Jun 06 2013

Star Trek – Into Bad Science

On the SGU this week, the episode that will be released on Saturday June 8th, we do an extended review of the new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness (STID). so – this is a warning to SGU listeners, if you want to hear the episode without spoilers, see the movie before Saturday (or whenever you typically listen to the episode).

We talk about the science in the movie, the characters, the writing, its overall quality as a film and how well it lives up to the Star Trek franchise.

Here I am just going to delve into some aspects of the science in the movie. I am a fan of science fiction, and I am unapologetic in desiring good science in my science fiction. I have no problem suspending my disbelief, and allow writers to invent new science and technology as needed for the story, but there are limits. The unwritten rule-of-thumb in science fiction writing is that you get one huge gimmie, but not more than that.

Regardless of your preference for hard science fiction, there is no reason for gratuitously bad science in science fiction. Science howlers can take you out of a movie, it’s lazy writing, and often that also translates to bad storytelling.

Overall STID was not bad with the science, but there were a few annoying moments, and one unnecessary howler that did immediately take me out of the movie.

(Spoilers below the fold)

The opening scene involves the Enterprise attempting to save a primitive society that is threatened by a volcano. The scene is horribly contrived so that Kirk must save Spock by violating the prime directive of non-interference. Spock is in the process of manually setting a “cold fusion” bomb in the caldera of an active volcano (because they don’t have robots 200 years in the future). The “cold fusion” bomb is not what you think – it’s a device that can instantly freeze lava into solid rock.

Here’s the problem – this wouldn’t work. I don’t mean the unfortunately-named cold fusion bomb – let’s assume the device creates a fantastically endothermic reaction that will freeze a volcano solid. The real problem, of course, is the build up of magma pressure beneath the volcano. Spock just corked the bottle, but it’s eventually going to explode, and be even more destructive to the local village.

My next point is a bit of a nitpick, but I have noticed that it is now a sci-fi movie cliche – the broken-apart moon. We saw this in the recent Oblivon movie, for example. In STID the crew go to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, which has a moon that is shattered into pieces. This is visually stunning, but makes no sense. The mutual gravity of the pieces would pull the moon back together. What they are depicting in the equivalent of a large boulder suspended a mile above the ground. Even asteroids that are big enough will pull themselves back together by mutual gravity – something large enough to pull itself into a sphere certainly would.

Speaking of gravity – toward the end of the movie the Enterprise finds itself near the Earth in a battle with a more powerful ship. Damage takes the warp core off-line, and the Enterprise loses power. At this point the ship immediately starts to plummet to the Earth, and within a few minutes is entering the atmosphere.

First, it was never clear how close the ship was to the Earth in the first place. Even if it were fairly close, why would it plummet just because it lost power? If it were in any kind of orbit (and why wouldn’t it be) it would simply stay in its orbit and not be in any immediate danger. Even an unstable orbit might last for hours.

The only situation that makes any physical sense is that the Enterprise was actively hovering – using rockets to suspend itself, so that when these rocket went out the ship immediately would begin to fall. Such rockets were not displayed, however – but they were when the ship eventually restores power, in order to stop its descent. There is nothing in the series to indicate that warp technology is used for antigravity, and impulse drive is oriented in the forward direction, not to lift the ship up. There is simply no way to make sense of this, short of contriving new elements never displayed or referred to in the series.

Far worse than falling quickly out of orbit, however, is what happens when the ship is in free-fall. The ship’s artificial gravity goes out with the power. The ship is in free-fall. This means that conditions inside the ship should be weightless (technically, microgravity). Instead there appears to be 1G of gravity oriented in whatever direction the ship is oriented with respect to the Earth.

This was the worst science blunder in the movie, in my opinion. This is a violation of basic spaceflight physics, and was completely unnecessary.

The scenes of Kirk and others running through the ship as it rolls around were cool, but they could have made the physical challenge just as interesting if they had to make their way through the ship with microgravity. Or, if they really wanted the rolling gravity, they could have blamed it on malfunctioning, rather than simply non-functioning, artificial gravity. This is a bit hard to justify also (why would it work that way), but with a little creativity they could have contrived a technical reason for it.

My last peeve is the way technology is generally handled in the movie. This is a problem for Star Trek in general, and it has become one of the things that Trek fans have learned to deal with – fantastic technology is some ways, with primitive technology in others, in a way that makes no sense.

