Although science-fiction fans like you to believe they are a lot more accurate at research than fantasy/horror writers, I believe I can convince you other wise. This article intends to look at the issue of glaring scientific errors that pervade modern science-fiction and are unthinkingly accepted by most science-fiction writers:
1) Spaceships Approaching Each Other In Space:
In science-fiction films and series, whenever two (or more) spaceships approach each other in space, they are always the same way up. Like two cars approaching each other on a road. No way! The difference between driving on a road and driving in outer space is that in outer space there is no up and no down.
Driving down a highway or road you have an absolute down: the road under your tyres. And an absolute up: the sky above your roof. So naturally two cars approaching each other are the same way up. But in outer space there is no land beneath your vehicle only space above and below, space to left and to right, space in front and behind. So logically if two spaceships approach in outer space, they are just as likely to be upside-down to each other, with the bottoms of each spaceship almost touching each other as they go past. Or the roofs almost touching each other as they go past. Or perhaps one side-on to the other, travelling at a 90 Degree angle to the other, either facing it, or facing away from it. Realistically the odds against two approaching spaceship being the same way up are about the same as the odds of winning a major lottery! (Yes, I know major lotteries do get won. But the odds are heavily stacked against you!)
2) Windows To Outer Space:
The BBC recently re-edited the SF-comedy, Red Dwarf so the new Red Dwarf now has thousands of windows lining the sides of the craft. But why? As Holly, the spaceship’s talking computer, once said, “Well the thing about space is, that it’s black … So how you gonna see it?”
Good point. Once a spaceship goes well beyond Pluto, past the bounds of our sun’s light, what is the point in having windows to a spaceship? Despite what Gene Roddenberry and others want you to believe, Einstein’s theories of relativity say that it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. And although it might seem to science-fiction writers and others as though the sky is absolutely chock-full of stars, in reality the nearest star to our galaxy (other than our own sun) is light-years away. So once you are in deep space, away from the light of the sun, you will be in total darkness for years between each star.
On our world we have day and night. Our houses have windows for two reasons. Firstly, to admit light from the sun. Secondly, to allow us to see out. If we lived on a night world where there was no direct sunlight, and no daytime, buildings would have no windows. Likewise in outer space there is no need to have windows in spaceship since you are living in perpetual night. Instead of day and night as we have on Earth, in deep space you have unlit night outside your spaceship, and lit night inside your spaceship. There is no such thing as daytime for years, until you approach the light of the next sun. So why bother to have any outside windows in deep space vehicles?
Windows are a weakness in the hull structure of your vehicle, since even hardened glass is not as strong as metal. Particularly the super-strong metallic alloys they have these days. So why weaken the hull of your deep space vehicle by having hundreds or thousands of windows (as in Red Dwarf edition 2) when you could not see anything through those windows anyway?
Also note that astral bodies other than suns (or inhabited planets) do not give off their own light to light the dark space. When we see objects like the moon seemingly glowing in space, we are actually seeing our sun’s light weakly reflected off them. This is the ultimate weakness in the old werewolf legend of moonlight affecting werewolves. There is no such thing as moonlight, only sunlight reflected off the moon. So if broad sunlight in day does not affect werewolves, why should weak sunlight reflected off the moon at night affect them? The same with other astral bodies “glowing in space”, we are seeing our sun’s light reflected off them.
The exception to this is when an object enters an atmosphere and bursts into flames due to the friction of hitting the atmosphere at the wrong angle. This only occurs on planets, however, since only planets have an atmosphere. Planets always orbit a sun. The nearest known sun outside our solar system where planets could exist is over two-hundred light-years away. So this phenomenon is not going to light the way for you when you are rocketing (or spaceshipping) through deep space.
Which brings us to:
3) Viewer-Screens Showing Outside The Spaceship:
This is similar to error 2). Since deep space is total darkness for years at a stretch, what is the point of having a viewer-screen showing outside your spaceship? And how is this done anyway?
If we take the second question first, I can only assume Mr Roddenberry and co. think we are gullible enough to believe a gigantic starship would have hundreds of cameras lining the outside rim to show us external views. Firstly, this is unlikely, since external cameras would be difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to protect with heat-shields for when the spaceship is passing into or out of a planet’s atmosphere.
