Here are some examples of scientific mistakes about cosmic evolution and extraterrestrial life, made in the mass media. We may view or review them and discuss them in recitation, using them as practice in the detection of such mistakes. Of course, torrenting these movies is of dubious legality and hogs the University's network bandwidth, so you're on you honor not to use  mtorrent, or other such applications. If only they could be streamed regularly on Netflix...

Unfortunately most of the movies which touch on our course material -- the good and the bad, in their use of science -- are focussed on the last parts of the course, as they tend to make humans the subjects as well as the characters. Also unfortunately, the bad movies greatly outnumber the good, although the ones that are so bad as to be educational are about equally as numerous as the good ones. Even some good ones offer glaring scientific mistakes, sometimes for defensible reasons. (See below, under The Martian.)

Three good movies -- which also are ones in which the science is presented correctly, or very nearly so, and which touch on our course material -- are 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Apollo 13 (1995), and Contact (1997). If you'd like a context into which to place the bad ones, try these.


Under construction.

The Hammer cave-people films, One Million Years B.C., Prehistoric Women, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and Creatures that Time Forgot (1967-1973), are pretty awful movies. They have become semi-cult classics because of their abundance of unintentional humor, and the role they seem to have played in the erosion of movie-industry resistance to sexual references and scanty clothing, at least on the women. Scientists tend to be fond of them, because of their unintentional educational virtues: everything the movies contain about paleontology and evolution is wrong, from the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs to the chronology and geography of cave paintings, the development of language, the invention of clothing, and even the spearpoints, not to mention the spectacle of blond-haired, fair-skinned people roaming the East African desert. All that was done on purpose: according to Wikipedia, producer/SFX guru Ray Harryhousen said that "he did not make One Million Years B.C. for 'professors' who in his opinion 'probably don't go to see these kinds of movies anyway.'" Little did he know...

In addition to providing many useful bad examples for human evolution, 1MyrBC provided a famous Raquel Welch theater-lobby poster which played an important role in a great film, The Shawshank Redemption. The existence of 1MyrBC is worth it just for that.

Sometimes the special effects in the Hammer movies come up for special praise. I don't see how people get that; the effects are not much improved over those in 1950s Japanese monster flicks, and they sure lack the sense of humor built into the FX in movies like Godzilla and Mothra. To see what the real state of the art in special effects was at the time, watch Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; see above).

  • Download One Million Years B.C.
  • View the trailer, which highlights many of the major mistakes. (No, turtles never got that big.)
  • Here's a physically impossible pterodactyl abduction of the leading lady.
  • Humans get caught in the middle of a triceratops-ceratosaurus fight. These two dinosaurs missed coexisting by millions of years; wonder why they didn't use a tyrannosaurur instead of a ceratosaurus, so that the movie had at least one correct coexistence. This battle is the SFX highlight of the movie.
In 10,000 B.C. (2008), we have mammoths somehow stomping around in alpine settings, and sailing ships, horse-riding raiders, and pyramid-building cities in the New World many millennia before these things were known in the Old, all within a very short time of the actual first arrival of humans in South America, and all in conflict with the archaeological record. No real Andean civilization knew any of these things; no indigenous American civilization ever knew more than the pyramid-building, and that ten millennia later than the period of the movie. I suppose it's all in good fun, but I don't see why pretending that it is a plausible account of the past, rather than presenting it as outright fantasy taking place on some other planet, makes the movie any better.

(The filmmakers never say, but I have charitably assumed -- because of the depiction in the movie of tall mountains, enough water to sail big ships in, maize under cultivation, and a fetish for pyramids -- that the filmmakers had mesoamerica and the Andes in mind. Wikipedia claims that the Urals are meant. A glance at the map shows that this would be impossible -- no water anywhere near; the Urals top out at 6200 ft and are tree-covered all the way up -- as well as archaologically ridiculous.)

