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10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better!

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better
We all love to point out the ridiculous bad physics in science fiction — it’s like an awesome sport that everybody wins. (Except physics.) But the truth is, sometimes you have to violate the laws of physics to create science fiction stories that people want to watch. We asked six great physicists to name their favorite occasions when breaking the laws of physics makes science fiction better, and here’s what they told us.Here are 10 myths about space travel that make science fiction more fun.

Top image: Jamshed Jurabaev, via CoolVibe

1) Faster Than Light Travel

This is really the biggest and most important. As Phil Plait, writer of Bad Astronomy and author of Death from the Skies, tells us:

FTL is a big plot shortcut, of course, since even light takes years to get from star to star. But even when Our Heroes go from planet to planet in the same system, it doesn’t take long. Hours maybe.. or whatever the script demands it to be for dramatic purposes. But in reality, planets are far apart. Our fastest probes take years to get from one place to another. Heck, the Moon is our closest neighbor in the entire Universe and it’s still three days flight away. Of course, in the future we’ll have faster rockets and all that, but still. Unless your whole plot revolve around some slower-than-light ship taking decades or centuries to get to the next star over, you have to use FTL. Without it, you’d have a vvvverrrrrryyyyy looooooooong movie with nothing happening. After all, space is big. That’s why we call it that.

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better

2) You can have artificial gravity without spinning the ship.

Notice how artificial gravity “always works as if you were on a movie set?” says James Kakalios, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of Minnesota. Pretty much only 2001: A Space Odyssey has gotten this right — you can’t have artificial gravity in space without creating spin, to use centripetal force to keep people stuck to the “floor.” And you’ll notice that on shows like Star Trek, when life support and power are turned off, artificial gravity somehow always keeps working. (With the exception of Star Trek VI, of course.) Image by Hanho Lee via ConceptShips.

3) You can stop and start without worrying about inertia

Spaceships in science fiction seem to reach fantastic speeds almost instantly, and nobody’s ever bothered by the inertia, notes Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and a contributor to the Cosmic Variance blog. You never see crewmembers being pushed backwards by the sudden massive acceleration — even though they are flung about when a weapon hits them.

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better

4) Ships traveling at faster than light can communicate with other ships or planets

How exactly do these radio or other signals go fast enough to reach something that’s traveling faster than light? Instantaneous communication across light years should be impossible in any case, but it’s twice as impossible for objects traveling at superluminal velocities, notes Kakalios, the author of The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics and The Physics of Superheroes. Image by Matt Codd via Concept Art World.

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better

5) Objects in space are bunched together

Science fiction movies and TV shows never accurately represent just how big and well, spaced out, space is, says Carroll:

Things are far apart in space. If you took your spaceship through the asteroid belt, you wouldn’t even see an asteroid unless you really knew where you were looking. There’s very little reason for ships to stay really close together, like the fleet in Battlestar Galactica. And if there were battles, you’d expect the combatants to stay as far apart as possible, and whichever ship had the longer-range weapons would have a huge advantage. But they would look really tiny on a TV screen.

Image: Sacrifice of Angels by Hathawayp4 at DeviantART

6) You can communicate with aliens

This isn’t really a physics myth, but it’s the one that jumps out at Amy Graves, a physics professor at Swarthmore College. She especially loves it when people come up with a convenient explanation for this, like Star Trek‘s Universal Translator or the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Or the dictorobitron from Plan 9 from Outer Space.

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better

7) Ray guns can actually disintegrate someone

The amount of energy required to cause someone or something to disappear, or even to blast a hole in someone, is completely insane, says Kakalios. “A cubic centimeter the size of a sugar cube has on the order of a million million atoms. A person has more,” he explains. “If you want to disintegrate that person — blast them away — you need to provide so much energy, the atoms are shaking when they absorb this energy. They’re shaking so violently, you break their atomic bonds, so the atoms go flying apart.” But it’s pretty much impossible to provide energy at a faster rate than the heat can be conducted away through the rest of the person, or object. “You’re trying to fill a bathtub that’s got a big open drain, and the faucet is not going fast enough to overwhelm the drain.” Death rays and blasters are usually small and hand-held, but have an enormous power supply that can create a “short burst” of power, enough to blast a hole in a wall — but in practice, the energy would just be absorbed by the rest of the wall. Image by Matt Codd via Concept Art World.

