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Interstellar to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Abyss – Science Fiction Isn’t Always Fake: 3 Scientifically Accurate Movies

29 February 2016

A movie has done a good job with its science if Neil DeGrasse Tyson doesn't immediately rip it to shreds. He does it in good fun, of course, but to him scientific accuracy is an important part of making a good movie-going experience. In many cases he is right, movies don't always need to make things up to make a sci-fi movie more fantastic.

Sometimes the fantasy side of sci-fi is what is needed to pull off the concept, but oftentimes the real science behind a stunt or situation is just as interesting. The following three movies show that science fiction doesn't always have to be fiction after all.


It is rare that a movie spurs the writing of two scientific papers, but Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" managed to do just that. Nolan wanted to make a movie that had scientific accuracy, so he consulted physicist Kip Thorne for the movie's black hole scene. Thorne, one of the world's foremost experts on gravitational physics, worked with the visual effects department to develop one of the most accurate representations of a black hole in a movie.

Using the equations Thorne produced, the VFX team was able to model how the accretion disk, or matter falling into the black hole, would orbit and rotate. To the surprise of Thorne and everyone else on the team, the way the matter would look would not be just a ring shape as would be expected, but rather it would be looped around in strange ways due to gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing occurs when light rays are bent around an object due to the gravity produced by the objects. A rough example of this is if a person were to press their finger down on a shiny point on a rubber mat. As the person presses down, the light point is distorted, creating a ring-like effect.

As a result of the VFX team and the physicist working together, they were able to discover something that neither would have on their own. The two papers that were written because of this collaboration will allow other scientists to continue the work of Thorne as well as allow future VFX teams to more accurately portray massive interstellar objects in future movies.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" was an early "scientifically accurate" movie. This is especially admirable since it was released a year before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and the ability to get into space was still fairly new. Two aspects of this film stick out as being as realistic as possible: how they created artificial gravity and how sound works in space. The weightlessness achieved by astronauts comes from the fact that they are in a constant state of free fall, which makes it seem like they are floating. As people move farther away from the Earth, there is even less of this effect leading to zero-g. To have artificial gravity in a scientifically accurate way, centrifugal force must be used by rotating the ship around a central access. In movies, when there is a spaceship with a rotating section and characters moving as if they are on Earth, it is because of this force. This is one of the movie's greatest achievements.

The other aspect of "2001" that is accurate is the distinct lack of sound while characters are in the vacuum of space. Sound is caused by pressure waves propagating through a material, which on Earth is the air. However, a vacuum is devoid of matter, so there is nothing for the waves to travel through to cause a sound.

The Abyss

One of the most famous scenes from "The Abyss" is when a character "drowns" a rat. Thankfully the rat was fine because it wasn't water it was being put under — it was a perfluorocarbon liquid. PFC's can dissolve large quantities of oxygen within them, which, in theory, allows for oxygen transfer to happen in the lungs even though they are filled with this liquid.

As interesting as this property is, there are some problems to overcome in the real world. The first issue is the inability for lungs to transfer carbon dioxide from the body into the liquid. Secondly, there would be an increased difficulty with pushing liquid around the lung, since the density of perfluorocarbon liquids is higher than the gases that lungs are designed to move. Technically this movie scene could happen in real life, but there would be a few obstacles that would need to be sorted out.

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