Secondly, how would these external cameras be lighted enough to provide a clear picture, since, as I’ve already said, there is no light in deep space? Either you would need some kind of super high-beams perpetually on outside you spaceship to light the way or there would be no point in having external cameras on your craft, since all you would see is the blackness of space anyway. And how would you generate the power necessary for any such super high-beams (see point 5) below).
Assuming super high-beams on the outside of spaceships is impossible, if you were suddenly on a collision course with another spaceship, realistically neither ship could see the other until they had collided, or just missed. In which latter case they might feel each other’s wake and become alarmingly aware of each other. So what is the point of having viewer-screen to the outside darkness?
Closely linked to the issue of viewer-screens is:
4) Controlled, Localised Force-Fields, A.K.A. Shields:
Two problems arise here.
Firstly, how are you supposed to generate a controlled, localised force-field in the first place? Assuming the force-field is some kind of energy field, unless it is sent from one focusing device to another, the energy would just dissipate into space. To prevent it from dissipating or bleeding away into space you would need a sending device and a receiving device as well. To generate a controlled, localised force-field that would protect an entire spaceship, you would need to have thousands of senders and receivers affixed to the outside of the spaceship, like a metal spider web duplicating the outline of the spaceship. In theory this is possible. It might even be possible to have these spider-arrays of receivers retractable to minimise the chance of damage by having them lying flat against the hull of the vessel, until needed. At which point at the push of a button they extend and the controlled, localised force-field is emitted through them. However, this is not the case with any spaceship in any science-fiction show or movie that I have ever seen. The exception is Lost in Space back in the 1960s. In L.I.S. when the Jupiter II was crashed on a planet, the Robinsons set up a string of force-field generators around the spaceship to produce a controlled, localised force-field. It seems that in the 1960s some TV SF writers knew more about realistic science than the modern ones do today.
Which brings us to the second problem: How do you power the controlled, localised force-fields (a.k.a. shields)? It would take a tremendous amount of power to generate these “shields” for even seconds. Even if you did have the receiver/sender web in place around the outside of your spaceship. In the case of Lost in Space, their biggest problem was lack of power. They had run out of fuel to fly the Jupiter II and spent an inordinate amount of time drilling for fuel. So how did they have the power to use their force-field generators? It seems it never occurred to them that it would actually require a hell of a lot more power to produce a controlled, localised force-field, than it would to fly a spaceship.
Possibly, but doubtfully, you could achieve this by the use of nuclear reactors in your spaceship. But even nuclear reactors have their limits. And the amount of power needed to generate this force-field effect would be humungous. Besides which, most modern science-fiction shows are quick to point out their starships don’t use dirty, dangerous nuclear power. But safe, clean anti-matter engines.
Which brings us to:
5) Anti-Matter Engines:
Science-fiction writers and science-fiction series are fond of mentioning that anti-matter is inclined to explode on contact with matter. Thus it must be handled carefully. They are less keen to mention that scientists have stated publicly that anti-matter is so difficult to manufacture, that it would take a thousand years to make enough anti-matter to power a single light bulb for half an hour. God knows how many billions of years it would take to manufacture enough anti-matter to start a starship?
A far more likely source of power is the one considered in Lost in Space back in the mid 1960s when Guy Williams a.k.a. John Robinson suggested they convert the Jupiter II to running on plasma.
For the uninitiated plasma is the fourth state of matter. On Earth matter comes in three states: solid, liquid, gas. Plasma is the fourth state, midway between gas and liquid. Although it does not exist naturally on Earth, plasma can be manufactured relatively easily on Earth and is the most abundant state of existence in the galaxy. Some scientists believe 80 Percent or more of all matter in the universe is in the plasma state.
So whereas anti-matter is almost non-existent (at least in our positive universe, as opposed to the negative anti-matter universe science-fiction writers fantasise about), plasma is super abundant. And therefore cheap and easy to collect or manufacture. Certainly compared to anti-matter. It would seem John Robinson knew a lot more about how to power a spaceship than Gene Roddenberry, and the post Roddenberry generation.
