Timothy Johnson is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. with his wife and his dog. He is the author of the sci-fi/horror novel Carrier from Permuted Press. Nothing frightens him more than the future, so he writes about it in hopes that he is wrong. He lives in Washington, D.C., Carrier is his first novel.
As an author, I take authenticity seriously, especially in science fiction. Research is important to ensure the story doesn’t misrepresent the technology and disciplines it portrays. Of course, it’s still fiction, and everything yields to the needs of the story. Sometimes concessions in factual correctness have to be made for the sake of drama.
These aren’t those times.
The following are five science-fiction myths that need to stop right now because they’re needlessly wrong. And in a lot of cases, the factually correct versions are more awesome anyway.
Few things are as dramatic as a human body literally exploding or the threat of such calamity. After all, Scanners successfully spanned several decades to land on the Internet as one of the most-often used memes, and the film did it just by blowing up heads.
But when it comes to the vacuum of space, few sci-fi violations are as egregious as a human being literally blowing up from the pressure differential. It may seem plausible, but it just isn’t what would happen if a person were exposed to space.
Because of the elasticity of our tissues, there wouldn’t be a sudden outward push from the pressure inside our bodies. Our tissues would inflame, resulting in bruising, and our blood would boil (in the sense that it would develop gas bubbles, but not burn in our veins). The nitrogen in our blood would spontaneously become a gas, which could rupture small blood vessels.
But how do we know? Admittedly, much of this is theoretical, but NASA has Chamber A, in which it conducts a lot of vacuum-related experiments. And in 1966, Jim LeBlanc famously lost pressure in his suit while in a vacuum chamber and reported feeling the moisture on his tongue evaporating before he lost consciousness in 14 seconds.
Really, when it comes to space, the vacuum is the least of our worries, because we’d be dead before it stood any chance to kill us. For instance, no one has ever said they’ve heard it’s nice this time of year in space.
After spontaneous explosion, it’s often alluring to the gore fanatic to think of the deep freeze of space and what would happen to a human being exposed to it. After all, deep space is roughly estimated to be about 2.7 Kelvin, which is very close to absolute zero. That’s cold! If we’re not going to blow up, we’ll probably instantly freeze in those temperatures, right? Not likely, and it’s because of the physics of heat transfer.
Why is a 70-degree spring day the best thing ever while 70-degree water is almost too cold to swim in? Heat transfer. Generally speaking, it is much easier for your body to transfer heat to another solid than a liquid. It transfers heat better to water than to air. Seeing a trend?
The reason why you wouldn’t immediately freeze in space is because there is no matter to conduct your body heat. Of course, it’s extremely cold, and even a moment in space would be a bad time. But just because the temperature is remarkably below any extreme you’ve ever experienced, it doesn’t mean you’d immediately become an ice block.
So if you won’t explode in space and you won’t die from freezing, how would space kill you? You’d probably suffocate.
But let’s assume this isn’t a man vs. nature scenario. Let’s say it’s the future, and you’re trying to defend yourself from a violent alien race.
Two inaccuracies persist regarding lasers. Think of any energy weapon in sci-fi, and what visual comes to mind? It’s probably a dash of red light flying through the air, right? Well, if it’s a laser, there are two things wrong with that picture.
First, lasers move at the speed of light, so they hit their targets instantaneously. Also, as a result, they won’t emit a small dash of energy like a projectile. They will draw an unbroken stream of energy between the weapon and the target.
The second myth regarding lasers, however, is one of the most persistent in one of the most popular sci-fi franchises in history: Star Trek. You see, lasers depend on the presence of atmosphere to be visible. In space, there is no atmosphere. There is no dust to scatter the light, so the human eye would not be able to perceive it. As a result, lasers are invisible.
If that revelation just blew your mind, try to contain it because…
Or rather, there’s no fire. Explosions in space are dramatically different than in atmosphere with gravity. Several factors alter their behavior, and they are not always accurately portrayed in science fiction.
First, fire depends on oxygen to burn, so anyone who tells you, “there’s no fire in space,” isn’t technically wrong, but fire necessitates oxygen. Since oxygen is in limited supply in space, it isn’t going to last very long.
Second, the exertion of force is dramatically different than on Earth. Since there is nothing to push back on the explosion, debris would fly away from the center of the explosion without a decaying rate of speed.
Finally, the sound of an explosion in space will not be deafening because you can’t hear it. Without atmosphere, sound waves can’t travel.
But while sound waves require atmosphere to carry them, objects in motion are just fine. The problem arises when they need to stop.
While there isn’t much that is less subtle than something going BOOM, there’s a subtlety related to a type of ignition that relates to propulsion. Often in science fiction, we see the spaceship approaching a planet, and we see its thrusters still burning. In some cases, we even see the spacecraft speed up. In reality, while much less dramatic, a space ship will need to fire thrusters to slow itself down as it approaches a planet. If not, depending on the approach vector, the ship’s motion could either be amplified by the planet’s gravity and pull it in for an inevitable crash, or the ship could skip over the planet’s orbit and miss it entirely.
On a related note is the misconception of “space friction” in that there really isn’t any. Newton’s Laws state objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless an outside force acts upon it. Rather, if an object is in motion, something has to slow it down. In atmosphere, we have friction to slow us down. In space, we don’t, so while in a lot of science fiction, there’s a concern about having enough fuel to reach a destination, in reality, reaching a destination is only a matter of achieving your desired velocity and then coasting. The real consideration is stopping when you get there, because if you can’t provide the force to counteract your trajectory, whatever body you’re hoping to land on will surely stop you, but your vessel probably isn’t built to sustain the impact.