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September 23 2010

The accuracy of science fiction. Find out how Firefly fared in this feature on whether science fiction actually gets it right.

It would be interesting to see a broader article, or one that tried to "grade" different franchises on some scale from "realistic" to "fantastic".
From the article - 'What's not clear is why the sun is so big and bright in the outer worlds. Whedon et al. also seem not to realize how big space is, even within our solar system. You can't make a blockade in space. To give you an idea, the "asteroid belt" in our own solar system is supposed to be this incredibly dangerous region with rocks everywhere. In reality, the distance between big asteroids is more like a million miles. And that's not hyperbole.'

The thing is, they were always quite vague on which planets had been teraformed. Maybe it was in our solar system, maybe it wasn't, so it is a little silly of them to assume that when they visit Ariel or any of the other planets/moons that it used to be Mars. The sun-brightness as his concern for these other worlds might very well be an issue, but as they never state exactly where it was meant to be, it seems like sort of a silly point to make. That's like arguing Gotham City doesn't have subways - it's a made up location that's supposed to be really an 'anywhere', not 'these are the exact coordinates of this planet formerly known as Neptune'.

Dunno, just think it's a silly and vague thing to pick at. Esp when there's more things to praise them about like silence in space, guns not working without oxygen, etc.
While an interesting read, I think this article could have been a bit better. Maybe longer or more in depth. It seemed to just kind of skim over everything.
Funny, I never thought that sound effect in _Star wars_ was supposed to be anything the characters were hearing until I read about it; I thought the sound just represented soem side-effect of the drive energies.

Not familiar with Firefly/Serenity beyond what I've read here but I got the impression it was definitely interstellar so that means the suns probably would be close from-earth-apparent-sized.(and which implies some type of FTL.) As to not mentioning warp drive, well, why would people do that even if they had it? Msot people don't talk about their engine when they're driving, unless it's 2 motorheads discussign performance issue; I'm not sure about pilots.
What Maddy said!

Also would of been nice if it had been a bit more in depth, maybe a mention to the realistic possibility of America and China teaming up as a sort of future super power, along with alot of other things.

[ edited by property of Mr Gordo on 2010-09-23 18:15 ]
The thing is, they were always quite vague on which planets had been teraformed. Maybe it was in our solar system, maybe it wasn't, so it is a little silly of them to assume that when they visit Ariel or any of the other planets/moons that it used to be Mars. The sun-brightness as his concern for these other worlds might very well be an issue, but as they never state exactly where it was meant to be, it seems like sort of a silly point to make. That's like arguing Gotham City doesn't have subways - it's a made up location that's supposed to be really an 'anywhere', not 'these are the exact coordinates of this planet formerly known as Neptune'.

I think the article has some basis in the show. The fact that "inner planets" and "outer planets" both have the same size sun/star in the sky either means that the show screwed up its science, or every single planet visited was at the same radial distance from the central star. This is pretty much impossible in a stellar system, and the terms "inner" and "outer" suggest that they are indeed supposed to be at different distances from the star in their system. The inner planets should seem to have a bigger Sun than the outer planets and so on. More to the point, every planet should have a different-sized Sun because of their different distances, and this is not observed, since all planets can't possibly be at the same distance or else their orbits would interfere with each other.

Given that the planets had Earth-type atmospheres it's very hard to imagine how exactly they all kept the same Earth-type temperature, while at different distances. You can fanwank it as having technology we're unfamiliar with, but the Sun size does read as a clear problem. Same with the blockades, really; you can blockade one planet at a time, but that's about it. It doesn't make Firefly/Serenity not enjoyable, and it does do many space things right, but the one solar system thing and the portrayals of blockades or "Reaver territory" or whatnot don't really mean anything.

DaddyCatALSO: Nope, Joss has confirmed that the show is set in a single solar system (not ours) with no FTL. It doesn't really make any sense; you just have to accept it and enjoy the rest of the show's awesomeness.

[ edited by WilliamTheB on 2010-09-23 18:17 ]
The Firefly system seems closer to impossible than possible. The critical aspect is the habital zone, which runs between the minimum and maximum orbital distance from the star where surface water can exist as solid, liquid, and gas (all three states, somewhere on the planet, all the time).

Gravity and orbital mechanics play havoc with trying to put multiple planets in this zone. First, most planets have eccentric orbits, meaning that their distance from the sun varies. Both the closest point and farthest point need to be within the habitable zone, always.

Second, you have to come to terms fully with what it means when planetary orbits "interfere" with each other. Orbits change, which can move a planet out of the habitable zone.

This effect is particularly significant with small bodies, such as asteroids and comets. They can be drawn into a planet, producing a devastating impact. Or they can be thrown completely out of orbit, either into the sun or out of the solar system. Or their orbit can be changed, setting up a future catastrophic change on another planetary approach.

Gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn perform an essential role in our solar system, clearing out asteroids and comets with highly eccentric orbits. Without those planets, we probably wouldn't exist.

