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Holly-weird science

by Donald Prothero, May 21 2014

As I wind down the semester teaching six different classes in introductory geology and oceanography at three different colleges, I’ve found myself explaining in nearly every lecture the difference between the real world and the popular mythology that appears in the movies, television, and the cartoons. Since nearly everything the general public thinks they know about science seems to come from bad Hollywood movies and TV shows, it’s not surprising that these myths are perpetuated, and our scientific literacy is so abysmal.

This is not a new topic, of course. Physicists and astronomers have long complained how badly most sci fi movies and TV and novels mangle science (starting with the impossibility of transmitting sound in the vacuum of space, which nearly all the space movies get wrong—but explosions without sound simply don’t do it for today’s audiences). I know of some geology departments that have “Bad geology movie” nights, where they play older films and laugh at all the ridiculous things they say about the earth. (In fact, nearly every Hollywood movie gets the geology all wrong). But I’ve been a scientist since I was hooked on dinosaurs at age 4, and consequently I’ve never enjoyed movies that distort or violate the rules of science. Websites like document the wide range of stupid or silly things that show up regularly in movies or TV, and how little reality or science influences the decisions of scriptwriters. Of course, this is basic Scriptwriting 101: the story arc of the plot, the development and interaction of characters, and many other things take priority over keeping the movie within the bounds of scientific reality. I’ve been a scientific consultant on enough shows to know that what I say is only a guideline, and the story and characters take precedence over reality. Still, in many or most cases, the movie  plot would work just fine with a realistic portrayal of science, but that rarely happens. After all, screen writers tend to be no more literate about science than their audiences, so to a large extent they don’t know that all these cliched ideas are false—and most don’t seem to care, even if it is explained to them. As puts it, it’s the “Rule of Cool”: audiences will forgive gross scientific inaccuracies and completely implausible action if it makes the movie more spectacular and enjoyable.

A short list of some of the more egregious howlers in recent films (many of which I discussed in my 2011 book Catastrophes!):