Related to this is the fact that the writers frequently write themselves into a corner by coming up with advanced technology and then ignoring all the obvious implications of that technology.

The big piece of advanced tech that creates plot problems for Trek is the transporter. If you can beam in and out of dangerous situations, it makes it difficult to have your characters in true danger. The transporter can be a useful plot device also, getting characters quickly to the scene of action, but it’s also the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card.

In order to deal with this problem the writers should be going out of their way to establish that the transporter is a finicky piece of technology that only works in ideal situations. They sort of do this, but not consistently. It seems that the transporter works whenever they want it to work, and doesn’t work whenever they don’t want it to work. McCoy has his arm stuck in a bomb, and that’s enough to prevent beaming. In one scene they need “line of sight” on the target. Sometimes they can beam moving targets, but not others.  A little consistency here would be nice.

I think the writers made a huge mistake, however, in introducing advanced transporter technology that can allow beaming across light years (even onto a moving Star Ship in warp). The implications of this technology for the Federation and Star Fleet are massive, and utterly ignored.

There is also no consistency in medical technology. Apparently, 300 years prior to the events in STID, we developed stem cells that can repair massive damage, even to the point of bringing someone back to life from extensive radiation damage. Yet, after three further centuries of medical science nothing like this apparently exists. People still die of mundane wounds.

There is also a conspicuous absence of any robotic technology, even in engineering, even, apparently, in locations where radiation is at lethal levels.

The bottom line is that it is obvious no serious thought was given to creating a society with a consistent level of technological advancement. I am not asking for accurate futurism, but give us something that at least feels genuine and well thought out.


Despite all this, I actually enjoyed watching the movie. I am a big Trek fan, and the movie was fun.

But it was simultaneously disappointing. Trek is iconic science fiction with a huge cultural impact. It has a great legacy of interesting characters, compelling stories, and at times a deeper meaning. The Trek universe is often a positive portrayal of the future, which celebrates intelligence, competence, courage, exploration, and loyalty . It is a generally positive portrayal of science and technology.

It has also been used as a vehicle to explore societal and personal themes, something which science fiction as a genre can do very well. STID tried to address themes of post 9/11 fears, warmongering, and security vs freedom, but I feel it did a very superficial job of doing so. The key villains turned out to be too one-dimensional and the allegory never really gelled.

So while STID had some good action and eye-candy, and the familiar characters were all there, it did not live up to the potential of the Star Trek franchise. We need better writing, more thought-out technology, and more accurate science.

44 responses so far

44 Responses to “Star Trek – Into Bad Science”

  1. Bruce Woodwardon 06 Jun 2013 at 11:22 am

    Speaking of Transporter inconsistencies, maybe a Trekkie can answer this, but I thought beaming was not possible through a ship’s shields. Should Carol Marcus not have been able to have been beamed out when she was?

  2. Jivlainon 06 Jun 2013 at 11:37 am

    @Bruce: I believe the dreadnought had pounded the Enterprise’s shields into oblivion in the leadup to transporting her out.

  3. ca1879on 06 Jun 2013 at 11:43 am

    Applies Aristotelian physics – check!
    Ignores high school level biology – check!
    Uses control of a fundamental force only to stick people’s feet to the floor – check!
    Painfully contrived situations designed to test unrealistic rules of behaviour – check!
    Still putting humans in dangerous situations that were eliminated 300 yrs earlier- check!
    Still bringing fists to a phaser fight – check!

    The apple didn’t fall far from the tree in this one.

  4. Bruce Woodwardon 06 Jun 2013 at 11:46 am

    I was sure Kirk shouted “Keep those shields up!” as he ran off the bridge shortly afterwards. I could be remembering wrong though.

    I tend to ignore all these things anyway now, after losing a good portion of my life in TV Tropes I have lost all perspective on what a good film is anymore as all I see are the Tropes…

  5. jreon 06 Jun 2013 at 12:20 pm

    On the bright side, STID has at least prompted useful human-factors analyses of bare-handed skull-crushing.

  6. pdeboeron 06 Jun 2013 at 1:11 pm

    I didn’t catch the freefall problem. Though if the enterprise was in atmosphere it may make sense after a time. Presumably it was, since the enterprise kept changing orientation more than just rotating.

