Alien: Covenant

Astronomer uncovers the good, bad and WTH science of Prometheus

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OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 5:31 PMA fun review and a keen look at Prometheus by Phil Plait: Phil Plait is an astronomer and major sci-fi geek. He writes the Bad Astronomy Blog for Discover Magazine and is also the host of the Discovery Channel's science show "Phil Plait's Bad Universe." You can follow him on Twitter at @BadAstronomer. Spoilers ahoy! If you haven't seen Prometheus yet, then you might want to skip this scientific review of the movie, otherwise you'll feel as if vultures are eating your liver. The much-anticipated flick Prometheus hit the theaters last week, and the reviews are, well, mixed. Personally, I liked the overarching themes it tackled—the origin of mankind, the origin of the aliens from Alien, the literal meaning of the phrase "head-explodey"—even if it stumbled, sometimes profoundly, on details. OK, it slammed into a wall on some of the details. OK, fine, a lot of the details. Because some of the movie was awesome and some, um, not so much, I've decided to be fair and look over a couple of places where they got the science right, a couple where they didn't, and a couple where it could be interpreted either way. [b]The Good[/b] My favorite part of the whole movie was the planet itself. LV-223 was a terrestrial (that is, Earth-like) moon of a gas giant world. These types of planet/moons may exist! The first planets detected around other stars were "hot Jupiters," gas giants circling very close to their stars. This was a profound shock to astronomers, since in our own solar systems we like to keep those massive planets out in the suburbs. But now we see planets at all distances from their parent stars. That means there are probably plenty orbiting their star at the right distance for temperatures to be cozy. Our own gas giants have some huge moons—Saturn's Titan is bigger than Mercury!—so it's not a stretch to think there could be moons as big as Earth orbiting gas giants around other stars. Another thing: as Prometheus approaches the LV-223 we see a caption telling us the planet is over 300 trillion kilometers from Earth (metric, yay!). That's 30 light-years! Yet it only took two years to get there, implying the ship has faster-than-light engines. As a scientist, I acknowledge that FTL drives go against everything we know about physics right now. However, as a moviegoer, I'd rather not sit in the theater for the centuries needed to show a ship approaching some other star, so I'm OK with this. What I like is that in the movie it's not explained, or even mentioned. Why? Because it's not important to the plot. All we need to know is that the FTL drive exists and works, but is slow enough that we still need to use "hypersleep chambers" for suspended animation. Done. Explaining too much leads to mixed-up plots problems like Star Trek had with warp drive, and was unnecessary. And this movie had enough problems with the science it did need. Speaking of which ... [b]The Bad[/b] OK, well, if the astronomy in the movie was relatively good, the biology in the movie was, um, not as accurate. Just as a couple of examples ... In a key scene, scientist Elizabeth Shaw compares a sample of Engineer tissue to human DNA, exclaiming that it's a 100 percent match. The thing is, if you compared two humans' DNA you wouldn't get a 100 percent match! That only happens with identical twins. There are lots of DNA variations between humans, so a 100 percent match is literally impossible. And last I looked, we're not 8-foot-tall bald translucent bodybuilders with anger management issues. It's possible that she wasn't checking the whole genome, just key gene sequences. Even then it's hard to buy; chimps match our DNA to roughly 98 percent (depending on what you're measuring), so a 100 percent match even on genetic "landmarks" is a big stretch with aliens so different from us. The other big science moment that stuck in my craw (ooo, foreshadowing!) was when the biologist and geologist were trapped by the