  • Quicksand: Virtually every portrayal of quicksand in the movies and TV is complete garbage. Real quicksand does not suck you down until you vanish. Real quicksand is just a liquefied mixture of sand and water. When  you step on the seemingly solid surface, you increase the pore pressure of the water between the sand grains, and it begins to liquefy and flow. If you step in real quicksand, it’s like floating in a swimming pool—you will not sink below your head, but float at your point of neutral buoyancy (since you are less dense than water, especially  with the air in your lungs). Since quicksand is even denser than pure water, you would even float higher than you do when you swim. Of course, if you thrash around you keep the quicksand liquefied, and you can sink deeper until  you are as deep as you can float, given your density—but your head cannot sink below the surface! Even if you sink as far down as you can, you will not die of sinking. Your greatest risks are dying of dehydration and exposure if you’re trapped too long. Once you think of quicksand like a swimming pool with thick mud in it, the escape route is clear: just lie on your back and float (you cannot sink deeper, but you broaden your surface area exposed to the fluid and float higher this way), and then look for something anchored outside the quicksand to give you horizontal traction (a stick, a rope, someone else’s hand), and you can pull yourself out. Thanks to generations of cheesy cartoons and B-movies, and serialized fiction which used quicksand as a cliffhanger ending for an episode, this old myth is permanently embedded in the public’s mind.
  • Earthquakes: In nearly every movie (especially in the 1978 movie Superman with Christopher Reeve and the 1974 movie Earthquake with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner), faults appear as chasms that open in the ground, complete with lava oozing deep in the bottom. NO real fault ever looks like that. Here in California, fault lines are simply straight valleys that people overlook all the time—unless they  have recently moved, and shifted to offset fence lines, roads, sidewalk, etc. The myth that faults are chasms comes from landslides triggered by earthquakes, where the slide blocks move and separate and open gaps between them—but these are not on the fault line itself, but indirectly caused by the quake at some distance. Similarly, California will not “fall into the sea.” The area west of the San Andreas fault is slowly shifting northward toward Alaska at about the rate your fingernail grows (but much faster in the few seconds that a major earthquake happens). And nearly every disaster movie shows earthquakes and going on and on for 5-15 minutes or so. Very few quakes last more than a few seconds, and even the biggest ones are over in a minute or two.
  • Volcanoes: Nearly every movie about volcanoes is full of geologic howlers. The screenwriters of the 1997 movie Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche apparently didn’t know the difference between lava and tar—I guess if it’s black and sticky, they thought it must be the same thing. Thus, the entire movie is predicated on the ridiculous premise that a volcano will arise beneath the La Brea tar pits. In fact, oil and tar could not form anywhere near a volcanic eruption, since they would instantly combust. In addition, there have been no volcanoes anywhere near Los Angeles for 15 million years, and the tectonics of the area is all wrong for any volcanic eruptions in the future. The 1997 movie Dante’s Peak with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton was a least a semi-realistic version of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens (whose 34th anniversary was last Sunday), but still it mixed in the totally different behavior of basaltic volcanoes (think glowing slow-moving lava flows like Hawaii) with the andesitic-rhyolitic pyroclastics (ash and cinders and bombs) that really did erupt from Mt. St. Helens. This isn’t trivial—the two are never found together in the same volcano, since their magma chemistries are incompatible. And don’t let me get started on the cheesy 1969 movie entitled Krakatoa: East of Java. It’s all garbage, starting with the title, since Krakatau is west of Java—only 1000 km out of place!
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth: When Jules Verne wrote his classic novel in 1864, virtually nothing was known about the earth’s interior. Verne can be forgiven for thinking that the earth’s interior looked like giant limestone caverns (the only place below the surface of the earth that most people can reach), and imagining that the newly discovered dinosaurs were not only buried in the earth’s crust, but actually living down there. But that’s no excuse for the many remakes and derivative movies since we learned about the true nature of the earth’s interior since the 1930s, including the big-budget versions of Verne’s novel released in 1959, 1998 and 2008. Even worse is the 2003 Hilary Swank movie The Core (made before she could afford to turn down crappy scripts like this one), which imagines this amazing vehicle that can burrow down into the earth’s interior. In reality, no human device can penetrate more than a few km down into the crust of the earth, let alone the mantle or core. In the 1960s, Project MOHOLE tried to drill through the thinnest crust in the world (oceanic crust, about 10 km thick) and failed miserably after a kilometer of drilling hard lavas destroyed the drill bits with the heat and pressure. The deepest hole ever drilled reached down 12 km in Siberia, but it was in continental crust over 120 km thick so it only went about 10% of the depth it needed to reach the mantle. The  heat (several thousand degrees centigrade) and pressure (thousands of atmospheres) are so great at even 12 km that no human device can survive, let alone a vehicle containing humans. And if they did reach the core, the temperatures are about 7,000 degrees centigrade, and the pressures are 4 million atmospheres. Hilary Swank would be instantly crushed and vaporized long before she got more than a few kilometers down. In fact, The Core was lambasted by critics, barely broke even, and ranked as the worst science fiction movie ever made by a panel of scientists. It was so preposterous that it inspired actor Dustin Hoffman (a former chemist) to form a Hollywood group to promote and encourage scientific realism in films
  • The Poseidon howler: There have been three different movies based on the book The Poseidon Adventure. The basic plot line consists of a giant ocean liner becoming completely capsized and turned upside down by a huge breaking wave in the open ocean, and the characters (usually a cast of unknown, has-been, and C-list actors) finding a way out by climbing up to the bottom of the boat. One small problem: waves don’t break in the open ocean. Waves only break into surf in water that is shallower than wave base (usually only a few feet deep). In water deeper than wave base, all you get is a swell up and down, but no curl of a breaking wave. So either the Poseidon was grounded in water too shallow for it to actually float (as the wave break suggests), or else it was floating in deeper water—but the wave shouldn’t break, but only form a large swell. Later versions imagined the wave as a tsunami (seismic sea wave) or a rogue wave (newly discovered giant swells in the stormy oceans near the poles). But in neither case would those waves break like surf in the open ocean. Once you realize that this geological fallacy  becomes the foundation for the movie, everything else is utterly ridiculous.
  • Climate change: The newest natural disaster to enter the Hollywood stable of disasters is climate change—but of course, Hollywood gets it all wrong. The prime example is the 2004 Dennis Quaid movie The Day After Tomorrow. The plot is loosely based on real science: the discovery that during the warming phase from about 20,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago, ending the last Ice Age, there was a rapid brief cooling event called the Younger Dryas at 11,700 years ago. It was a caused by glacial meltwater off North America pouring into the North Atlantic and temporarily diverting the global thermohaline oceanic conveyor belt circulation from reaching the northernmost Atlantic, thus freezing the Northern Hemisphere again. However, this event took place over about a decade at the fastest—which is still astonishingly fast by geologic standards. But the filmmakers didn’t find a decade dramatic enough, so the entire renewed Ice Age resumes in a few days. The crazy tornadoes that destroy Los Angeles, and most of the rest of the disasters in the movie, however, are purely imaginative, with no basis in science of climate change.
  • Dinosaurs: Dinosaurs have been a very popular media staple ever since the early 20th century, when the first large skeletons appeared in the American Museum of Natural  History in New York and in the Yale Peabody Museum. One of the first-ever animated cartoons, “Gertie the Dinosaur”, featured them, and one of the first stop-motion claymation movies, Arthur Conan Doyle’s  The Lost World, was a pioneer in making dinosaurs appear real.  But dinosaur research moved on, while most screen dinosaurs remained slow, stupid, sluggish lizards lingering in swamps and dragging their tails. When the original Jurassic Park movie appeared in 1993, it was a rare breakthrough. Although it had a lot of bad science (e.g., intact viable dinosaur DNA could never be recovered from mosquito digestive tracts; most of the dinos in the novel and movie are not Jurassic, but Cretaceous dinosaurs), it was up-to-date in making the dinosaurs smart and fast moving with their tails held out straight behind them. Of course, the dinosaur they called “Velociraptor” in the movie is really Deinonychus, or possibly Utahraptor; true Velociraptor was much smaller, and only about 4 feet long max. But at least these modern versions of dinosaurs were keeping up with the pace of paleontological discoveries. Sadly, the upcoming Jurassic Park 4 movie is now stuck in the past, since it will not reflect the recent discovery that most dinosaurs had some kind of feathery covering. Paleontologists have been bugging the film-makers to keep up with the science, but the screenwriters apparently think that the audience can’t handle this new discovery once they’ve absorbed the version of dinosaurs from the first three movies.