    A vehicle at terminal velocity will have equal force air resistance and gravity, where a person inside the vehicle only experiences the force of gravity.

    I think I’ve proven on this blog that I’m not great at high school physics.
    Does anyone know if this mean the net force would be 1G?

    Discount the previously discussed deceleration due to increased atmosphere proportional to the altitude. Assume uniform atmosphere for my question.

  7. wellerpondon 06 Jun 2013 at 2:01 pm

    All of what you say it true. But, I’ve gotten used to it. Unlikely technology and convenient inconsistencies are now part of the Trek universe.

    It is a rock-solid trope. In that world, you make things up when you need to and things only work when they want them to. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be Star Trek.

  8. LDoBeon 06 Jun 2013 at 2:35 pm

    If the ship is falling at a constant velocity, then gravity inside would be 1 G.
    Think about an elevator. If you’re travelling up a 100 story building at 20mph,you don’t feel any heavier than you do standing on the ground stationary. Likewise, if the elevator is descending at a constant velocity you don’t feel any lighter. The only change in gravity is at the ends of the trip when the elevator is accelerating and decelerating.

    You could be travelling upward at mach 4 and feel no different than you do on the ground as long as there’s constant velocity and the ride is smooth enough.

    Once the ship reaches terminal velocity the inhabitants will be accelerated to the same extent as if the ship weren’t falling.

  9. Steven Novellaon 06 Jun 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Why would you assume constant velocity. They were in freefall above the atmosphere most of the time. It wasn’t until near the end of the fall that they entered the atmosphere and would have felt some Gs from deceleration.

  10. Oracon 06 Jun 2013 at 4:36 pm

    My goodness. How could you have forgotten the magic blood resurrecting Kirk? 🙂

    Also, imagine the implications of a cargo hold of 72 genetically engineered humans with blood that could regenerate the dead? There’d be wars over the control of such a resource.

  11. ccbowerson 06 Jun 2013 at 5:49 pm

    “Far worse than falling quickly out of orbit, however, is what happens when the ship is in free-fall. The ship’s artificial gravity goes out with the power. The ship is in free-fall.”

    I just want to point out that being in orbit is also a “free fall” state, so even if they correctly had the ship staying in an orbit, the lack of artificial gravity would also cause near-weightlessness. The difference being that being in orbit means that the object is also moving “sideways” (i.e. it has tangential velocity) so that the “fall” occurs in a way to form curved path that we call an orbit.

  12. Ztarron 06 Jun 2013 at 7:01 pm

    I enjoy having the science critiqued by scientists, but I haven’t had much confidence in their skills at critiquing story, plot, character, from a creative pov—which isn’t as subjective as non-artists might believe. The film’s strongest feature is its dialogue, pacing, and emotional impact. It was funny, thrilling, and created an emotional investment between audience and characters.

    Bad writing has a lack of someone you care about (like Star Wars prequels), characters that you can’t describe without using their physical appearance, and tells rather than shows.

    STID doesn’t fail at any of these. Take note of the scene where Kirk and Spock are discussing the plan to take Cumberbatch to Killerprise with him; the purpose of this scene is to let the audience know Kirk’s full plan. Mediocre writing would use Spock as the ignorant character that is given the info the audience needs. Instead, the writers take the opportunity to SHOW you something about Spock—he’s intelligent, deductive, and intuitive about Kirk’s thinking—by having Spock explain to Kirk how he knows his plan without being told via a series of logical assumptions. THAT is solid writing.

    The Kirk/Spock death scene is also quite clever; the original Wrath of Khan was emotionally impact full because it killed a beloved character. But Spock sacrificing himself is something we expect from Spock, and manipulating Khan is something we expect from Kirk. STID doesn’t just flip the scene for difference sake: it’s showing us that Kirk is choosing to think like Spock (and resolving his irresponsible command behaviour Pike gave him shit for) and Spock figured out how to operate like Kirk (and being deceptive, which Kirk gave him shit for not doing). It almost makes it MORE of a deep bond moment because they reach this emotional scene by being so familiar with each other’s thinking.

    And the anti-revenge/terror message was fairly solid too. It addresses the fact that Starfleet is about exploring, not military conquest, and should take a strong stance on taking the moral high ground. These are core Roddenberry Trek ideals.

