NASA makes a failed landing on junk science
The world’s top space agency had a recent, desperate attempt to tap into popular culture - by having a crack at bad Hollywood science.
You really can’t fault NASA for trying. Last year it was told it must drop its dreams of replacing its dead Shuttle fleet and give up on its attempt to recapture the post Cold War frenzy of the world’s first Moon landing.
After all, this is the agency that brought the world its first reusable space craft and created the world’s second “permanent” space orbiter, SkyLab - a feat which continued to bring joy to earth-bound enthusiasts as its fiery debris rained down across our land and oceans.
So when NASA tells us that some science fiction films fail in the science department, you can’t help but sit up and take notice.
According to the agency, “2012” was the most absurd movie released in terms of its appreciation of existing scientific knowledge.
(Apparently, the proposition that massless neutrinos might improbably make an exception and cook the earth’s core is more absurd than a Lion named Aslan saving an alternative world in a manner more becoming of the Christian faith, or a boy on a broomstick saving the world because he contains a piece of an evil person’s soul. But I digress).
The lesson to be learned is that it is possible for films to both entertain AND be correct, says Donald Yeomans, the man charged with assessing the threats to the planet from interplanetary rocks. (And if you think this is a dud job, learn from mistakes made by the dinosaurs).
NASA says the world can be protected from false science and boredom by combining the the best of science and Hollywood.
Take Gattaca, for example. The 1997 tale of a man (Ethan Hawke) assuming the identity of a genetically superior man to achieve his dreams of space travel was a sterling effort at portraying the extension of our current knowledge of genetics with our societal trend of commercialising genetic advantage.
Jodie Foster’s Contact was another movie singled out for its commitment to science - although when she assesses radio telemetry through headphones, well, that just makes a mockery of both the speed of the light and the ability of the brain to interpret incoming data, both of which have been the source of Nobel Prize consideration in the past 98 years.
But the award that undermines the integrity of NASA’s “golden list” lies in the fine print.
It doesn’t make the official list, but Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner is singled out for its gritty vision of a future Los Angeles. An unnaturally-youthful Harrison Ford is charged with terminating Replicants, human-like androids who are searching for their maker to extend their lives.
Putting aside Ford’s Dorian-Gray like youth and the preponderance of flying cars (which I personally don’t believe will fill the skies in 2018, the year in which the movie is set), the film portrays a dark and dangerous city inhabited by mixed cultures and vice – an accurate portrayal of LA a la 2011, let alone 2010.
But the saddening element of the movie hits around 40 minutes in.
Ford, armed with a clue, uses dusty (ie. authentic) technology to probe details of a photo.
“Move in. Stop. Pull out and track right. Stop. Centre in and pull right. Stop. Print.”
Here you are, years of research and technology that delivers voice-activated imaging technology that doesn’t even require an iPad or other iOS device to work. Revolutionary. Visionary.
Then Ford delivers the fatal line: “Give me a hard copy, right there”.
He presses a button (surely there’s an app for that?) and out pops an image that identifies his next target. Clever work.
Sadly, the technology that Ford and Ridley rely on won’t make it through 2011, let alone 2018.
You see, the image is printed on a Polaroid film, that self-developing instant photo that pops out like magic with the black-brown backing but without the sharpness of traditional film.
Traditional film itself went the way of the Dodo on December 30 when the last Kodak film – given to Steve McCurry, the guy who photographed green-eyed Afghan girl Sharbat Gula in 1984 – was put in for processing.
So how did NASA get it so wrong?
Androids? Flying cars? Those are dreams we can welcome, but Polaroids in the era of digital photography and phones that triple as computers and cameras? No.
NASA, you’ve made us believe in the magic of spaceflight, you’ve made us believe that mankind can explore the heavens and escape the damage we have done to our fragile planet.
But when you ask us to look at “Blade Runner” as an example of good science and throw in an outdated technology, well, not even a youthful Harrison Ford or more than 20 years of technological progress can save that one from being a “miss”.
The score: Hollywood: 1. Science: 14 billion.
Be warned, NASA. They’re catching up.
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