This list could go on and on, but I’ll stop here for space reasons. Some might ask, “Why should we care? After all, they’re just harmless fictional entertainment. People don’t believe this stuff is real.” Sadly, this is not true. More people get their notions about the earth and space and science from movies than ever get them from reliable sources such as school or books or documentaries. A surprising number of people don’t realize that most movies are fictional, especially when it concerns topics like science and especially sci fi about UFOs and aliens. As Ben Radford showed, the entire myth of the “Chupacabra” arose when a woman named Madelyne Tolentino failed to realize that the movie Species was fiction, and then decided that the monster “Sil” from the movie was real and running around Puerto Rico.  The initial descriptions of the “Chupacabra” are a dead ringer for “Sil” from the movie.

As I’ve argued again and again, we have a serious problem with scientific illiteracy in this country. Having nearly every Hollywood production chock-full of myths and falsehoods about science doesn’t help. Of course, I’m no idealist, either. Hollywood doesn’t care about accuracy or truth—it only cares about what will sell tickets. We’ve seen this over and over again with biographies and historical movies which grossly distort history in pursuit of a better story line, citing “artistic license” as their excuse. But if screenwriters just bothered to take a basic geology or astronomy course, or just listened once to the scientists they hire to consult on these films, I’ll bet they’ll be surprised how much real science can be even stranger and more gripping than bad fiction.

