Hands up if you think the Moon has no gravity

I don't usually have a problem with artistic licence in movies and TV shows, but sometimes there are limits.

I can just about deal with the spaceships in Star Wars rumbling or making pew-pew noises when they shoot at each other because it is, essentially, a fantasy - or at least, that's how I always managed to suspend my disbelief, even though when I first saw them as a kid I'd read enough Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein and popular science texts to know there was no air in space to transmit sound. I can let a lot of things slide, as a matter of fact, but every now and then I run up against something that really takes me by surprise; like discovering that some people think the Moon has no gravity, or that the long, whizzy blue tunnels  like cosmic spaghetti that usually act as stand-ins for hyperspatial wormholes in shows and films like Stargate and Contact are accurate renditions of the same.

I'm damned if I can remember where I read about it, but there was a survey that showed a substantial number of college students in the US thought the moon had no gravity; one question they were asked (I recall) asked them what would happen to a golf ball if an astronaut, standing on the surface of the moon, were to let go of it. Apparently a number of them answered that it would fly away from the Moon and towards the Earth since, presumably, that's where all the gravity in the universe is.

I find this incredibly depressing. I was less than heartened to find out recently that some people, perhaps influenced by TV shows like Stargate, think that a 'wormhole' really is a whizzy blue tunnel of light that could actually be seen stretching across space.

At this point I should probably take a step back and explain just exactly what a 'wormhole' is. Your best source of information is the main Wikipedia article, but I've also copied and pasted the first paragraph here for your benefit; you should also go and check the Wikipedia illustration if you can't quite visualise it.

"In physics and fiction, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would be, fundamentally, a "shortcut" through spacetime. For a simple visual explanation of a wormhole, consider spacetime visualized as a two-dimensional (2-D) surface (see illustration, right). If this surface is "folded" along a (non-existent) third dimension, it allows one to picture a wormhole "bridge". (Please note, though, that this image is merely a visualization displayed to convey an essentially unvisualisable structure existing in 4 or more dimensions. The parts of the wormhole could be higher-dimensional analogues for the parts of the curved 2D surface; for example, instead of mouths which are circular holes in a 2D plane, a real wormhole's mouths could be spheres in 3D space.) A wormhole is, in theory, much like a tunnel with two ends each in separate points in spacetime."

Note the phrase 'essentially unvisualisable structure existing in 4 or more dimensions'.

This matters to me right now because wormholes are what my new book Final Days is all about. That, and time travel (since, you see, if such wormhole tunnels could ever really come into existence, their essential properties would, according to Kip Thorne, until recently the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech, allow for time travel). But it's not an easy concept to get your head around. I had to spend a couple of days working really, really hard to get my own head around how all of this works before I started on the book. That means I have to take an essentially difficult-to-understand idea and try and explain it to people who've probably, in most cases, never heard of it before. When Hollywood deals with it - as it has - it finds it easiest to portray it as a whizzy blue tunnel of light. It's a metaphor.

Mind you, when you play around with things like wormholes in a story set only a few centuries in the future, you're taking some pretty big leaps of imagination with a concept that is, at best, theoretical. Things like wormhole construction are frankly more likely in the context of a Type 3 Kardashev civilisation than, say, human beings in the 23rd Century. But, as I always like to say, a little over a century ago most people didn't know that the coming years would bring flying machines, nuclear bombs and space craft.


Unknown said...

I think that you possibly under estimate your readers - most of them will read other hard sci-fi where this level of detail is also expected.

Speaking as someone from a scientific background living with a physicist for a wife I am very grateful for your attention to detail!

And on that note, today I have the day off and I am walking my dogs to the pub where, over a good pint and an excellent steak I shall be reading Empire of Light.

Unknown said...

As an addendum to my previous post...perhaps you are correct.

I recall my neighbour, a bright intelligent lady who is a primary school teacher, and was teaching that gravity was caused by the rotating of the planet .

Anonymous said...

Hi Gary,

I broadly agree with some of what you've said. I am also astonished that kids might not know that there's gravity on the moon. But I would be also careful if you are worried that kids are becoming more ignorant (I am not clear if that is your point) as a result of exposure to mainstream skiffy. While it is true that there's some breathtaking ignorance out there, hasn't that always been the case?
What gets me about the assertion that some kids might not understand that the moon has gravity is that there's something very simple they can do; look at pictures of the Apollo program...

On the subject of Wormholes:

I am a bit shakier on this. Are you suggesting that Stargate stops people from grasping concepts in Physics?
We both know that in mainstream SF that Hyperspace, Warp and Wormholes are interchangeable shorthand for FTL. And I am sure I don't have to go into why FTL is even used. I suppose if you are writing ultra-hard SF then perhaps the devil is in the details, but consider this; no one has ever seen a wormhole. Not even Thorne or Hawking - though physics will give us some hints. And there used to be a lot of discussion over whether they are even possible. What about the machinery required?
Which takes me to my point. Here's a link to a blog post by Al Reynolds where he talks about how good the handling of science in the show can be:

I am not arguing that the Stargate vision is true - it is just SFX - what I am saying is that it's not worth worrying about. Especially if this is stopping you writing your book because you need to have a rant!

I have never been convinced that any SF author is all that reliable when we are talking futurology - and I include exotic physics in this.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

I wasn't aware of that podcast - thanks for pointing me to it. I haven't seen Atlantis - to be honest, I rarely if ever watched Stargate in any of its incarnations - though I've made a definite exception with Universe, which I've found to be (for my tastes) a distinct improvement. And, with Scalzi on board handling the science-y bits, it feels a lot stronger than a lot of other shows.

Anonymous said...

The interesting thing about Universe is the fan reaction. They are basically saying "we want more Stargate - not more Stargate Universe". Because it's such a stylistic change I think it's been hard for people to buy in. I was never a fan of the original series... but Atlantis is strangely compulsive.

True story: I only watched Atlantis because my mum* made me (she's the show's biggest fan).

* No, I don't live with my mum. Yes I have a girlfriend.