Here's When J.J. Abrams Movies Got Science Wrong

They're a huge part of popular culture, but don't always make for great science lessons.

Disney / Lucasfilm 

J.J. Abrams’s films are a pretty big part of our cultural consciousness. From Star Wars to Armageddon, he’s had a hand in shaping pop culture via blockbusters. And known for his work in science fiction, Abrams films tend to contain a lot of science – and with science in film come mistakes. Often.

Make no mistake: pointing out the errors in these films is not an act of curmudgeon-y poo-poo-ing. We love these films. But to love something truly is to understand and recognize its flaws and love it anyway, in spite of those flaws. That’s what we’re doing here. We love ‘em and that’s why we’re poking fun. We’re also using some bad fake science to talk about awesome real science — because it’s never a bad day to talk about parsecs and asteroids.

Star Trek’s Supernova Screw-Up

Oh Star Trek, how were you wrong? Let us count the ways.

The 2009 Star Trek film has plenty of inaccuracies. But, then, so does the entire Star Trek canon. And that’s okay. Star Trek isn’t about being correct to the letter, it’s about giving audiences great characters and great stories set up against the backdrop of space. We’re not here to pick apart every implausible or impossible detail of the Trek canon, but there is an error from the 2009 film that shows a pretty major oversight.

In the film, a supernova is described as being a threat to the galaxy, which Phil Plait points out is pretty ridiculous.

“First off, supernovae are exploding stars, and are incredibly violent events,” says Plait. “They emit trillions of times as much energy as the Sun does, and can outshine entire galaxies.”

Okay, that sounds pretty bad, right? And it is! If you were near a supernova, it would totally, absolutely kill you. But the threat of a supernova isn’t so for an entire galaxy. It only poses a threat to whats (relatively) near it.

“But for all that, the damage they do is local,” says Plait. “You have to be within about 50 light years for them to physically hurt a planet. Past that, and they can’t even bruise our fragile ozone layer.”

The Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter. Yeah, a supernova’s real bad, but it’s not “threat to the entire galaxy” bad. Instead, Plait suggests using a gamma-ray burst rather than a supernova. Much more violent and much more devastating.

Disney / Lucasfilm

Star Wars Parsec Mix-Up

In a world full of wookiees, single biome planets, and Starkillers, you’re going to have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. That’s the nature of the beast. But it turns out this is a pretty silly mistake, and astrophysicist (occasional killjoy) Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that the way in which The Force Awakens uses parsecs to talk about the Millennium Falcon’s speed is, um, wrong:

You could use parsecs to talk about a ship’s speed, but you’d have to be using parsecs correctly — that is, to express distance, not time.

First mentioned in A New Hope, Abrams may have taken this hand-off from Lucas, but it’s no excuse to keep using it incorrectly: It’s a simple mistake and a silly one. We’ll admit that “parsecs” sounds really awesome, but it sounds even better when used correctly.

10 Cloverfield Lane’s Implausible Address

This mistake doesn’t have to do with physics or chemistry or biology, but there is something a little odd about 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that’s the address.

Given what we know about addressing systems and the way in which addresses in the United States work based on distances from certain points, an address like 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Could it exist? Sure! But NENA standards and city addressing systems make it kind of unlikely at best and a pretty inefficient address at worst.

Star Trek’s Black Hole Escape

We’re going to go ahead and revisit Star Trek to point out another mistake, this time with black holes.

Black holes are crazy and we totally get why you’d want to put them in everything. They’re scary and amazing. They’re like the murderous ghosts of space, except they’re capable of killing you so dead it’d almost be like you never even existed at all.

That said, Star Trek got some black hole science wrong, particularly when it came to escaping the clutches of said black hole.

In the scene where Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are trying to get away from the black hole that’s rapidly pulling them in, Scotty ejects and then blows up the warp core, resulting in an explosion that propels them away from the black hole and to safety.

Plait explains why that’s a non-starter. What Scotty was looking for was a shockwave a wave of pressure that travels through the air. Space doesn’t have air, though, which means there’s no shockwave.

“To propel the Big E to safety, the bomb would have to transfer momentum to the ship,” he says. “Detonating the warp core would generate a lot of light, but only a tiny bit of mass would explode outward, so the momentum transfer would be minimal. What would really happen is the ship would be vaporized from the massive release of energy. Oops!”

Armageddon’s Big Asteroid

Oh sweet Armageddon, the movie that had everything. Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, animal crackers, Aerosmith: It was an embarrassment of riches, really. Too bad the movie kind of messed up when it came to one of the most important parts of the story: that big asteroid.

Described in terms of Texas, the asteroid was huge, headed straight for Earth and needed to be blown the hell up in order to save the human race from an extinction-level event. This is all fine and good, but the folks at the Department of Astronomy and Physics at the University of Leicester did some good ol’ fashioned number-crunching and found that the bomb plus asteroid combo from the movie doesn’t quite add up.

There’s no way that bomb was going to blow up that big asteroid. It was seriously underpowered given the size and density of the asteroid and, unfortunately, that spells extinction for Earth. Bummer. Either Armageddon needed a much bigger bomb (which would’ve led to a an entirely new set of problems) or a smaller asteroid.

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