Does bad science ruin science fiction?

We stole a moment with Cosmos presenter and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to talk about the effect of bad science on science fiction…

If you expressed disbelief at The Day After Tomorrow’s unfrozen penicillin, furrowed your brow at Independence Day’s alien-tech compatible code or laughed knowingly at Dara O’Briain’s stand-up routine on 2012’s mutating neutrinos, then chances are you’re of a mind with astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson.

A familiar face on the US chat show circuit, Tyson is the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, a research associate of the American Museum of Natural History, and currently the presenter of Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a sequel to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s seminal 1980 PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey. He’s also appeared as himself in episodes of Stargate Atlantis and The Big Bang Theory (in which he was berated by Jim Parsons’ character for his role in 2006’s demotion of Pluto from planet status).

Dr Tyson’s also a vocal advocate of blockbuster movies getting science right. Late last year, he made headlines for critiquing the scientific inaccuracies in Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning feature Gravity, but his cause is by no means a recent one. Look up on YouTube Tyson’s entertaining story about doggedly pursuing director James Cameron over the inaccurate night sky gazed upon by an adrift Kate Winslet in the closing moments of 1997’s Titanic for proof of that.

On the publicity circuit for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey which debuts this weekend on Fox and National Geographic, we asked Dr Tyson whether he was still able to enjoy watching and reading science fiction, or whether his accuracy bugbears made it impossible.

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“I have an issue when they get the science wrong because they didn’t know better, or they presumed that the correct science would have somehow handcuffed them in their storytelling. My biggest issue is when they get the science wrong where, had they told it right, they could have told a better story. I have no patience for that [laughs]. Really no patience for that.”

How can the promulgation of bad movie science be helped? Would blockbusters benefit from having a scientific watchdog?

“I think the serious movie-going public knows it already. They don’t need a scientist to guide it. If a movie gets a lot right, it’ll get written about, its story will get retold, it will get held up as an exemplar of remarkable movie-making.

“There’s a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey for instance – a film that spent so much effort trying to get stuff right – where the crew is weightless and the character sips some liquid from a bag and then someone calls his name, he looks away and the liquid works its way back down the bag. In zero-G the liquid would just stay there, or it would keep spilling out because the last thing he did was suck it up the straw. Okay, so they missed that! It’s a celebration of how much else that movie got right that you would even go there to talk about this.”

Ann Druyan, co-writer and executive producer on both the original and sequel Cosmos, sees it as follows.

“For me, it depends entirely on suspending disbelief. If the filmmakers get something wrong that even I, as a non-scientist, know is not true, it kind of ruins it for me. Certainly I’d see it with Carl [Sagan, astronomer and Druyan’s husband from 1981 until his death in 1996], I could see his nose twitching when we were watching certain science-fiction movies. He really wanted to enjoy it, he had this fantastic love of entertainment and fun, but when the filmmakers get something basically wrong – as Neil has said so brilliantly – it’s as if you’re watching an Elizabethan play and all of a sudden someone walks in wearing a watch! You’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, that’s just wrong’”

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“Unless it’s the director’s intent to do it in a modern idiom” Druyan continues, “getting the science wrong is just like putting something smack-dab in the middle of a production which doesn’t read true. It’s like the VFX. If you don’t get the physics right for the special effects, it just doesn’t read, the audience isn’t fooled, and you don’t get to suspend disbelief.”

“I’m a big fan of what Mark Twain said” Dr Tyson adds, “Mark Twain said ‘First get your facts straight, then distort them at your leisure’ because if you distort a fact that you got right, it’ll distort in an interesting storytelling way, I’m good with that. But if you didn’t even get the central fact right, you end up flailing in your attempt to tell the story. Just get out of the medium. Go take on something else!”

Read more from our interview with Dr Tyson and Ann Druyan, here.

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