22 Responses to “Holly-weird science”

  1. Mark Scurry says:

    The two scenes I remember most from television/movies with quicksand were from “Blazing Saddles” and Get Smart. That might mean the giant magnet wasn’t real either!

    I still remember watching the James Mason version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as a dinosaur-mad kid, and loving that they had a version of Dimetrodon (I think they used iguanas with sails stuck on their backs). I remember it was in every single dinosaur book I had, even though I later discovered it’s nowhere near being one itself.

    I guess the main problem is we’re in the minority. We appreciate and value scientific accuracy, but we also watch documentaries over commercial television, and we read science books instead of Dan Brown novels. I guess Hollywood directors and screenwriters are like TV producers – they’re aiming for the biggest chunk of the public audience, and that’s probably not us.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    I do think we need to distinguish between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” science howlers.

    The magic machine digging down to the Earth’s core is an “acceptable” break from real science, just like the Starship Enterprise’s faster-than-light engines or the Incredible Hulk’s ability to gain several hundred pounds of mass out of nowhere when he transforms. These are wrong, but they’re also essential to the story. (On a less fantastic note, Gravity had to put the ISS, the Hubble, and Tiangong in the same orbit or the movie would have been 90 minutes of Sandra Bullock dying from oxygen deprivation.)

    But then there are the unacceptable errors, like using the wrong dinosaur for Velociraptor (in a movie sure to attract dinosaur geeks by the millions).

    When we conflate the two, I think we do a disservice. The screenwriter who wants to tell a story about a fantastic voyage to the Earth’s core sees the lambasting of The Core for bad science (and it wasn’t bad science that killed the movie, it was bad everything) and decides that “science nerds” are impossible to please, so why bother trying? Instead, we can agree to “wink at” the implausible digging machine and then help the writers get everything else right.

    On a larger scale, the problem is simply that a lot of people just aren’t interested in science. It doesn’t have a direct influence on their daily existence, except in the form of huge, impersonal shifts in society which they don’t have any ability to control anyway. Trying to turn entertainment into something like mental Raisin Bran doesn’t make them interested in science, it just makes them interested in forms of entertainment which entertain.

    There’s also a chicken-and-egg element to the problem: nobody producing popular media cares about scientific accuracy because nobody’s interested in science. But if popular media made science seem more interesting, the audience might be more interested in science — but popular media doesn’t do that because nobody’s interested in science. (These are all perceptions in the mind of popular media producers, of course.)

    Educators also share some of the blame. Most teachers at the lower grades (the scientific “gateway drug” ages) aren’t trained in science. They typically have degrees in Elementary Education, and maybe some basic college required science classes. An actual Ph.D. scientist can’t teach in an elementary school because he doesn’t have an Education degree (and isn’t in the union). If we loosened the requirements (designed mostly by people with Education degrees) we might see more of the “surplus” science graduates spending time as primary and secondary teachers while they wait for someone with tenure to die and open a university job slot. But instead, people with science degrees wind up working at Starbucks and the people who thought science classes were “too hard” wind up teaching science to our kids.

    • Walt says:

      How many of those surplus science graduates can actually hold the attention of, engage and manage a classroom of students though? My highschool science teacher was an actual scientist who left his scientific position and took the part time teaching job to care for his unwell mother. He was a nice guy and obviously knew a lot about science, but he was a horrible communicator and teacher – mumbled, didn’t know how to break complex ideas into learnable chunks, didn’t have that air of authority to keep trouble makers in line. Education is a seperate degree for a reason too.

      • Trimegistus says:

        My kids in public school have plenty of boring teachers with Education degrees. And there are plenty of college professors with wonderful teaching skills. I think teaching ability is unrelated to academic training.