    You also get this line by Spock about miracles “There’s no such thing.”

    Story-wise, this film is pretty solid, especially when compared to other Trek films, which either suffer from complete garbage writing (all TNG movies), or are romanticized by fans via nostalgia. Trek is about popularizing space exploration and has always been plagued with crappy science. But the point is to glamorize space travel and present humanist values. STID accomplishes both and will likely bring in a ton of new young Trek fans.

    If you’re a writer of fiction, this story is nothing but solid character-wise. It’s definitely great by Trek movie standards, and most negativity about it comes from the hispter attitude oldschool nerds tend to take so they can prove they’re too cool for reboot new school!

  13. ConspicuousCarlon 06 Jun 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Please add a talk page for the dash/I issue.

  14. majendieon 06 Jun 2013 at 9:20 pm

    They do actually state how far away they arrive from the Earth, very specifically, and incorrectly. This was actually the one thing that irritated me the most.

    When they are pulled out of warp by the Big Bad, they say “We have arrived approximately 275,000km from Earth”. However, when they arrive, you can see that they are clearly very close to the moon, and in fact slightly further out. So they are beyond the moon. About 3 seconds with Google will tell you that the moon is approximately 384,500km from Earth.

    Apart from obviously bad science, as mentioned above, this kind of thing is one of my biggest gripes in movies. 3 SECONDS. Don’t make a definitive statement that I can prove is outrageously wrong in less time than it takes to say it. There was also zero plot reason for that particular statement of distance (although both how far they said they were and how far they actually were are both way too far to simply fall to Earth in about 5 minutes. Why didn’t they fall to the moon?) – how do they *not* have someone on staff checking definitive statements like this and saying “Oh, guys, uh, just re-record that bit (I don’t think you can even see the guy saying it at the time) to say 395,000 and we’re clear. It means nothing to the plot whatsoever.”

    OH – one last thing – when Kahn was shooting into the meeting room, why did they not shoot him with FRIKKING LASER BEAMS FROM SPACE? Of which they have many. Many, many, many.

    – A

  15. autumnmonkeyon 06 Jun 2013 at 10:54 pm

    The cold fusion bomb froze all magma 20 kilometers deep and 50 kilometers wide. How do you like that, science Nazis? 😀

    I’ll provide answers to the other objections as soon as I can think of some.

  16. Michael Ashmanon 07 Jun 2013 at 12:23 am

    Hi there,

    Long term lurker, first time commenter here.

    You may enjoy this short video on Khan’s Blood:


  17. chrisjon 07 Jun 2013 at 1:47 am

    I second Ztarr’s comments. I believe they are spot on. I found it particularly refreshing to see a movie with an anti-revenge message. There is far too much revenge mongering in Hollywood. I thought the movie was fantastic! I don’t mind admitting that I was emotionally affected by the reversed Kirk/Spock death scene. My favorite line from Ztarr’s comments, “…most negativity about it comes from the hispter attitude oldschool nerds tend to take so they can prove they’re too cool for reboot new school!” Thanks Ztarr.

    I also want to commend your analysis of the science, Steve. Having Kirk violate the prime directive to save Spock was an important plot point, but surely the writer could have come up with a scientifically more accurate and interesting danger to put Spock in. Why not pay someone a few bucks to look over the script and vet it for science howlers? This always amazes me.

  18. Bruce Woodwardon 07 Jun 2013 at 4:57 am

    Ztarr is right and so is Steve.

    Logic circuits often need to be shut down in order for the narrativium circuits to function properly. Though, I do think there are times when the logic side (was that left or right Steve?… natch) screams out in unearthly pain.

    I was not a trekkie before these reboots, despite really enjoying TNG, Voyager and Enterprise ( which was my favourite, which probably tells you a lot), and these films have definitely given the franchise a new life it desperately needed.

    Perhaps in these reviews Steve should give the film a science rating (Out of Prometheuses/Promethei was it not?) and an enjoyment rating?

  19. Jared Olsenon 07 Jun 2013 at 5:13 am

    Haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’ve scrolled past the text just to post this comment; keep up the movie reviews! You guys always have a good lock on the science (duh!) but also the story-telling and artistic merit of the films. I reckon it should be expanded into a regular segment of the show, after all, almost every film released has some science in it (if that is indeed a requisite for review on a science/skeptic podcast).