storm in the Engineer ziggurat. When the alien snake pops its head up, the biologist—who admits to being terrified of being on an alien planet just minutes before—approached the xenomorph and tries to make nice. I mean, c'mon. Even when it flared its hood open, revealing something mouth-like but also enough like genitals to be seriously distressing, he just cooed at it like it's a kitten. And he's a biologist! Has this idiot never seen a sci-fi movie? He got what he deserved. Cripes, even Indiana Jones was scared of the cobra in the Well of Souls, and there was obviously a piece of glass between him and it. [b]The iffy[/b] The movie opens with an Engineer drinking some black goo on a primitive planet. He dissolves, and we see his DNA break apart and reform, becoming the basis for life on that planet. This caused a lot of howls online, because people assumed the planet was Earth. But that's never actually stated, so it could just be a representative planet, showing us the Engineers went forth and multiplied. The science is still iffy there, though. If you break apart DNA to its constituents, how does it know to reform itself to anything resembling DNA? It's like taking apart a car, putting the parts in a box and shaking it, then looking inside to see a fully formed but slightly different kind of car. DNA doesn't work that way. It's possible that for us, the Engineers found a likely planet—Earth—and then guided the evolution to produce humans. But that's a pretty big stretch, since that would mean Engineers evolved independently of Earth, yet we share a lot of DNA with both them and every other organism on Earth. No matter how you look at this, it's got to be wrong someplace. Just not in the way most people think! I loved the way tech was shown in the movie, and I do think it's entirely possible that someday we'll have things much like the computer displays, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity and robotic surgery depicted in the movie. But in a mere 70 years? Hmph. Advances in AI have been striking, but it always seems to be claimed that true AI just needs another 25 years. That's been said for 50 years. Also, when Shaw crawled into that autodoc, all I could think of was how young that technology must have been, and how sharp all those instruments were. I hope the OS was Unix-based (you wouldn't want to get a virus HAHAHAHahahahaha! Heh). Clearly, though, when Prometheus takes place staple technology had advanced to the point where you can stitch up your abdomen and then leap over crevasses and lower heavy android bodies via rope. I can't even do that stuff with my current abdomen. Sign me up! Another: my friend, the astronomer Neil Tyson, points out that during an argument Miss Vickers makes a comment about being "half a billion miles" from Earth, when in fact she was off by a factor of about 30,000. He's right, of course, but to be fair it sounded to me like she was just being a bit metaphorical. Even so, it would've been better for her to have said "trillions of miles," which sounds cooler anyway. Clearly, I could nitpick the movie to death; a lot of science—stuff important to the plot, and not just little details—got messed up. At some level even I don't have a problem with science errors, but when they get to certain size, or occur at a critical moment, they become distracting. It's too bad, really, since with only a little nudge here and there this movie could have avoided some of the more egregious issues. And as I said, handled properly, a lot of the big issues—like where we come from, how we got here, the role of religion in society—are a perfect fit for science fiction and would work well in the Alien universe. Some of them did work, but others were as out of place as, say, a tabby cat in a starfreighter's cargo hold. And with that ... This is Phil Plait, last survivor of the website Blastr, signing off. Phil Plait is a scientist and writes the Bad Astronomy Blog for Discover Magazine. While he is not 8 feet tall, he is baldish and somewhat translucent.
11 Responses to Astronomer uncovers the good, bad and WTH science of Prometheus