Which brings us to:
6) Continuous Use of Starship Engines:
For reasons I’ve never quite fathomed, in SF TV shows spaceships have their engines running continuously on high, to keep going. This is needed in a car on Earth, of course, because the friction of the road and gravity of the planet will pull you to a halt. Likewise a plane in flight, within the reach of Earth’s gravity needs its engines on to avoid being dragged down to earth by gravity.
But in outer space, when there are no planets, moons, suns, etc. around, you have no gravity pulling you down to earth. As I’ve already said (see point 1) above) there is no absolute up or absolute down in space anyway. And assuming the old-fashioned theory of the Ether is untrue, and as Einstein postulated empty space is just empty space, there is (virtually) no friction co-efficient to slow you down either.
So, in reality, once you are out of the pull of the Earth’s gravity, and already in motion, you only need your engines burning to stop, speed up, slow down, or change course. If you want to keep going at the same speed and course, you can turn off your engines, or turn them down to just produce enough power to generate life-support, using full power in short bursts only. Certainly with space shuttles, over 99 Percent of the initial fuel load is used to get out of Earth’s atmosphere and escape the planet’s gravitational pull. Only 1 Percent is used for the full flight out and back. When Apollo 11 lunar vehicle Eagle was landing on the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong had to shut down the computer-controlled landing program since the terrain turned out to be unsafe to land on. He then manually flew the Eagle and detoured 10,000 miles to land in one piece. However, the Eagle had so little fuel for the trip to the moon and back, that after the detour it seemed as though there was no way for Armstrong and Aldrin to get back to Apollo 11 where Michael Collins also had too little fuel to attempt any form of rescue.
To give you an analogy, imagine a car with the engine off, parked at the crest of a tall mountain. Start the engines for a moment to go over the crest and you can then turn the motor off and race down the slope of the hill, and continue forward once you reach flat ground for a while until gravity and friction of the road against the tyres finally stops the car. Because there is no gravity or friction to slow you, being in space is like being at the crest of that mount. Except that once you start down the hill, you never reach the flat “ground” but keep running “downhill” almost indefinitely. In fact you will need to restart you motors once you reach the gravitational pull of the next sun or planet a couple of years down the track, but until then you can coast on off for a long long time.
Another error related to this (very common in all four Star Trek series) is when a spaceship is already in motion, powering along at warped-factor nine or whatever, and the engines suddenly die. According to Gene Roddenberry your spaceship grinds to a halt within seconds. No way, as I’ve just said, there is no gravity or friction in outer space, so if your engines suddenly die, you keep moving at your current course and speed, but cannot slow, accelerate, stop, or change course.
Logic should tell you this would be the case. Even with friction and gravity slowing it, a car travelling at a hundred miles an hour down a highway does not stop instantly if its motor suddenly fails, it takes quite a time to run to a stop. So why should a spaceship stop two seconds after its motor fails?
7) Man-Shaped Aliens:
Religious zealots like to believe that all intelligent life forms would look pretty much the same as us. The religious zealots of course assume since God made Man (or should that be Person) in His own image, if he made aliens as well, they would also have to be in God’s image and therefore would look about the same as us. My mother is fond of saying, “I don’t see why aliens should be much different from us?”
The answer (which I never give her for fear of upsetting her) is that humans evolved from the amoeba via a series of millions of random evolutionary steps. For a humanoid (let alone human) creature to exist anywhere else in the galaxy it would have to have evolved through the same millions of evolutionary steps, each time, making the same random mutation which we made at that stage.
I am assuming of course that we and the aliens do not have some common ancestor who colonised both planets, or that the aliens’ planet did not at some stage colonise our planet. Making these assumptions, unknown aliens could NOT possibly look as human as Vulcans, Klingons, Cadassians, Romulans, etc. all do. Gene Roddenberry’s apparent excuse is that Star Trek started on such a tight budget that they had to choose between convincing aliens and shooting in colour (at a time when most U.S. TV series started production in black-and-white).
Well, fair enough, this may excuse the original series. But not the later ones which have been rolling in rupees, and could most definitely afford more convincing aliens.
Which brings us to:
Mr Spock (and Other Hybrid-Aliens):
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that all species have do-dads known as chromosomes in them. And that the number of chromosomes is different in each species. And that only when the number is the same, indicating a male and female of the same species, can the male impregnate the female.