  20. Steven Novellaon 07 Jun 2013 at 7:28 am

    I’m down with the reboot, and as I said, I enjoyed the movie. I just want it to be better.

    I think it would have been more effective if the security vs peaceful exploration theme were explored more fully and in a more nuanced way, rather than just making the Admiral an evil treasonous warmonger. What was his motivation? Why was he such an ass? The audience was never forced to really confront the issue of what sacrifices we are willing to make for the sake of security.

    And the Admiral had a rational position to take – the Federation is being threatened by Klingons and Romulans – both powerful conquering races. And Vulcan was just obliterated. I think people would be feeling unsafe, and wouldn’t mind a few dreadnaughts in orbit around Earth.

    I liked the reverse Kirk/Spock scene, but it was too contrived, and Spock’s “Kaaaahn” was gratuitous. They’re trying a bit too hard.

    There was too much fighting, and not enough of the crew thinking their way out of situations or problems. I can forgive this – these are younger versions of these characters. But I sure hope they move in a more intelligent direction in future movies.

    Kahn was a great character and I love Cumberbatch, but I think they could have explored his motivations and plans a bit further. They missed an opportunity. I also would have loved it if Kahn escaped at the end in the Dreadnaught and just vanished – imagine unleashing that on the Universe. That would have been a bold choice.

  21. locutusbrgon 07 Jun 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Think my screen name gives it away so not surprising I am a big fan. First off liked the movie. I think what I like best about the reboot is the pace. The original series had a a kind of plodding rhythm to it that the reboot discards for high paced action. That and the casting is excellent. I think I do like Simon pegg better as scotty.

    I agree with steve up to a point. Some of the things he points out are plot contrivances but not glaring ones. Except the transporter the “transwarp transport”. I call star trek BS on that. That would be a game changer for the bedrock of the “start trek universe”. Starships. Why have ships if you can send a robot to a planet and transport there in seconds. Why be away from family and friends.

    As big fan I will say that the “Dreadnought” story line is a rip-off of a a star trek novel written a long time ago star trek TOS writer Diane Carey. So that bothered me. Same ending destroyed and not rebuilt because starfleet is not a “millitary” organization.

    I agree overall with Ztarr said about the writing. Except star trek fans a whole are obsessed with continuity. The reboot was to give them freedom in writing. That said doing a kirk spock death switch was neither surprising or interesting as a fan. You know in the second movie they are not going to kill off Chris Pine. So that leads your mind immediately to the fact “well how are they going to bring him back” and Khan’s blood was obvious. You are not doing that scene for anyone but star trek fans since it makes no sense unless you have seen the original.
    The other problem with Khan’s blood regenerating dead tissue. I mean really. In the original movie they had khan with grey hair in 20 years, based on this reality he is immortal. That is a big change and to me a writing short cut.
    The original death scene was compelling because when it was written it was to be Nimoy’s swan song. Money and a director credit really “resurrected” Spock. The point was you really walked out of The wrath of Khan theater saying,”wow he’s dead”. So I may not be a scientist nit picker but I hate lazy plot contrivances.

    To steve: the Altruistically motivated evil Admiral is a repeating star trek theme I don’t have a problem with a superficial review. I think megalomania is required to be an admiral. Started with the back story of Kodos in the TOS. Here is the short list of the same character repeated. Admiral Satie, Admiral Cartwright, Admiral Pressman, Admiral Leyton, Admiral Dougherty, Admiral Ross, Admiral Jameson. There is more. It has been done to death. I don’t need an in depth review of why this one is not truly bad just misguided.

    Overall nothing killed my enjoyment, I did not notice any of the other science picks noted above until I read them, except for the McCoy arm thing. I call star trek BS on that too.

  22. ccbowerson 07 Jun 2013 at 9:25 pm

    I think I understand some of the above commenters’ sentiments. Although I “get” that these comments on the science of movies (Prometheus being the other one i remember) are not movie reviews, the bad science contained in the movie interacts with the quality of the movie from a creative, artistic and storytelling perspective. What I mean is that the bad science will probably impact our impression of the movie, and how much that is should impact how much we care about the liberties taken with the science. I guess I feel that commenting on the science like this would be better if there was slightly more a movie review feel to these posts.