These gravitational effects are also the reason that the orbits of the planets in our solar system are so widely separated. In establishing stable orbits, all of the planets have either cleared out most of the asteroids in their orbital range, or collided with them. That includes collisions with other planets; there's a lot of evidence to suggest that Earth collided with a Mars-sized planet early in our solar system's history, with the result being our relatively large moon. There is evidence that suggests that Venus also had a major collision, based on its backward rotation. And Uranus, whose axis is tilted almost 90 degrees.

In short, it's nearly impossible to crowd a dozen planets into a single habital zone. They won't stay there. Otherwise, 12 habitable planets would imply some powerful terraforming technology, artificially heating or cooling planets to make them habitable. There's no suggestion of this in Firefly.

I believe that some of the 12 worlds are described in Firefly as moons, but this may also be problematic. We have only one moon in our solar system with any significant atmosphere. Multiple habitable moons around a single planet suggests both a very large planet (perturbing orbits of other nearby planets), and also the small problem that moons in orbit have the same issues that planets have in orbit around a star. Put them too close, and they interfere with each other.

So the 'verse gets a failing grade on orbital mechanics.

By the way, speaking of asteroid belts, is anyone else following the Dawn mission? It's in our asteroid belt now, and within a year it will go into orbit around Vesta, the second largest asteroid. It will stay six months, then leave orbit and travel to Ceres, the largest asteroid, where it will go into orbit. So we'll see for real how hazardous flying through asteroids might be.
Well, there is a lot of talk about terraforming planets throughout Firefly (and how sometimes it doesn't work too well). What they don't talk about is variations in terraforming parameters. So, for example, a planet is too far from one of the stars (there are three, if I recall) to maintain "earth normal" temperatures, one could assume that the artificially created atmosphere would be designed differently than the atmosphere needed at closer planets. Atmospheres with different properties could even account for a similar sized "sun" on every planet via optical fact, if you were designing a habitable planet, you'd want to make it as earth-like as possible, so you'd account for that. They even say (I think in Serenity) that they did try to make everything as close to Earth as possible. All beyond our current tech and understanding of tech of course, but reasonable in context.

All fanwankery, of course, but it seems reasonable that not every planet would be treated the same. The blockades and Reaver territory are a little more problematic, due to the aforementioned distances involved. Like trying to hit a puppy by throwing a bee at it.

Come to think of it, did we ever see a binary sunset?
Okay, probably a stupid thing to say and making me think I'm gonna have to re-watch Firefly once again, but are we ever actually told that the series is set in a single Solar System? I always thought the term "Outer Rim" referred to the planets that were at the edge of Alliance control, whilst the "Central Planets" were right at the heart of the Alliance, rather than descriptions of physical location within a single solar system.

[ edited by Vandelay on 2010-09-23 20:21 ]
It's much harder for planets to find stable orbits in binary or other multiple star systems. There are hundreds of exoplanets known now, but it's still pretty much of a surprise when we find one in a multiple star system.
MissKittysMom, thanks for all that detailed explanation. It was stuff that I kinda "knew" from reading and tv over the years and was thinking: Hey, I should maybe attempt to explain. But YOU, you were so nice and clear with like, the proper detailed facts and stuff. That would have taken me ages to put together. And now I really "know." ^_^
Agreed, MissKittysMom, Firefly's orbital mechanics are a mess. Especially given the fact that this is apparently a multiple star system - and not just binary stars either, but five of 'em. Count 'm: five. All single stars. It's a weird-ass system with one central star 'white sun' around which the other stars orbit and all of these stars have planets and moons. All of this is depicted on the Qmx map of the verse here.

And while this is a nice fantasy - one could even fanwank that one could fit quite a few planets into the habitable 'Goldilocks'-zone around five stars - it's also highly unlikely. Multiple star systems are not unheard of (although very rare), but they're often quite unstable. What's more, these systems usually contain multiples of binary stars; I don't know of any multiple-star systems containing just single stars, but then again I'm not up to date with every single known star system out there ;).
When I was a kid, I was really interested in astronomy. I understood the difference in scales of distance between the inner and outer planets of our solar system, between Sol and nearby stars, across the span of the Milky Way galaxy, between galaxies in our local group, and beyond our local group to more distant galaxies.

Joss isn't interested in any of that. From various comments his characters make, such as Jayne's "I've seen the edge of space," I wonder if Joss is even aware that there are billions of star systems outside our galaxy. The whole "Reaver territory" section of the movie seems to ignore that Miranda is moving through orbital space.

When writers of hard science fiction set a story in a planetary system, they begin by working out how many planets there are, how big, how massive, what they are made of, composition of their atmospheres, periods of rotation and angles of the planetary axes, etc. and what sort of environments result. For hard science fiction, this kind of preparation is just as important as figuring out the motivations of the characters and their backstories.

Apparently Joss didn't do any of this in advance. Even basic questions as to whether the colonists have FTL travel appear to have been answered retroactively.