8) Cheap energy is readily available

Speaking of ray guns, those power packs are usually the most unrealistic part of the whole scenario, says Craig J. Rodger, a physics professor with the University of Otago in New Zealand. A civilization that develops FTL travel, ray guns, and other “serious gadgets” will “need vast amounts of energy, the ability to store it, and use it quickly,” says Rodger. This usually means a lot of “handwaving” about fusion plants, or microfusion power packs.

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better

9) You can travel at the speed of light and no time passes elsewhere

If you do manage to travel close to the speed of light, the time dilation effects should be huge, says Kakalios. To the point where a few days traveling at light speed should mean that hundreds of years for the rest of the universe. When DC Comics had Supergirl appear in the 31st century in Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and everybody was asking how Supergirl had traveled forward in time 1000 years, Kakalios actually emailed writer Mark Waid, suggesting that Supergirl could have been chasing a Dominator at light speed for a few days. That, by itself, would cause 1,000 years to pass. Waid responded that that was way better than what he’d come up with on his own, which was a rogue Zeta beam. This is something that science fiction stories “have to get wrong,” says Kakalios, “unless you specifically wanted to fold time travel into the future into your story.” And if you go backwards to your destination at light speed, it’s not like the odometer rolls backwards — you just go further forward in time. Image by Layne Johnson via Concept Ships

10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better

10) You can travel in space without dying of radiation sickness

Maybe with really huge spaceships this isn’t an issue, says Rodger — maybe the Galactica is just massive, and everybody lives in the center of it. But otherwise, you’re going to have a huge challenge dealing with “the hot protons and neutrons coming from the sun. It’s pretty hot out there,” says Rodger. And it’s probably a lot hotter outside the Heliosphere — some galactic cosmic rays get in through the Heliosphere, but we know at least some flux gets diverted, because the amount of galactic cosmic rays hitting us goes up and down with the solar cycle. You’d either need magical shields, a super-dense and heavy ship, or nanotech that repairs the cellular damage in real time. (And the heavier the ship, the bigger the problems with energy use.) Image: Dark Nova Fleet Battle Redux by Breandan_OCiarrai at DeviantART

“The bottom line,” Says C. Megan Urry, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University, “is that although many topics in astrophysics are ideal for science fiction settings, really, I think the universe is stranger and more wonderful than anything authors could imagine in their heads!”

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One comment on “10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better!

  1. Blue Hinter
    August 23, 2012

    I love hard sci-fi, and even the great Vernor Vinge, David Brin, and David Marusek, usually have to take some sort of artistic license with a few of these items. That said, one of the reasons why I love reading hard science fiction is because these rules do exist, and it takes exceptional talent to pen an intergalactic adventure story which manages to be clever and entertaining without breaking any of the rules.

    Since I’m on my second G&T of the evening (I needed it after learning about the Blake’s 7 remake) let me take a few moments to break down why all ten of these rules don’t necessarily have to spell certain doom for budding sci-fi authors.

    1) Faster Than Light Travel This is the biggie, and probably the hardest to cheat in a non “space magic” sort of way. If you absolutely must move your ships across vast interplanetary distances in the space of a few seconds, you’ll probably want to look into

    A. Some sort of time-space folding (the good old fashion tesseract/warp speed)

    B. Creating artificial wormholes and/or stargates (which have the slight problem of how do you get to point B in the first place to build the other end)

    or
    C. Hyperspace (Exiting our physical universe to travel through another layer of reality which is overlayed on our own, but infinitesimally smaller, yet conveniently devoid of similarly compressed mass and/or time, so an object from our world can traveling one mile in the hyperspace universe and conveniently reemerge 1 light year away in the same relative direction without any noticable time-dilation effect.)

    Of these possibilities, option A is the least retarded conceptually, but just barely. Since curving the fabric of space/time takes some pretty extreme mass/gravity manipulation, you’ve basically broken rule #2 automatically. (though on the plus side, you can pretty much lump the two together as one big rule)

    One thing that Star Trek gets consistently wrong though is the smooth passage of stars and other spacial bodies when traveling between distant star systems. If you were really constantly making tiny microjumps between folded points in space (and assuming you could do so without killing everybody onboard and wrecking unimaginable havoc on the sections of localized space you have so casually begun exerting massive gravitational pressure upon.) the universe outside the ship would look more like pages of a flip book, with only vast interstellar distances giving jerky the impression of movement– though really, only a few localized stars would probably display any perceptible movement. Space is, after all, extremely big, and even traveling multiple lightyears in a single instant is nothing compared to the vast distances between most of the stars in the sky.

    2) You can have artificial gravity without spinning the ship.