This is why cats and dogs might have sex, but cannot produce puppens (or whatever). Even within the same species, if the sub-order is different mating is difficult. Tigers and lions can produce cubs, but those cubs are infertile, so you need to keep producing first-generation ligers or tions, since there can be no second-generation offspring. Likewise with horses and donkeys producing mules. All mules are infertile so it is an ongoing (and I would imagine frustrating as hell) process to keep producing mules.
Likewise Mr Spock’s human mother and Vulcanean father could bonk all they like, but the Vulcan male could never get the human female pregnant.
Another problem with Mr Spock and some other aliens is his colour. No, before you panic, I’m not being racist. What I mean is Mr Spock should be green. If you’ve ever seen a corpse after the blood has been pumped out, as I have, you’ll know what I mean. Unlike TV series where a “corpse” looks like (and is) a living person with their eyes shut, in real life a corpse looks nothing like a sleeping person. The corpse of a white person is literally chalk white; the corpse of a black person is a pale grey. That is the extend to which a living person is colourised (for want of a better word) by the red blood in their veins.
So whether you are talking about white Mr Spock, or black Mr Tuvok in ST: Voyager, there should be a definite tinge of green to the complexion of a “person” with green blood.
Admittedly with Mr Spock, they got this right in the original pilot “The Cage” with Jeffrey Hunter as Christopher Pike, when Spock did have greenish flesh. But in the actual TV series that followed with William Shatner replacing Jeffrey Hunter, Mr Spock’s flesh changed to the pasty-white that it is to this day.
9) Cold-Blooded Androids:
Back in the 1970s in the sf-horror film “West World” we were told the six-shooters they used had sensors to make sure they would only shoot robots, not humans, “By sensing body-heat, since robots are cold-blooded”. To coin a phrase, “Huh! Since when!” In truth a robot or android is just a highfalutin machine, and all machines generate tremendous heat due to friction of moving parts and due to the heat produced by electrical current. This is why cars have to have a fan to cool the engine, PCs have built in fans (and have been known to overheat, burn down houses and kill people when their fans stop working).
Any machine if not lubricated or air-or-water cooled with eventually overheat and burst into flames. Androids are no exception. In the unlikely event that we ever build man-shaped robots (unlike modern robots which look like lathes with metallic tentacles attached), their body heat would be many times that of a human being. So for the heat sensors in the West World guns to actually work, they would have to be set to seek out the hotter body, not the cooler one as in West World. By my guess if you set the sensors to stop the gun firing if aimed at anything with a body heat less than 400 Degrees Fahrenheit, this would be too far above human temperature to work when pointed at a human, but low enough to fire when aimed at any android.
Twenty years later this error continues to crop up in sf movies and TV-series such as Red Dwarf and Star Trek where we keep being told about cold-blooded androids.
10) Re-Aerating Mars:
The most common version of this theory (with scientists as well as science-fiction writers) is that if enough black roses are planted on the ice caps on Mars they will attract the sun’s light, melt the caps and release the oxygen in the ice back into the atmosphere.
This might be feasible, in theory, but how do you keep the atmosphere there?
Unbeknown to many scientists it seems, let alone science-fiction writers, the atmosphere of a planet is held down to the planet by gravity. With Mars’s much lower gravity than ours the original atmosphere has all but floated away into space.
But another factor to consider is the need to have trees to replace your planet’s atmosphere. Even on Earth, with our very high gravity, the atmosphere is constantly bleeding away into outer space, however, it is being constantly replaced by trees which breathe carbon-dioxide and “exhale” oxygen. Without trees, even on Earth our atmosphere would soon vanish.
Thus we have another problem. There are no trees on Mars to replenish any new atmosphere produced by melting the polar caps. And with such a weak gravity the odds are that if you tried to grow trees there from scratch the gravity would bleed away into space too quickly and with no atmosphere the trees would wilt and die. It’s a little like the old riddle, “What came first? The chicken or the egg?” Before you can oxygenate Mars there must be a plentiful forest growing. But before trees can grow you need an atmosphere for them to breathe.
