Energy imbalances in popular SF

One doesn’t have to look far in popular science fiction to discover earth science processes whose energy balance simply doesn’t work in the real world.  Impossible storms, instantaneous climate change, volcanos spurred by ‘magnetic forces’, and many other forms of complete nonsense.

 So, find one!  Post your thoughts about it.

Part of the Online Course “Earth Science Essentials for the Science Fiction Writer.”

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23 thoughts on “Energy imbalances in popular SF

  1. One of the science fiction movies I have seen the most recently was “The Martian”. I really enjoyed it, as it was a fascinating movie and much of the science actually seemed plausible. However, not all of the science was. One of the inaccuracies in “The Martian” was the wind storms. The main character was shown knocked around by the force of the wind, and the wind was so strong it was able to damage equipment as well. Doing some research online, I found that Mars does in fact have windstorms often, its atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s. Because of this, the force of the winds aren’t as strong as they would be on Earth. On Mars, winds need to blow much faster to create the same force as they would have on Earth, and without the thicker atmosphere trapping in sun energy, they can’t achieve this. In most dust storms on Mars you wouldn’t get completely knocked down and have your equipment destroyed by the wind.. The main problem caused by dust storms on Mars would be the dust particles themselves, not the force of the wind.

    • Interesting post! That’s a clever connection you made between wind speed and atmospheric thickness. Again, it puts into perspective just how precarious our climate on Earth is and how it can seriously be impacted if we continue to alter the atmosphere.

    • This also happened in Prometheus. The atmosphere on this planet was also less, therefore the windstorms would have not be as dramatic as what the movie would like us to believe.

      I feel like this is a theme throughout many Mars books and movies.

    • I loved the movie, as it was entertaining and a few of the events were actually plausible. This one also caught my attention right away. Good post.

  2. One of my favorite examples of energy imbalance in science-fiction is in the book Cat’s Cradle (1963) by esteemed American author Kurt Vonnegut, who often dabbled in science-fiction. (I haven’t read it since high school, so I had to do quite a bit of research to refresh my memory). One of the book’s main characters is scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikker, who discovers a substance called ice-nine. Ice-nine is a variant (isotope? polymorph like graphite and diamond? it isn’t made clear in the book) of water. However, ice-nine freezes at about 115 degrees F. If it contacts regular liquid water that is cooler than that temperature, and most water is, then it becomes supercooled and instantly freezes that entire body of water. That body of water may be a human body or an entire ocean. At the end of the book, a crystal of ice-nine is dropped into the ocean, causing it to freeze and assumingly dooming the entire human race. In this situation, I think that the author is melding the concepts of nucleation and phase change. In nucleation, the addition of a solid crystal into a cooling liquid of the same material can certainly cause it to freeze more quickly. This is because future crystals have a starting point on which to build off of. However, this can only happen as long as the substance is also being cooled. There needs to be an exchange of heat for nucleation to work. In Cat’s Cradle, there does not appear to be any associated cooling of the ocean when ice-nine is dropped in it. Thus, the freezing occurs spontaneously despite the water having not cooled at all. Where did the heat go? Did ice-nine instead set of an endothermic chemical reaction? If it did, it happened much too quickly and would req

  3. One of my favorite examples of energy imbalance in science-fiction is in the book Cat’s Cradle (1963) by esteemed American author Kurt Vonnegut, who often dabbled in science-fiction. (I haven’t read it since high school, so I had to do quite a bit of research to refresh my memory). One of the book’s main characters is scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikker, who discovers a substance called ice-nine. Ice-nine is a variant (isotope? polymorph like graphite and diamond? it isn’t made clear in the book) of water. However, ice-nine freezes at about 115 degrees F. If it contacts regular liquid water that is cooler than that temperature, and most water is, then it becomes supercooled and instantly freezes that entire body of water. That body of water may be a human body or an entire ocean. At the end of the book, a crystal of ice-nine is dropped into the ocean, causing it to freeze and assumingly dooming the entire human race. In this situation, I think that the author is melding the concepts of nucleation and phase change. In nucleation, the addition of a solid crystal into a cooling liquid of the same material can certainly cause it to freeze more quickly. This is because future crystals have a starting point on which to build off of. However, this can only happen as long as the substance is also being cooled. There needs to be an exchange of heat for nucleation to work. In Cat’s Cradle, there does not appear to be any associated cooling of the ocean when ice-nine is dropped in it. Thus, the freezing occurs spontaneously despite the water having not cooled at all. Where did the heat go? Did ice-nine instead set of an endothermic chemical reaction? If it did, it happened much too quickly and would req

    • require an input of heat, which did not occur. So, it seems that the heat energy in the ocean simply “magically” went away, allowing the temperature to drop low enough to freeze it. Mysterious indeed . . .

  4. Any Mars science fiction. I remember a children’s short story where a guy left his spaceship in space and traveled down to Mars by jet pack, his jet pack died so he found a way to switch gravity to get back up to his ship. From just the laws of gravity that is impossible.

    I also remember watching Prometheus where out of no where a huge storm came out and they almost didn’t make it back to the ship (winds were so strong) but the atmosphere wasn’t as strong as Earth so could the winds on this planet be strong enough to damage their ship and barely walk through? Probably not.