Richie

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 5:36 PMGood input on the subject matter...Remember, this is a story of a guy throwing one big birthday party bash in space..it really has no professional legs. It doesnt take a serious stance on anything, just what money could buy if you had it to spend....

Cry Havoc

OvomorphMember9 XPJun-19-2012 6:18 PM[quote][i]And last I looked, we're not 8-foot-tall bald translucent bodybuilders with anger management issues.[/i][/quote] Except some of us are. The tallest Harlem Globetrotter is Tiny Sturgess at 7 foot 8 inches tall. He's white and I'll bet if he shaved his head, worked out a bit and stayed out of the sun for a couple of years he could look like the reawakened Engineer. The tallest person ever recorded was Robert Wadlow at 8 ft 11.1 in. [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Wadlow.jpg]Robert Wadlow[/url] In fact, there are twelve individuals in medical history who reached a verified eight feet or more. The DNA could easily be a match for a human. Especially if there was an intricate breeding program involved.

Daniel_N

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 6:25 PMWell, actual FTL drive aside... the 100 pecent match could have been 100 percent of whatever criteria they set up. An 8' albino male would still register as human, for example. The fragment actually shown was, really, too small to render evolving such a match even if symbolic, so I imagine they had more of a direct hand in creating us if, indeed, that is the case since we are such a close match. As for AI, there was a lull in the 80s due to the granularity of brain studies of our own mind. It is likely that AI will occur in our lifetimes if you are in your mid-thirties I think, and so do most AI scientists. Although it has only been suggested that David's capacity for creative thought is anything more than superficial (not talking about general problem solving.) Additionally, according to the numbers on the website, his 'neurons' are not as great in number as our own... he is adept in things machines excel at, but not as much in other ways. I think the movie kind of highlights this line of thought sometimes. David Weyland's Ted talk also mentions the, indirectly the concept of [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_change]The Law of Accelerating Returns[/url]. What this means is that taking the historical context of the progress in the 20th century is not really valid unless you also take into account that the time to acquire the same amount of change is always decreasing. It has been said that the sum of all the knowledge gained in the 20th century has already been surpassed by the progress in this one. This will continue until it will be limited by, really just our own ability to promulgate changes through society... but that's another discussion.

muppett

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 6:44 PMJust watched Prometheus for the first time. I have been a huge fan of this franchise for as long as I can remember. This goes on my awful shelf along with Alien3, Resurrection, AVP, AVP-R and Tales of something badly written, badly acted and makes no sense whatsoever. Hugely disappointed with this after all the hype and marketing. The trailer was more entertaining, just like Alien3's trailer was. It either was or wasnt not but maybe is or isnt but not is or isnt is or is not an Alien prequel. I hope to God it isnt (or is? is it? I dunno!) What is up with the obviously stoned/drunk Captain who suddenly gave a S##t about what was (or wasnt) going on? Big thumbs down. Sorry Ridley but I was so looking forward to this film but I feel somehow betrayed and let down after watching it and after all this anticipation.

.

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 6:45 PMI laughed when he mentioned the issue with the DNA test... some Astronomers do not know quit everything...

Inquisitor Tremayne

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 7:31 PMA three trillion dollar party to jeopardize everyones lives! You guys kill me! Even when authorities (which he didn't have to be) chime in about how ****ed up the science and characterizations are; you still don't see why it isn't a scifi masterpiece! It's as I said before, Scarlett Johansson without any sexual skill!!!

The Truth

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 8:52 PM^ So if a movie does not have perfect scientific facts it cannot be a masterpiece. So according to your logic, a movie like 2001 can´t be a masterpiece because it has scientific flaws. Nice logic you got there. Also, I didn´t know a astronomer was an authority in characterization. Look im not saying Prometheus is in the same level as 2001 but your logic is flawed.

Inquisitor Tremayne

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 10:35 PMI wish there was a lot more involved in the actual science of Prometheus - as it is there is very little. All movies - including Alien - have scientific flaws, but Prometheus is wrought with them. I am no scientific expert, but when I leave the theater with my friends and can find nothing but flaws (save for the visuals) that's a problem. More questions than answers - that's a problem. Yes - an astronomer isn't going to know everything - we get that -- but everyone wants to pretend they have the inside track on Prometheus, but nobody even wants to take into account what someone with an actual scientific has to say. Sorry - I wasn't expecting epic or masterpiece when I went to view this film, I was expecting just good and couldn't even get that. %40 is my current rating!

The Truth

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 10:49 PMI can agree with you to a certain extent that having scientific inaccuracies is a flaw but saying that leaving more questions than answers is a problem is just your opinion.

GURGLETROWSERS

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-19-2012 11:43 PMawww come on , suspension of disbelief LOTR was a great movie but hobbits, orcs a shrieking and waxingly poetic elves do not exist neither do zena-morphs or interstellar industrial engineers. nuff said-duh.... not to mention the prometheus and its crew would be ionzied and destroyed travelling the interstellar meduim by very very nasty Galactic Cosmic Radiation like very heavy positive ions--such as iron nuclei--zipping along at great speed through their DNA.

Treehorn

OvomorphMember0 XPJun-20-2012 2:33 AMWhy is FTL travel invoked? All we need here is that the ship is traveling nearly at (but below) the speed of light, and time dilation will explain the rest, For an observer on earth, the journey takes a little over 30 years (to cover the 30ly distance). We know that on board the Prometheus 2 years have passed. This makes for a time dilation by a (Lorentz) factor of 15, which implies that the ship traveled at about 0.9978 c.
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