December 21, 2009

Stupid on "Star Trek" stilts (2)


Bad science fiction isn't the fault of far-out science, which is why I can enjoy eye-rolling SF like The X-Files. I figure anything theorized in the past century is up for grabs. But when it comes to the basic laws of motion and thermodynamics, though strict compliance may be too much to ask for, the spirit of the law deserves at least a polite tip of the hat.

In too many cases, unfortunately, the hard-won gifts of the Enlightenment are taken for granted, and quite unnecessarily at that. I feel compelled to plead with Hollywood's right-brained creative genius to throw a little pocket change at a few left-brained Caltech grad students to bring their scripts into at least the same universe as the scientific method.

The most annoying scientific faux pas in space opera is treating orbiting spaceships like airplanes. Johannes Kepler figured out how planetary orbits worked four hundred years ago. Plenty of time to get up to speed on the subject.

The only space battle I've seen play out with any respect for orbital science occurs in anime series Infinite Ryvius. (Unfortunately, the series is also quite realistic about what would happen if a bunch of teenagers took over a starship--namely, you'd end up with Lord of the Flies in space, which I found too painful to keep watching.)

The most jarring scientific moment in Star Trek has Kirk and Sulu parachuting from orbit onto Nero's "drill platform." As Isaac Newton demonstrated back in 1728 with his cannonball analogy, an object in orbit is literally in free fall. You can't "fall" out of orbit without sharply decelerating, usually by a combination of thrusters and atmospheric drag.

What makes the scene so frustrating is that it could have easily been done right--or at least less wrong. Kirk and Sulu (and the other guy--was he wearing a red uniform?) would ride snowmobile-looking contraptions that combined a retro-rocket and heat shield. They'd arc out of orbit and intersect the platform on a near-horizontal vector.

The special effects would be just as cool, the science and technology would be in the realm of the possible, and you'd get a new action figure toy out of it to boot. Win-win-win!

One more minor note about that drill platform. It resembles a space elevator, which is theoretically possible. But the mother ship would have to be in geostationary orbit over the equator. Again, a minor tweak to the script would fix it.

Related posts

Stupid on Star Trek stilts (1)
Stupid on Star Trek" stilts (3)
The brave old world of Star Trek

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