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Scientific Inaccuracies in Popular Media

Would Luke Skywalker have survived inside the belly of that tauntaun? Wouldn’t Lois Lane have died when Superman flew her into space? Why didn’t that person’s cheeks flutter when they fell out of the plane?

If you’re a science teacher, questions like these have likely dispelled movie magic for you more than once. Let’s look at a few cinematic bubbles you can burst for your students (while teaching them real science along the way).

The Empire Strikes Back

Even non-Star Wars fans know the moment: Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are stranded on the desert ice planet Hoth when their awkward, long-haired mount, called a tauntaun, drops dead from exhaustion. So, being the resourceful rogue that he is, Han cuts open the beast and shoves Luke inside to help him survive the brutal nighttime temperatures.

Does the science check out? According to Gizmodo, not so much. Unfortunately for Luke, the tauntaun’s death would mean its body will stop generating heat and, according to Newton’s Law of Cooling, would acclimate to the temperature around it (i.e., to frozen tundra). So not only would the tauntaun’s body not protect him from severe hypothermia for very long, but its rapidly freezing innards would introduce additional dangers.

Let’s assume Luke was already in a state of mild hypothermia when he entered the tauntaun (which, given his hallucination of the erstwhile Ben Kenobi, he probably was). Han Solo would’ve had a scant 17 minutes and 48 seconds to move Luke to a warmer location before moderate hypothermia set in—and only 47 minutes and 26 seconds before severe hypothermia. You know, the type where you start losing limbs. And that’s assuming the tauntaun’s liquid remains don’t freeze to Luke’s skin while Han’s trying to clean him off and transport him to this mythical warmer haven.

So yeah. Lightsabers and Jedi flips aren’t the only fantastical elements of the second Star Wars movie (though admittedly they’re less gross than the Hoth expedition’s scientific liberties).

Jurassic Park

The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are appropriately terrifying. Glowing yellow eyes, high-pitched horror-movie screeching, razor-sharp claws, teeth the size of a full-grown man—it’s enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seat. But for some reason, the JP visual effects guys didn’t think feathers would add to the dinosaurs’ mystique.

That’s right: feathers. According to many scientists, dinosaurs likely wouldn’t have looked like reptilian hellbeasts. Instead, many of the smaller species were probably covered with feathers. For example, velociraptor arms sported bumps similar to what we find on modern birds, and the fossils of at least one Siberian dinosaur had the imprint of feathers. T-Rexes might not have had large feathers, but some scientists think they might have had light tufts, similar to the hair on elephants.

We’ll give Jurassic Park a pass though. Some of these fossils weren’t discovered until after the movie came out—and besides, would you really have been scared if the velociraptors creeping around the kitchen had looked like ostriches?

Armageddon

Armageddon’s list of cinema sins is long and well-documented. I mean, you can’t make a movie about a Texas-sized asteroid wiping out the Earth’s population without breaking a few eggs. Here are some highlights of the movie’s scientific foibles from Nature.com:

  • There are 822,000 asteroids out there (that we know of). Only the largest three (Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta) might be considered the size of Texas. So the Earth would be very unlucky indeed (like 0.00000121654 chances) for one of them to come barreling toward us.
  • This may come as a relief to many, but there is simply no way an asteroid the size of Texas could sneak up on us. The characters in Armageddon discover the asteroid a mere 18 days before it will annihilate our planet. In reality, a body of that size would’ve been as bright as some of our brightest stars. Assiduous stargazers would’ve caught it long before then.
  • As cute as the movie’s remote-control nuclear bomb was, it wouldn’t have made a dent in an asteroid of this size. To shatter a rock like that, Earth’s heroes would’ve had to produce 1010 megatonnes of energy—equivalent to a million world nuclear arsenals. We’re sorry to say it, Bruce Willis, but your sacrifice would’ve been in vain.

The Day After Tomorrow

Though climate change is all too real, the depiction of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow takes a lot of liberties with the science. According to Dr. Kaitlin Naughten, the egregious departures from scientific knowledge and practice fall into four major categories:

  • The onset of a new ice age: Paleoclimatologist Jack Hall, played by Dennis Quaid, does get one thing right: About 10,000 years ago, the Earth went through a cold period called the Younger Dryas. The planet was just coming out of the previous glacial period, but ironically, the melting ice sheets added so much freshwater to the Atlantic Ocean that thermohaline circulation shut down. This deprived the continents of a key source of heat, thus plunging them into another cold period. Jack’s error, however, comes in when he assumes that current rises in global temperatures will trigger the same catastrophic event. According to Dr. Naughten, “Differences in continental arrangement, initial energy balance, and global ice cover, to name a few factors, guarantee that no two climate changes will develop identically.”
  • The storm: There’s no denying that the movie’s iconic storms look cool. Tsunamis drowning New York? The Statue of Liberty becoming an icicle? Heck yeah. However, there are many inaccuracies about how a storm like this might work. First, the eye of the storm is supposedly so cold that it freezes people instantly; however, the eye would have the lowest pressure of anywhere in the storm, meaning that the killer cold air from the tropopause couldn’t have been sinking down (rather, air from the surface would have been rising). Second, the movie claims that the temperature within the storm is dropping 10 degrees per second. This is not only impossible, but if the air reached absolute zero, all motion would stop—basically the exact opposite of what we see in the movie.
  • The sea level rise: In the movie’s dramatic depiction of rising sea levels, the Earth’s oceans grow by 25 feet in a matter of seconds. In reality, sea levels are rising—but nowhere near that rate. In fact, without additional water sources, sustaining those sea levels would be physically impossible. According to Dr. Naughten, “Most recent estimates project a rise of 1-2 metres by 2100 and tens of metres in the centuries following.” A significant change—but not quite the thrilling blockbuster disaster.
  • Climate modeling: Although today’s technology allows us to model innumerable different weather and climate scenarios, The Day After Tomorrow stretches that technology far beyond our current capabilities. First, they use weather models that track what the storm will do over a period of months—when in reality, we can only make predictions for a week or two at a time, given the volatile nature of weather conditions. Second, their simulations move at the speed of Hollywood film—certainly not real life. For example, to predict the path of the storm, Jack spends 24 hours straight coding a new forecast model to account for all the unprecedented climate events raining down on them. While a 24-hour code-a-thon is no mean feat, the scope of such a project would’ve taken a team of top scientists months, if not years, to build.

Engage Your Students in Real Science

Movies sometimes stretch the bounds of scientific logic (or break them entirely), but they can be a great way to get students interested in the universe around them. For more strategies on engaging your students in science class, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Climate Change: Engaging Students in a Global Conversation: Help students become positive change makers in the face of climate change challenges. Learn how to teach the facts of climate change in a hopeful, empowering way that inspires students to be personally accountable and look for possible solutions.
  • Teaching Science to Elementary Students: Develop new resources and techniques for teaching science to elementary students based on Next Generation Science Standards. Create hands-on in-class activities, rigorous research assignments, and interdisciplinary learning opportunities to facilitate excellent science instruction.
  • Fostering Active Learning in Chemistry: Make chemistry fun and interesting again! This course shows you how to use the 5E model of science instruction to teach hard topics in chemistry in a hands-on, engaging, and inquiry-based way.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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