Year of Light speaker hails sci-fi films

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
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THEY are the kind of big-screen blunders that will only be noticed by the most studious film fans.

And while bad science on the silver screen might be infuriating, a leading Scottish astronomer has said mistakes and errors in sci-fi films such as Gravity, Interstellar and Star Wars are less important than the enthusiasm they inspire.

Professor Martin Hendry, from the University of Glasgow, one of the key speakers at a free public event in Edinburgh celebrating the UN 2015 International Year of Light, said the “positives” of attracting people, especially youngsters, to science, far outweighed the negatives.

Prof Hendry, a professor of gravitational astrophysics and cosmology, is appearing at Science and Magic of Light, the Universe and Everything on March 28, which includes talks from a range of top scientists including The Sky At Night presenter Prof Chris Lintott, Prof John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, and Prof Colin McInnes MBE, expert in light-sail spacecraft technology.

Prof Hendry, who said he had been inspired to take up a career in science after seeing Star Wars, said: “Nothing can detract from the sheer thrill and excitement of watching the latest sci-fi film but scientists can’t help but spot things which aren’t right.”

In Gravity, the Oscar-winning 2013 sci-fi thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the plot revolves around astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed and their subsequent attempt to reach the International Space Station (ISS) and return to Earth.

Discussing the film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Prof Hendry said: “The main issues where the science was being played with concerned the positions of the ISS, Hubble telescope and Chinese space station. There really aren’t any circumstances in which they’d be in such similar orbits, and yet that was a major plot device.”

Prof Hendry said that in last year’s Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as astronauts travelling through a wormhole to find a new home for blight-ridden humanity, director Christopher Nolan had a “couple of basic plot issues”.

“One inconsistency was that the ranger spacecraft was launched from on top of a 
Saturn V rocket from the Earth, with one Earth gravity, but its own engines were sufficient to escape the gravity of Miller’s planet, which was described as having a gravity of 1.3g. Another was the ice clouds of Dr Mann’s planet – it’s difficult to see how these could exist and stay aloft in the planet’s atmosphere.”

But Prof Hendry added: “Even Star Wars was a bit iffy – its light sabres stopped at a certain length when they would have continued forever, and would have burned off a Jedi Knight’s arm, and the Millennium Falcon fighters wouldn’t have been heard screeching in space. But who cares about these details when it leaves people inspired and wanting to be part of it and be Scotland’s scientists of the future?”

Prof Brown, who is hosting the event, said: “Some of the more pedantic scientists complain about science in some fictional representations being inaccurate but that’s what makes science fiction so good – it’s not constrained.”

• Science and Magic of Light, the Universe and Everything is a free event at the Edinburgh Students’ Debating Hall, Bristo Square, 10am-5.30pm. For more details visit www.johnc


A killer newt the size of a small car terrorised lakes and rivers during the rise of the dinosaurs, scientists have discovered.

The ferocious amphibian, a distant relative of salamanders living today, was one of the Earth’s top predators more than 200 million years ago. Fossil remains of the species, Metoposaurus algarvensis, were found buried at the site of an ancient lake in southern Portugual which may have been home to several hundred of the creatures, said scientists.

Dr Steve Brusatte, from Edinburgh University’s School of GeoSciences, who led a study of Metoposaurus published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, said: “This new amphibian looks like something out of a bad monster movie.

“It was as long as a small car and had hundreds of sharp teeth in its big flat head, which kind of looks like a toilet seat when the jaws snap shut. It was the type of fierce predator that the very first dinosaurs had to put up with if they strayed too close to the water.”