    • I forgot about that part in Prometheus! But you’re totally right, it probably wouldn’t have been that strong of a storm.

    • I don’t remember that part either but that is an interesting point. We often see science fiction movies that defy some logical reasoning just to make the plot interesting.

  5. The first movie that came to mind was Sharknado. While I haven’t seen the movie I have heard a lot about it and did some research as well. Now I have one more of a reason to see it. The tornado forms on water and picks up tons of sharks. My thought is how much energy would be need to pick up so many sharks? I also read that during storms as sea that sharks swim towards deeper depths. How much more energy would the tornado need in have the energy to pull are shark from deeper depths. This tornado is going to needs tons of energy to be able to carry these sharks 52 Miles!

  6. The first movie that came to mind was Sharknado. While I haven’t seen the movie I have heard a lot about it and did some research as well. Now I have one more of a reason to see it. The tornado forms on water and picks up tons of sharks. My thought is how much energy would be need to pick up so many sharks? I also read that during storms as sea that sharks swim towards deeper depths. How much more energy would the tornado need in have the energy to pull are shark from deeper depths. This tornado is going to needs tons of energy to be able to carry these sharks 52 Miles!

    • I knew Sharknado was obviously not scientifically accurate, but I didn’t even know where to start with analyzing its inaccuracies. You’re right though, that tornado would have to have an insane amount of energy to pick up and carry multiple sharks!

  7. When I think about climate change in movies, popularly known as cli-fi with the recent doomsday movies, I think about Interstellar. In the movie, they never specifically state what the source of this climate change is from. There is a crop disease (blight), but it never states how or why (or even specifically if it actually caused it) it affected climate change.

    The choices involved in solving the problem are more difficult than the movie offers. In the movie, they can either leave and move to another planet or stay and die. Realistically, that would’t be possible and more factors figure into the solution that this.

  8. I recall the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” where a new ice age is taking over the earth within a matter of days. The ice storms occur as cyclones that freeze everything in a matter of minutes, yet the sun is still present. There are also waves off the ocean that freeze as they come onto the land. Everyone tries to escape to the South, but why? The loss of the sunlight does not only affect the northern hemisphere. I think it is hard to rationalize the ideas, considering there are so many facts lost in this idea.

  9. One example of energy imbalances in popular science fiction that comes to my mind is from the movie Home (it’s an adorable animated movie, and you can check it out on Netflix if you haven’t seen it). In the movie, aliens called the boov, cute little blob things, take over Earth because they need a new home. They are on the run from another group of aliens that they think is going to hurt them. However, this means kicking the humans out of their homes and randomly assigning them to live in little villages designed by the boov to be fun for humans. One of the boov is a bit of an outcast and accidentally lets the enemy aliens know their location. He teams up with a girl who managed to escape the roundup of the people and they go on an adventure. It’s a sweet, silly movie, but there are some major energy imbalances. One of the energy imbalances is pretty boring: the little boov rewires a car into a hover car that runs on slushies from a standard gas station slushie machine. The car makes it halfway to Paris from NYC on the maybe five gallons of slushie. There is absolutely no way that the sugary calories in a slushie machine could power a hover car for a hundreds of miles! The boov in Paris also have a gravity machine that is able to control and shift floating objects as large as the Eiffel Tower. But there is no explanation for the power source of this tiny machine. Just where does the energy needed to lift and move thousands of pounds come from? It makes no sense. But that’s one of the fun things about science fiction- sometimes it’s fun just to imagine that these things are possible.

  10. The Matrix is a movie where people have to survive inside and outside the matrix. They get their power/their energy from this unknown source. In reality in order to survive they would need that internal energy that comes from within their own bodies.

  11. The movie “into the storm” was a bit over the top in my opinion. Those storms were randomly popping up, touching down then lifting then touching down again. I don’t know how the atmospheric pressure could change that quickly. Then on top of that they had a firenado and a water spurt (tornado out of water). That seemed like a storm chaser’s dream but I don’t think it’s realistic to all happen in one day in the same small town.

  12. A movie that comes to my mind is the Star Wars episodes. In these you think about the weather climate on each of the planet they go to. The foggy, damp, and rainy world of Dagobah where Luke meets Yoda. On Earth, the energy imbalance leads to regions of the world that have more rainfall than other areas. Tropical rainforests are typically near equatorial regions of the planet. The ascending part of the Hadley Cell along with the convergence of the trade winds near the equator lead to sustained periods of rising motion required for deep convection. The Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) migrates around the equator as a function of season.

  13. The only Sci-Fy movie that I can think of is Start Wars. Everything in the movies is based off of energy. The energy to wield the force. The environment is very interesting in all of these movies as well. The atmospheres in all of the different galaxies all have their own energy source.

  14. The film Interstellar is a lavish space romp which sees Mathew McConaughey jump through a worm hole, navigate space-time and tumble into a black hole in his quest to save humanity.In the starting of the movie, the launch of the spacecraft was done stagewise but the spacecraft was in itself capable of entering in and going out of the gravity of planets which have gravity greater than that of Earth. So either using multi-stage rocket is of no use or the entry and exit from the atmosphere of a planet which has even higher gravity like Miller’s planet is non-sense.

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