So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The trees to replenish the atmosphere, or the atmosphere for the trees to breathe?
Also a factor in this equation is the question of whether you could get your black roses to grown on Mars at the moment anyway? Before you can have life (plant or animal life) on a planet you need an ozone layer. The Earth’s ozone layer filters out 99 Percent of the sun’s lethal ultra-violet radiation, which otherwise would kill all life on this planet.
Ozone is just a fancy name for heavy-oxygen. Normally an oxygen molecule has two atoms of oxygen, so it is written as O2, but ozone is an oxygen molecule of O3 or three atoms of oxygen. Before an ozone layer can form the atmosphere must be heavy in oxygen. Earth has an ozone layer, Mars does not. So even though plants breathe carbon-dioxide, not oxygen itself, they cannot grow on Mars until there is an ozone layer, and that cannot develop until there is an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Which cannot develop until you plant the black roses, which would be killed by the sun’s ultra-violet radiation without an ozone layer … and so on. The term Catch-22 seems to spring to mind!
11) Wormholes in Space:
For the benefit of those who don’t know what they are, wormholes in space are supposedly two black holes linked by some form of curvature in space to form a tunnel to allow you to zap from one side of the universe to another. Thereby bypassing Einstein’s claim that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and the fact that the nearest sun to ours where a habitable planet could exist is two-hundred light-years distance. The theory is that you pass into one black hole, go through the tunnel and pass out unharmed from the other black hole. Unfortunately most scientists now agree this is a nonsense. Black holes destroy (or eat up) all matter that enters them, so anything passing out of the other black hole would be a dead, mangled mess. Even in the unlikely event that the other black hole would release anything anyway. Black holes suck in, not release.
Which brings us to:
12) The Swiss Cheese Effect (or High-Velocity Impacts With Massive Objects In Space):
In “Star Trek the Motion Picture” the Enterprise’s engines overload sending them soaring at twice their normal maximum speed down a wormhole in space (see point 11) above) at the end of which is a gigantic asteroid. To avoid crashing into the asteroid, they blow it up and all is well. Uh-uh, no way! This violates what scientists call “The Swiss Cheese Effect”.
Basically this rule says that if you are about to hit a single massive object in space and you cannot detour or otherwise avoid hitting it, your best bet is to do nothing and hope for the best. This way you have a far greater chance that your spaceship and at least part of your crew will survive than you would have in blowing up the object. Despite what Gene Roddenberry thought, if you blow up a large object it does NOT simple vanish out of existence. Rather it is shattered into millions of much smaller pieces. Pieces which are still going to collide at high impact with your craft. But instead of colliding in a single spot, giving you some hope of survival, they are now going to blast through your craft at a million different points like a gigantic shotgun shooting millions of tiny pellets through it, so it will look like Swiss Cheese. And ensuring the ship is completely destroyed and that every single member of your crew is killed. Much better to leave the asteroid intact and keep your fingers crossed.
In summing up, it is not my aim in this article to totally rubbish science-fiction. Certainly I like some science-fiction, even some Star Trek (the first series), and have even written a little science-fiction myself. Although rarely. However, unlike most science-fiction writers I am not prepared to use nonsensical pseudo-science elements in my stories. Even if these elements were invented by Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov or other legendary figures. Arthur C. Clarke once stated that the difference between science-fiction and fantasy/horror is that in fantasy/horror you can make up any absurdly impossible element and still have a good story. But in science-fiction you must start with what is scientifically possible today and project beyond it to extrapolate what may (or may not) be possible in the future. Although you are guestimating what may be possible, your theory must be at least vaguely possible!
The problem with this definition is that if we apply it, science-fiction as a genre virtually does not exist. Not after the 1950s anyway. Star Trek (all four series), Babylon-Five, Blake’s 7, Star Wars, Lost in Space, Battlestar Galactica, etc. are not science-fiction, because the basic premises behind them are not even vaguely scientifically possible. There may (or may not) be genuine science-fiction movies, novels, and short stories. But using Mr Clarke’s definition there never has been a true science-fiction series. Which explains the modern trend to say “science-fantasy” to cover something which has the look and feel of science-fiction but which is not scientifically possible. Instead of using the more accurate, original term: “bad-science fiction”!