light. Instead you are just taking a shortcut between two places, all the while traveling slower than light speed between the source and destination.

The Alcubierre Drive, thought up by brilliant physicist Miguel Alcubierre, was initially inspired by the exact trope we’re putting under the microscope.  Alcubierre was a Trekkie through and through, and tried thinking up a way for the infamous “warp drive” to exist in reality. After some intensive math and consulting with his own professor, Alcubierre thought up a warp drive that literally warps space and time around the ship. – Though the wording of the show still rules out this method as being the “canon” choice of space travel.

“Gravity: A movie so close but so far away.”

Centripetal force need not apply.

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from "Gravity." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures) ORG XMIT: NYET123

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from “Gravity.” (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures) ORG XMIT: NYET123

It’s always been a pet peeve of mine when fiction gets the simple stuff wrong. Not just wrong, but “a serious event in the plot happened because of this science error” wrong.  This exact thing happened more than once in the blockbuster film “Gravity”.  To be fair, more movies than just Gravity have showcased this particular piece of bad science, so let’s look at this blockbuster blunder more generally.

You have someone in space. This person in space is sadly trapped in a thriller movie, so you know their life is about to take a turn for the worse. In fiction, this turn comes in the form of having to cling to the side of a space station for dear life! Scary! In reality it would be equally scary, but for a fraction of the time. It would be a jump scare if even that. Scene end, cut to black. Roll credits. In fiction though it’s an entire ordeal! Several minutes of tension as you wonder if the lead character will be torn from their lifeline, or if they’ll make it…

I used a word just now, “tension”, that I think we should dwell on a bit, because it’s an important one. If we think of the situation from a physics point of view, then ‘tension’ would be a pulling force. Now, in the vastness of space, what possible force could there be pulling the character in question away from their destination? Could it be the force of gravity perhaps? Nope, they’re in zero-g (zero gravity). Then what? The answer is there is none. The only force in play is the one the character is exerting to bring them closer to their goal. As I said, if they already have a grasp on a ledge, the whole ordeal is over in no time at all. Now that isn’t to say there is no way at all to have all the tension (meant both ways here) you could ever want. All you need is to be spinning.

Think about it. When you are turning in a car, spinning on the spot, or swinging a bat you always have the feeling of pulling.  The car pulls you with it around the corner.  Your arms feel like they’re being pulled apart when you spin on the spot.  When you swing a bat you need to hold tight or the bat might just slip from your grasp.  This is because when you throw rotation into the mix, you need a force to continue your orbit (just what we’re looking for). This is known as the centripetal force.  In our space-person example unless the space-person is supplying the (tension / centripetal) force themselves they will fly off into the abyss!

“Back to the future”

Time travel


Ever since it was first introduced to the public eye way back in the times of H.G. Wells, time travel has bewildered and amazed. It’s one of the more appealing forms of travel to say the least. It’s an opportunity to undo the many mistakes in life. You could stop wars, overturn tyrannical despots, or even ‘guess’ the right lottery numbers.  All you have to do is jump in the right DeLorean and slam down on the gas pedal and you’re good to go, right? Sadly, this is not the case. The reality of the situation is much more complex, as you might expect – though that isn’t to say it is impossible (which it very well might be).

For many years people have been trying to come up with ways that would let you travel back in time. Some of the loopholes have some merit. In one loophole you would find yourself back in time, but in a different universe. Sadly this isn’t “true” time travel like we would like to believe.  Then perhaps the theory that if you ever DO travel back in time, you would be doing so in a way that would “preserve” the timeline (not break causality), would satisfy our belief of time travel better. This way you can travel back in time, but you wouldn’t really be able to do much.  But what if you COULD do much – change the whole of time and space? Well, Stephen Hawking’s Chronology Protection Conjecture has already shot that down, too.  Hawking thought (decades ago) that the rules of the universe (physics) were fundamentally opposed to time travel, and that hidden deep within the wonder that is the field of physics is proof of that. So far any theory of time travel has proven to follow this conjecture, so perhaps it’s true. That isn’t so fun for the big screen, or for Tachyons, but it might just be reality.

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