    Although Steve has sayed that he “enjoyed” STID, he does not distinguish his enjoyment of the movie relative to what he said about Prometheus (calling that one good, not great). Prometheus was a terrible movie from nearly every angle, but perhaps not unwatchable. I have not watched STID, but I gather from others that it is a pretty good movie.

    I rarely/never make trips to movie theatres these days so I’ll be waiting a while to see it.

  23. ChrisHon 07 Jun 2013 at 10:54 pm

    I have only skimmed the article and the comments. We plan on going to see the movie tomorrow, Saturday evening. I also have at least five hours of podcasts left on my mp3 player, so I may get to SGU on Sunday morning. But this comment jumped out at me:


    If the ship is falling at a constant velocity, then gravity inside would be 1 G.

    That is very location dependent. The the acceleration of gravity is quite dependent on how far away you are from the large mass. The movement from “constant velocity” generates zero acceleration, therefore no additional acceleration. The only acceleration is Force/m2 = G(m1/r^2). If “r” is large, then the acceleration noted by Force/mass is very small. Especially if m2 is a planet, and m1 is a ship.

    I have not seen the movie, I have no idea how close the planet is during this bit. I was just bugged by the confusion between velocity and acceleration (don’t get me started on the difference between mass and force!).

    (Note acceleration is change with velocity per unit time. Velocity is a vector, so changes in direction are also acceleration. Which explains centripetal acceleration (and with mass: force). Many years ago at Disneyland I rode the “California Screamin'” roller coaster many times. The big loop had an almost perfect one G pull, so you could almost drink a cup of tea without spilling.)

  24. LDoBeon 07 Jun 2013 at 11:34 pm

    I understand the difference between mass and acceleration and the nuance that distance from the planet plays a large role in how much force gravity will impart between two masses.

    The reason why I gave such a simple answer was because the guy was asking about terminal velocity and whether one would feel a difference in gravity at terminal velocity. Of course thanks to full Newtonian dynamics, gravity’s strength is a gradient from very strong at the center of mass, decreasing with distance from the center.

    Anyway, I took the question to essentially be: once the ship is at terminal velocity, would gravity feel the same to someone inside the ship as if the ship were stationary in height and not falling? Simple answer yes, since the ship is no longer accelerating at terminal velocity.

    More detailed answer: no, since as the ship falls toward the center of mass even at constant velocity, acceleration on the inhabitants of the ship due to gravity increases, so they’ll feel heavier the closer to the ground they get. In a perfectly smooth and balanced situation that is; where the ship isn’t tumbling, and manages to resist further acceleration and keep its own velocity constant as it approaches the ground. Perhaps with rockets and whatnot.

  25. ChrisHon 08 Jun 2013 at 12:47 am

    Okay, I can’t really assess what you are saying until I see the movie.

    It all has to do with distance. Terminal velocity is dependent on actually having an atmosphere that produces drag. That atmosphere density’s also varies with distance from the ground. Plus, there is a point where the angle on impact to the atmosphere results in flames and not “terminal velocity.”

    Again, for the third time, I have not seen the movie. Despite having a degree in aerospace engineering, I usually suspend belief. I often accept that a large Enterprise class ship can enter this planet’s atmosphere and land safely without being detected. I just think it is the magic “shield” explanation.

    But this is a statement I cannot let stand: “I understand the difference between mass and acceleration”

    AAAGH! It is the difference between “mass” and “force”, and then the difference between “velocity and acceleration.”

  26. ChrisHon 08 Jun 2013 at 1:27 am

    Once upon a time a long time ago I was picked to help with an engineering consulting job for a European company. I was chosen because like my (German) lead on the project I did not grow up in the USA, I was comfortable with metric units. Needless to say, I was very upset that this British company had decided to not use Newtons as a measure of force, but “kilogram-force.” AAArgh!

  27. ChrisHon 08 Jun 2013 at 1:29 am

    Late time typing: (German) lead on the project, I did not grow up in the USA….”

  28. LDoBeon 08 Jun 2013 at 3:15 pm

    I’m not being clear in my explanation and I see the mistake I made. Yes I meant VELOCITY and acceleration. Sorry about that.

    I don’t think that we disagree either, I was attempting to answer the guy’s question in the same terms he asked it. I may be confused about what Pdeboer asked specifically.