Joss deserves props for no sound in space and not using projectile weapons inside pressurized cabins. He could have improved the physics of the verse for the movie by outsourcing the specs of the planetary system to a hard science fiction writer. Someone with relevant experience could have come up with a more scientifically plausible combination of planets and satellites that didn't openly contradict what had gone before, accommodated the requirements of the plot and was filmable. For me, this sort of attention to detail differentiates high class space opera from science fiction.
I have always assumed that the "extra" stars had been man-made, collapsing gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn, (Didn't Asimov do that to Jupiter in one of his follow-up books to 2001?) and then terraforming the existing moons.
I would think setting up the proper levels of greenhouse gases
to maintain a temperate climate would be standard practice when terraforming. So outlying planets/moons could still be made habitable.
-Janef: just a thought on on the "edge of space". i see that as not so much Joss's awareness, but Jayne's. Even though our Galaxy has billions of star systems, the closest to us is still more than 4 light years away, to Jayne that might as well be the edge of space.
As for "Reaver territory", since they originated from Miranda, it does make sense to me that if they were to have a territory it'd be in the area surrounding Miranda. So they would be in somewhat of a wide orbit around Miranda, tavelling around whichever star Miranda is orbiting. (That, or Miranda just happened to be passing though/beyond Reaver territory in its orbit.)
One of things I really liked about Firefly was that the storys didn't get bogged down with techno speak as to how everything worked.
Evolutionary psychology a science? Did I miss something?

Anyway, I find these lists kind of interesting but also a bit pointless. We all pretty much understand that sci-fi isn't real, and if you like hard sci-fi then it must be frustrating, but especially with the tv and film format, the fiction part comes first. The enjoyable thing about sci-fi to me isn't whether this scientific idea could work, but if this science idea was a reality, how would that affect the people living there.
Nothing wrong with wanting or being a fan of sci-fi that has its science right or as close to the truth as possible.
Thank you, J Linc.

I accept unexplained portable gravity generators as a practical convention for TV shows and movies that are set in space but that do not have space travel as a major focus. Otherwise, they would have to blow most of their FX budget on wire work.

However, whatever genre of show I am watching, I'm more interested when the premises of the show are internally consistent and causes are followed up by consequences than when things don't fit and anything could happen next because it's all arbitrary.

Although there are exceptions, most great narrative art (the entire genre of tragedy, for instance) results from the careful working out of whatever was set up initially. If the initial setup is not coherent, the results will not be.

Also, factual errors take me right out of suspension of disbelief. For example, the trope of "people trapped in a very cold place trying to keep from freezing" bothers me when the people make no effort to cover their heads. They don't because the director wants them to look keep looking pretty and people with random headgear look dumb. If you are going into battle in a ship or a spaceship, you don't leave unsecured objects lying around such that the vessel's sudden changes of direction and orientation will launch them at your head. Obviously, the more you know about what the show or movie is depicting, the more errors of fact you are likely to notice, whether it's gun technology (my former roommate could instantly recognize the make and caliber of any gun shown), medicine, botany or business management.
It would be interesting to see a broader article, or one that tried to "grade" different franchises on some scale from "realistic" to "fantastic".

Sort of similar idea jclemens, The 'Bad Astronomy' movie page. Warning: page may consume large portions of your life ;).

And yep, a lot of the science in 'Firefly' was highly suspect, particularly the solar(s) system itself (cheers for the explanation MissKittysMom ;) and the apparently instantaneous communication over long distances. Either they have technology on the planet manipulation scale (as well as access to some kind of "subspace" or wormhole tech for comms) or the science has a few holes. But, y'know, to a point so what right ? Buffy and Angel also had holes and inconsistencies, they were normally there for good storytelling reasons, same for 'Firefly'. So long as they're not so glaring or the story itself maintains sufficient momentum that my suspension of disbelief isn't affected, s'all alright (and obviously what's glaring and what's sufficient will differ for different people). Would I rather have both the story/characterisation and the scientific accuracy ? For sure. But so it goes.

The main thing I think it did well was the William Gibson idea that "The future is already here it's just not very evenly distributed." i.e. today we have people who routinely walk around with (near) instantaneous global communications devices in their pocket, microwave ovens, libraries full of books in their hand and who have on their desk as much computing power as the entire world only 60 or so years ago and yet at the same time, sometimes only a few tens of miles away, we have people hunting their food with bows and arrows and others that don't even have access to clean water. Some SF misses the point that while the existence of technology is (by definition) largely a technological problem the distribution of technology is as much a social one but on 'Firefly' it's front and centre. It's very much social sci-fi in other words and as such, accurate science is a bonus but not an essential IMO.

And relatedly:

... maybe a mention to the realistic possibility of America and China teaming up as a sort of future super power, along with alot of other things.

See, this stuff is hard. Much harder than predicting technological advances (which is pretty hard in itself) because human affairs are so incredibly complicated, with so many variables. And politically, almost nothing is actually impossible (unlike with some aspects of science). Almost no SF writers predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union for instance, even when it was only a few years away.

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