  3. Joel says:

    @Mark: next you’ll be telling me that the Cone of Silence wouldn’t work in real life, either! (/s)

  4. Mike G says:

    I think sometimes scientific inaccuracy is the result of a macguffin, a plot device to drive the story along. But in most cases, it’s just pure laziness. I’m more willing to suspend belief for the former, but not the latter. Still, I’m the guy who gets the hard stares from others upon exclaiming “That’s ridiculous!”

  5. John H says:

    Movies present preposterous versions of the reality that most people are familiar with all the time. If people accept the ridiculous motivations, emotions and actions of the characters in stories about daily life, and if they can accept the abuse that the simple laws of motion that govern their existence receive at the hands of script writers of every genre, then how realistic is it to expect that stories told about situations that almost no one ever experiences be accurate? Arguing that they don’t get dinosaurs right when they often get automobiles wrong seems like picking a particular tree to examine out of a very large forest.

  6. Emma Gurringwill says:

    Next thing you’re going to tell me that the Romans didn’t speak the Queen’s English.

  7. William Ivey says:

    Dr. Prothero mentioned the film “Species” as inspiring the chupacpra. Mr. Loxton discusses the dinosaur images in “King Kong” as the source of sea serpent sightings. Well, I’ve got another example: in August 1988, Northwest Magazine (Sunday supplement to the Portland Oregonian) ran an article about sasquatch sightings in the Seattle suburbs and nearby Woodland Park. The spate of sightings occurred in the summers of 1987 and 1988, which respectively correspond to the location filming and release of “Harry and the Hendersons” in Seattle.

  8. John Sutton says:

    I agree with you on Velociraptors being the wrong size. Utahraptor was discovered not to long after the movie released (Raptor Red by Robert Bakker if I recall correctly). However, if you are not going to follow science to get accurate results, you could at least fudge it to get accurate result. Here is what I mean: Now we have evidence that Velociraptors covered with feathers. The ones in the first Jurassic Park did not, BUT, the ones in part three did. They had lines of feathers along the back of their heads. So, you can make a comment that something in their genetics is more and more bringing the traits that they had. Yeah it’s hack but if you are going for that route in your writing to begin with you could at least point it in the write direction of things.

    However that ideas is alright for things were the damage is already done in a franchise. New stuff would be better if they form good science around they story. It would enhance it in my opinion.

  9. Nyar says:

    I propose a scientific inaccuracy tax. For every scientific error contained in a work of entertainment, 1% of gross income from that work will be charged as penalty.

  10. Carl says:

    As John H says, movies are unrealistic about everything. Ask, say, an economist about Hollywood some time. Or, Dr. Prothero, compare real faculty life with how movies present college professors. Or movie war vs. real wars–ask any soldier or seaman about that.

  11. BobM says:

    I thought I read somewhere that quicksand COULD suck you under – something to do with upwelling currents or something – or is it just me :-)?

  12. Max says:

    Are Republicans responsible for this too?

  13. Tim Tulley says:

    Well they don’t happen in calm weather, but waves have taken out ships of appreciable size in bad weather. “Halsey’s Typhoon” and “The Edmond Fitzgerald” springs to mind, as an example. Let me know if I’m wrong a I often am.

    • This is true, but these are just huge swells, not a breaking curling wave that surfers ride, and only happen nearshore. Poseidon Adventure made it look like the latter, hence it had to be in water too shallow for a large ship.

  14. markx says:

    The worst part of “Gravity” for me was when Sandra Bullock managed to grab hold of a space craft connected cable AND Clooney as he drifted past, and we had the dreadful, clichéd, ‘hanging on a fraying rope’ scenario … “Let me go, save yourself, no sense us both dying!” …

    “Oh, alright you go”, so unnecessarily letting him drift off again …. when his motion had already been stopped!

    And it could have so easily been replaced by a more gripping scene where they grab each other and both lose the grip on the space craft, then drift tantalizingly away from safety … only for Bullock to be saved by Clooney giving her an almighty shove towards the craft, so propelling himself in the opposite direction at the same speed. (Well, not quite the same speed, he undoubtedly is a little bit heavier.)