In Defense of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Attack on the Science in 'Gravity'

In Defense of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Attack on the Science in 'Gravity'

Oct 07, 2013

Over the weekend people were begging renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for his thoughts on the movie Gravity. So, he took to Twitter and obliged the Internet and pointed out how some of the most important parts of the movie are incredibly unrealistic. Naturally, the Internet lost its mind. Gravity is already a movie beloved by critics and audiences, so to not flip for one particular aspect of the movie, and to say so during film's record-breaking opening weekend seemed to many impassioned fans like Tyson was being a big ole nerd bully.

That's not what Tyson was doing, though. But before we get to that, let's point out the key problem he (and other scientists) has with the movie: the Hubble space telescope, the International Space Station and the Tiangong space station all orbit at crucially different heights, speeds and angles that would make it unquestionably impossible for a person to travel between them. Objectively that's a pretty big deal, as the entire premise of Sandra Bullock's adventure hinges on that being possible. 

Only the movie didn't get those details wrong, per se, it just willfully ignored them. The film's science advisor, Dr. Kevin Grazier, warned Cuarón that the science didn't line up, but the team had to opt to ignore those facts in order to tell their story. It's a major detail to people who are aware of it, but for those of us who have no idea about orbital heights and degrees of angular momentum, the actual locations of all these landmarks really doesn't matter. It doesn't hurt the story at all.

Now back to Tyson, he wasn't hating on the movie (he later tweeted that he enjoyed the movie very much), he was simply doing something that comes natural to him: celebrating scientific accuracy. We're talking about the guy who saw the ending to Titanic and instantly knew that the stars over Kate Winslet's makeshift raft were not the stars that would have actually been floating over the Titanic the night it sank. Think about that, for a second. This is a guy who can look at a picture of stars in the background of a movie and tell if they're accurate or not without having to do any further research. Of course he's going to have problems with a movie about a space adventure with astronauts, and if you ask him about them on Twitter, he's going to explain them.

And not only can Tyson tell when basic (to him, at least) scientific details are wrong, he's the kind of person who speaks up about it. He actually teased James Cameron about the terrible star patterns in Titanic multiple times, and it got to the point where Cameron actually changed the movie to correct the lazy error. Obviously that can't happen with Gravity. The science he points out as being inaccurate is too integral to the movie's plot. Alfonso Cuarón can't fix Tyson's problems by rendering a new green-screen background. But, he also doesn't need to.

It's funny that fellow scientist Phil Plait also wrote about the problems with Gravity, only no one jumped down his throat. He pointed out the exact same issues Tyson had (and even quite a few more Tyson didn't pick up on), only he did so in a full write-up where he had more than the Twitter-confined 140 characters to explain why it's okay that in the movie the International Space Station and the Chinese space stations orbit at the same height:

"Obviously, there’s a lot to love and a lot to gnaw over in this movie. But the bottom line is clear: Go see this flick. The science errors won’t bug you, and if they do, you need to pull your head out of your assumptions of what a movie should be. As a demonstration of craftsmanship, and as a viewing experience, Gravity is astonishing. I loved it, and I’ll be going to see it again."

Now back to Tyson yet again, we can't hold people like him in the highest regard for how they make science fun and engaging and accessible, and then get mad at the way they react to movies that are fun and engaging and accessible that aren't 100% scientifically accurate. We just can't have it both ways. If we enjoy the side of Tyson's personality where he's willing to shout from the rooftops in the name of science, we have to accept when it doesn't fully align with our own views-- even if that's on the opening weekend of Gravity. After All, isn't his slavish devotion to science (and his defiance of bad science) why we love Neil deGrasse Tyson in the first place?

 

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