    As I stated above, if you solve the problem of artificially creating localized gravity, congratulations, you’ve solved almost all of the problems on this list.
    If you want to be more scientific about it, yes spinning the ship is a good idea. You could also try flip-flopping between continuously acceleration in a straight line until you reach your maximum possible thrust, and then decelerating, back and forth until you reach your destination, installing some ultra high density mass at the center of the spaceship (which practically counts as artificial gravity by itself), or go the Defying Gravity route and just say “magnets, bitches!” …Though while that may work for keeping your feet on the floor, it won’t do anything to counteract the very nasty side-effects of prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment on the human body.

    Personally, I’d love to see somebody use the continuous acceleration option, especially in a movie or TV series, simply because I like the idea of a spaceship where up and down change every 15 minutes, and all the sets have to be built to look functional from either angle.

    3) You can stop and start without worrying about inertia

    This may or may not be a problem depending on your mode of transport, and if you’re expecting to have awesome pew pew space laser battles with enemy spaceships.

    Assuming you aren’t using some sort of gate technology or hyperspace (in which case your relative velocity doesn’t have to be particularly fast) your breaking and acceleration are going to be two of the most carefully planned calculations your super space navigator is going to have to make.
    As for the space battles, unless you have a magical answer to problem #4, you and your opponent won’t even be able to see eachother, let alone fight, unless both parties agree to park their vehicles around a prearranged planetary body and only maneuver using regular old thrusters.

    On the plus side, by playing by the rules, you could end up with some rather fascinating space battle tactics, where the automated defense satellites protecting your home planet have mere milliseconds to tell the difference between friendly and enemy spacecraft suddenly blinking into orbit, and deploy all available countermeasures to make sure they can’t drop any sort of payload before warping away to safety several light years away.

    4) Ships traveling at faster than light can communicate with other ships or planets

    Yeah, you pretty much have to cheat and say “oh we discovered subspace” or make up some bullshit about quantum motion. Or you can just accept the fact that direct exosolar communication between ships and planets is impossible, and just make that part of your universe. Hey, space just got a whole lot lonelier, and those Alien posters were right after all… In space, no one can hear you scream.

    5) Objects in space are bunched together

    This certainly applies to asteroids and other planets, though if you’ve mastered FTL travel, you may be able to jump from orbit around one spacial body to another without too much effort, though there is that pesky problem of not being able to see where you’re going until you’ve actually arrived.

    6) You can communicate with aliens

    Probably the least worrisome of the troubles you might face in deep space, assuming the beings you meet are intelligent and share at least one of the same senses that you do. If they can see, hear, or touch well enough to tell the difference between something which is on or off, and reciprocate in kind, then you’ve got the fundamental basis of communication. We might have a bit more trouble on Tersurus, where the beings use flatulence as their only means of communication, though we could still probably arrange something with the right sensory equipment and a sturdy set of nose plugs.

    7) Ray guns can actually disintegrate someone

    Again, this one sort of ties in with the subsequent problem. Assuming you’ve got massive amounts of cheap readily available energy, you could possibly unleash an attack that comes close to completely obliterating your opponent, though you’ll probably take out the wall and a good chunk of the planet standing behind him as well.
    There are far easier ways to kill other humans, and one would assume, most alien species that we’re likely to meet.

    Mind you, if you already have the ability to control gravity and/or warp the fabric of space/time, why would you even need a phaser? that kind of technology could destroy the entire world 10 times over.

    8) Cheap energy is readily available

    Ehh… another one which depends on where you’re going with your story, and how many rules you’ve broken already. If you can control gravity, you’ve got some bitchin’ opportunities to build a whole slew of perpetual motion machines… assuming it doesn’t take their entire combined output to power the artificial gravity generator.

    9) You can travel at the speed of light and no time passes elsewhere

    Again, if you’ve already broken the FTL rule, you might as well break this one, since you’re chucking physics out the window anyways.

    That’s not to say there aren’t some pretty fascinating story ideas by incorporating the rapid passage of time into your world building. If your crew of intrepid outerspace jewel thieves steal the holy scepter of Rabos and then hop in their space wagon to escape, who’s to say the Raboians won’t spend the next two hundred years constructing an even faster ship, which can set off and overtake your crew’s vessel, even though by the time they actually accomplish their mission and return home, the entire Raboian civilization may have crumbled to dust.

    10) You can travel in space without dying of radiation sickness

    Um… really really good shielding and very careful navigation.
    You could also make your heroes non-human. After all, it’s only us puny fleshbags that are so susceptible to a harmless little solar discharges like that.

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