As a young man, Edgar Rice Burroughs became disgusted with the pulp novels he read in large numbers, when he noticed that whatever the periods in which they were set, they were all thinly-disguised medieval romances: knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, and fierce dragons in between. He decided that he could write much better novels himself. So he did, and the result was two famous, multinovel tales (Tarzan and John Carter) in which he imaginatively created whole universes his characters could explore, and then... proceeded to write medieval romances set in these new environments. Well, the settings are brilliant, anyway. The 2012 big-budget Disney film John Carter is based on A Princess of Mars, the first book of the John Carter series. This book is the locus classicus of all superhero science fiction, including the "planetary romance" and "space opera" subgenres. One will meet obvious predecessors of everything from Superman to the Klingons by following earthman John Carter around on Mars. The setting is actually a reasonable elaboration of the best scientific opinion known to Burroughs. Unfortunately, as Burroughs wrote the book in 1912, this scientific opinion was Percival Lowell's, which was considered a bit fanciful by other scientists even then and has been thoroughly debunked since then. Some of the debunking can be replicated by application of what AST 106 students know: the claims of tropical heat, breathable atmosphere, water somehow getting everywhere without clouds or rain, carpets of vegetation in the beds of evaporated oceans, huge abundances of metals and minerals that are rare on Earth, etc.

  • Download John Carter.
  • Here is the HD version of the primary trailer for the American market.
  • Two of the main characters meet for the first time in this clip.
  • The book is long since out of copyright, so it can be found for free in several electronic formats, notably at Project Gutenberg.
In contrast, The Martian (2015) is a very good movie; I recommend it highly. A great deal of effort was spent, both by the author of The Martian (non-space-scientist Andy Weir) and the filmmakers, to get the science right. This care, and the availability of lots of Mars Rover and MSL surface imagery, make the movie's Martian scenes terrific and utterly persuasive. Though the NASA hierarchy is not as flat as the movie makes it seem, the conversations among the administrators and scientists back on Earth include no technobabble. The movie presents the spirit and inventiveness of this rescue mission in much the same way that Apollo 13 did for an historic mission. Many details of the space vehicles are also either true to life, or a plausible extrapolation of current technology, plus or minus the use of ion drives for maneuvering huge space vehicles. And there are even some accusations of error that seem unjust, such as the idea that enough water (or ice) would be found in the ground that it would not be necessary for botanist-astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to build a hydrazine-to-water converter to irrigate his crops. The accusers were probably thinking of the poles, where ice is found within a few centimeters of the surface; in a plain at the latitude (50 degrees N) of the movie's site, the ground water/ice may be a long way down. There are a few forgivable concessions to cinematography, such as brightening the Martian sunlight, and providing space suits with nonreflective visors.

But there is a big problem with the main, initial plot turn: a dangerous storm that forces the astronauts to evacuate, and results in injury to Watney so serious that he is left for dead. And another in the design of the Hermes, the mother ship that ferries the astronauts and their stuff back and forth. And a third in Watney's use of an RTG to keep the inside of the rover vehicle warm. Can you guess what the problems are? (Answers below.)

I don't blame the author and screenwriters for employing artistic license in these cases, though. It would otherwise been harder to steer the story in an interesting direction and/or make the backdrops as space-like.

I can't decide which of two of Matt Damon's lines is my favorite of the movie: "Mars will come to fear my botany powers" or "Mark Watney: space pirate!" Go see the movie and tell me which you like best.
  • The movie is in theaters at this writing so it's hard to torrent and unfair to try.
  • Here's the official US trailer, and here's a teaser.
  • Andy Weir couldn't initially find a publisher -- or even a literary agent -- willing to deal with his manuscript of The Martian,  so he self-published in on Amazon for the minimum price of $0.99. I regret to inform you that success has led to price increases, but the increase is still less than a factor of ten.
I still haven't been able to bear watching Europa Report (2013) all the way through. Just awful, and bereft of redeeming humor or drama. So naturally this movie is what Netflix chooses to offer in heavy rotation.
  Martian answers, with links to the lectures:

Mars's surface air pressure is about 0.56% of Earth's. Even if that storm had 200 mph winds, it could have done no more harm than a 0.5 mph breeze on Earth. And those don't tip rockets dangerously, impale people with communication antennas, or blow people across the landscape, nor do they rustle plastic tarps.

The Hermes has artificial gravity in its habitable parts -- with a centrifuge that evokes two famous sets in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- but lacks significant radiation shielding. (Look at all the windows.) So the astronauts would be safe from congestive heart failure but die of radiation-induced illnesses.

If that really was an RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) that Watney dug up, he risked serious radiation burns and radiation-induced illness by carrying it around. We doubt they'll still be using RTGs when we reach the stage of sending human missions to Mars. But if instead it had been a portable nuclear reactor such as a SAFE-400, it would have produced way too much heat when turned on (400 kW).