TCS Daily

Will Tomorrow Ever Come?

By Sallie Baliunas - May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

No greater aim has science fiction -- or any form of fiction -- than to make big money. Profit and drama rank highest, well ahead of any science learning. Indeed, the science in science fiction is often just a ghostly presence in alien scenery, technical babble and jaunty costumes.

Roland Emmerich, producer and co-writer of the $200 million weather-horror movie, The Day After Tomorrow, due for release May 28, says (Spiegel Online, April 26), I went very far in order to provide viewers with lots of scientific information.


Nonsense. Beloved science fiction concerns the most self-absorbed creatures known in the Galaxy -- Homo sapiens. TDAT is all about us, and it certainly isnt about science education.


The Day After Tomorrow flips todays climate warmth to deadly cold over a few days. Photogenic cultural icons in New York and Los Angeles are crushed, mutilated and obliterated by impossible tornadoes, tsunamis and floods. The movie is as close to climate physics as astrology is to astrophysics. Both may look at the stars, but from a mighty different perspective.


And in The Day After Tomorrow, science is a convenience for story, a fructuous and great Hollywood invention.


Alas, there is no starship Enterprise to whisk humans through space at supra-light speed to nearby star systems in hours. There is no instantaneous transporter beam to move humans from a starship orbiting a planet to its surface and back in an eyeblink. We know no alien, green-blooded Vulcans born under the nearby, multiple star system 40 Eridani.


And, there is no hoop-shaped device in the Cheyenne Mountains connected by instantly sprung wormholes to other such machines on distant planets that allow humans to stride the stars with only a few footfalls. There was no such Stargate buried in Egypt and discovered in the early 20th century, and none exists either in Antarctica or under the Mediterranean Sea.


Nor is there a planet Epsilon III around which the Babylon 5 interstellar peacekeeping waystation orbits. No alliance of cranky humans, Mimbari, Centauri and Narn civilizations, relative newcomers to an anciently warring cosmos, who remake their cultures (and themselves) despite themselves. There is no easy galactic travel by inaugurating a jump gate at will and slipping to far worlds in hours. The miserably uncooperative cosmos has also failed even to offer humans Babylon 5s Technomages, intelligent creatures whose astonishing command of science animate Arthur C. Clarks dictum that sufficiently advanced science cant be distinguished from magic (which also presupposes vast reliable energy supplies).


Space-time is boring. The awful distances between stars in the Milky Way alone stretches wearying gaps between story elements. To move the storyline requires shortcutting space-time, something humans cannot do.  Hence, the wild ideas of a stargate to walk the Galaxy, warp drive to compress space-time and the jump gate to weave interstellar travel. But such science inaccuracy is irrelevant to the main purpose of science fiction. The magic machines of moving through space-time are invented story devices.


So, too, The Day After Tomorrows storyline momentum requires Kurt-Vonnegut-ice-9-type flash freezing -- utter science twaddle. For story sake, the onset of the glacial period must be collapsed by unphysically transposing it to the equivalent timestepping of a fleet of killer asteroids whamming into the earth.


Might showing impossible weather lead viewers to wonder about the real science? Perhaps seeing imaginary wormholes, will people thirst for their real physics and embark on the grand journey into Einsteins General Relativity, Reimannian geometry, tensor calculus and electrodynamics?


One hopes so; and if not, perhaps viewers would at least clamor for great jumps in space research funding, although the history of science fictions increasing popularity and profits seem to trend opposite that of funding in space research. For example, after comet-that-hit-the world movies like Armageddon and Sudden Impact no outcry expanded the relatively puny funding needed to map the possible earth-smacking asteroids -- a hazard that is a dead certainty.


Little science can be learned from The Day After Tomorrow, and much nonsense can enter social discourse as a result. But that suits activists who have for years been stomping science and exploiting fear, and find The Day After Tomorrow but another rent-seeking opportunity to showcase the fantasy of powering a successful 21st century world with wind turbines and solar panels, a premise as ridiculous as the movies science ideas.


There is hope: people know a caricature when they see movies. That could leave a yearning for real science.


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