2013-09-15

09-15-2013: BSinSF-Things that blink, pulsate, hum, etc.

This week's BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction) deals mostly with the motion picture industry although I'm sure there are a few stories out there with similar faults. The film industry seems to think that high-tech stuff, especially power generators and sensing elements, have to glow or make some sort of noise. A very recent example is the fuel cell in the defense drones in Oblivion. They glow like they're filled with the juice from a thousand fireflies. Sorry folks, fuel-cells do not glow. Neither do nuclear reactors (unless you can directly see the core) or super-batteries like the ones that power a terminator.

How about eyes? Virtually every robot, android, or cyborg seems to have eyes that glow. Why the heck would they? What purpose would the glow serve? Certainly not to illuminate the object being looked at; the glow is too weak and emitting the light from the sensing element would tend to interfere with the sensor. Light amplifying eyes or eyes that can see beyond the normal human spectrum are possible using today's sensing technology—none of which glow.


Advanced technology usually comes in indiscrete packages. Modern computers do not have giant banks of flashing lights (unless of course you own a tricked out Alienware machine). Even the computers of old only had a small section of indicating lights. They could be used by technicians to view the state of the machine's internal registers as well as for troubleshooting a broken computer. The list of Hollywood computers with huge banks of row upon row of flashing lights could make a long list (Time Tunnel, Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, etc.). What on earth could be the purpose of all those lights, especially since not a single one of them is labeled?

Visible laser beams in space? Nonsense! An energy weapon in space is invisible. A laser is a beam of coherent light. The only way for someone to see a laser beam passing in front of them is if the beam reflects off something in its path and some of the light is bounced toward the observer's eye. In an atmosphere, this usually happens because of dust particles or microscopic droplets of water. In space, there is nothing for the beam to hit other than the intended target and therefore it will be invisible.

The bottom line in all this is if you have something that emits light, it had better do so for a very good reason. Indicating lights are okay if they serve a specific purpose. The glow of a warp reactor is explained in the Star Trek Technical Reference manual as well as the Hayes manual on Klingon bird of prey repair but that technology is well beyond our ability to reproduce.

So how about my other pet peeve—noises. I am confident that most people realize that space is silent. You will never hear the explosion of a ship or the whine of a phaser blast or the roar of a Viper's propulsion system. But movies would be pretty dull if Hollywood made their battle-scenes deathly quiet. I'm happy with this too since I'm a big fan of science fiction movies. But, there are some things that should be fixed. For example, nuclear reactors do not pulsate. About the only thing you can hear inside a nuclear power plant is the whine of running motors and the rush of water and steam flowing through the piping. Computer interfaces should not make a significant amount of noise. Try programming your keyboard to make a different short beep, boop, or a series of chirps each time you pressed a key or executed a command. You'll quickly grow tired of it and turn the speakers off. On a bridge with many computer interfaces, audible feedback would be a serious distraction.


The absolute worst offender I have ever seen in regards to sound and visual effect is the depiction of the nuclear reactor powering Captain Nemo's submarine in the B movie "The Return of Captain Nemo" (it is also known as "The Amazing Captain Nemo"). It looked like a giant upside-down turnip which glowed and pulsated with 'power'. When the captain wanted to fire his ultimate weapon he called down to the reactor room saying he needed "Full nuclear capability". The operator grabbed a hand wheel turned it using an indicator that showed reactor power. Of course, the reactor's glow brightened, the pulsations increased in frequency, and the deep, pulsing sound of the reactor became louder and increased in tempo. There is absolutely nothing right with any of this. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The reactor on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" is another whopping error.


As a writer, I do try to make the science in my books at least believable. Things do not glow, pulsate, or make noises unless there is a specific reason for doing so. Consoles beep for attention. Motors and engines whine. Lasers and particle beams are invisible in space (there is one exception in the Galactic Alliance series but it has a valid explanation). To keep the science realistic a writer should research and become knowledgeable on a subject he or she intends to write about. If your ship is powered by a fusion reactor, you should at least understand the basics of how such a device might operate. Try your best to keep the science in science fiction.

PEACEKEEPER UPDATE: It's beginning to look like the book will not be available for release for another few weeks. The cover is not yet done and the final editing is still being worked on.

LAUNCH PAD ANTHOLOGY: The anthology with short stories from most of the Launch Pad 2012 attendees is now available as an e-book from: http://brittonknowles.com/ProductInformation/ProductID/224