Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surround a very jittery bunch of spread out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to life that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

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