What everyone misses when looking at “the science behind science-related movies”

January 12, 2016 by Joshua
in Nature

I watched The Martian and liked it.

“How accurate is the science?” the media always asks, which then looks at the physical interactions and chemical reactions of the science and engineering in the movie.

They always miss what I’ve come to conclude is the most important part of the science—the trial and error.

A movie shows a chemist mixing sugar and liquid oxygen, saying the mix is more powerful than dynamite, and shows its explosion accelerate the space craft as desired. Or it shows a character mix potatoes, Martian dirt, human feces, and water to make an indoor potato farm. Always, the character describes how it works in theory. Media reviewers only consider if it works in theory. If they think it can, they imagine that’s all they need to ask.

But looking at the theory ignores the work behind anything hard. They ignore the same hard part of everything.

In any part of life, from preparing a speech to a sales presentation to a conversation with a friend to figuring out what to where to finding a route, let alone forefront science and engineering, going from theory to practice is huge and hard.

“Working in theory” means little on the first try. I visited the farm where my farm share came from this summer and the farmer there says he’s still working on things after twenty years. The Martian got everything right his first try. That would never happen. Yet the movie showed things working on the first try for many problems. His vehicle didn’t need an unavailable spare part in thousands of miles of driving.

To its credit, The Martian, showed several cases of things that could work in theory not working, at least more than most—like a rocket blowing up on launch or a seal failing—but most things worked too well. Propelling himself using a punctured suit as a jet, connecting power systems from one rocket to another, and so on.

When a movie suggests that you can get water from rocket fuel, and a scientist tells a movie reviewer something is “theoretically possible,” they pretend nature and practice are simple when they aren’t. I know it makes movies more fun, but when movie makers try to make their movies accurate, ignoring this part does a disservice to the incredible challenges scientists overcome. They make inaccurate the hard part of science: the doing. The movie’s screenwriter called it “a love letter to science.” More like a love letter to a fantasy of science.

It’s not just science that movies fail. It’s everything hard. It took me three times to get my latest sport jacket properly tailored, yet James Bond shows up perfectly tailored on a day’s notice every time. He never has to break to eat or go to the bathroom, let alone a tailor or gym to stay so muscular. These things we don’t think about aren’t little. They take some of the most time.

I suspend my disbelief while watching movies to enjoy them too. But the more I work professionally and realize the challenge of working with people, the less valuable I find theory alone and the more I find people talking about it really don’t know what they’re talking about.

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