    I also see that my first comment left out the @Pdeboer tag I was sure I added at the top.

  29. jeryoon 08 Jun 2013 at 3:29 pm

    People, let us not forget that this a FICTIONAL story presented in a motion picture format for ENTERTAINMENT, it is not presented as a scientific treatise on physics. The “science” used in the movie was for entertainment and to further & augment the STORY! Please accept it as presented and not on the impossibilities of the “science” used in this FICTIONAL story. Authors have been making up “science” since Jules Verne, and probably before. Please accept the movie as the entertainment it is not as a presentation of someone’s theories to be analyzed.

    Even on the Big Bang Theory, tv show in where 4 scientists are constantly correcting and bad mouthing another scientist’s theories, they accept Star Wars and Star Trek without criticism.

  30. ChrisHon 09 Jun 2013 at 2:21 am

    I just saw the movie. This bit: “First, it was never clear how close the ship was to the Earth in the first place.”, the dialogue has them several thousands of kilometers away, and the moon is fills the background behind the ships. I would say that they are far enough away to be in an orbit.

    Oh, and the thrusters that shoot down, they would have have to be of fuel/oxygen mixture to provide the thrust because they are flames. Something like your basic rocket… which would be hard to store safely. That is the thing with propulsion, you have to throw stuff out the back very fast.

    Also, when the ship comes out of the water to hover over the volcano, those thrusters were not in use. Of course it is just using some magic forces. Much like the ones that plug up a volcano.

  31. ghulseon 09 Jun 2013 at 11:14 am

    Enjoyed reading about the bad science aspects of ‘Into The Darkness.’ I completely missed the gravity issue during the Enterprise’s freefall and most of the other things Steve mentioned. But the problems with the film for me had to do with general implausibility, even if I couldn’t quite put a finger on the science behind the implausibility. I must be getting to be cranky in my old age, but the opening scene with Spock inside the volcano seemed just plain ridiculous and, as Steve said, highly contrived. For me, there was so much in the film that didn’t work. For instance, Spock yelling “Khan!!” was completely out of character (along with his relationship with Uhura). One of the final sequences when Spock is jumping around on top of moving aircraft having a fistfight with Khan. Khan’s super human abilities were preposterous as well. Kirk kicking some metal contraption until it aligns up perfectly with some other doohickey. Good grief! Having the roles of Kirk and Spock reversed in the dying scene seemed only farcical, adding nothing to the plot except as a gratuitous nod to the original Wrath of Khan movie. I continue to be surprised with the positive reception of this film. I thought it was pure dreck. Just Hollywood using violence and special effects and CGI gimmickry in place of a good solid script. I wonder what Harlan Ellison thinks of it?

  32. Moeon 09 Jun 2013 at 4:24 pm

    The fall to Earth kept me thinking for a while and I feel the need to throw my results into the public.

    Short introduction of myself:
    I’m a German programmer and stumbled upon the SGU around mid-2011. The podcast is brilliant!

    I saw STID two weeks ago. First with a buddy of mine, who is a Star Trek fan. When I saw that scene where they dropped onto earth, I wasn’t paying much attention to all the information the viewer gets. I knew they fell way too fast, but not exactly how much… Luckily, the following weekend my parents visited me. My father is somewhat a trekkie himself, so I watched it for a second time.

    Now, brace yourselves, for I have made some sloppy calculations! ;D

    I will split this in three parts (at the end are a few sources):
    1) The setup of the scene. What numbers are given etc…
    2) What would have happened in real life
    3) The fun part: What if the Enterprise would have traveled 360.000 km in the given time?
    Also: how heavy Earth would have to be for this to happen.

    Oh wait! Before I start, let me propose a new title for that movie:
    — Star Trek: Into (physical) Daftness —

    Ok, now I’m good to go.
    (Please note that I’m referring to the German version of the movie. Reading around the web, I noticed that the viewer gets slightly different information about the positioning of the Enterprise!)

    -=# 1) The Setup of the Scene #=-
    After the Enterprise drops out of the warp tunnel, an android on the ship says: “We are 20 000 km from Earth’s Moon” (about 12 400 miles). On the following outside shots, it looks like the Ship is – looking from Earth – next to the Moon (not in front or behind). So it’s safe to say that they are about 380 000 km (236 000 miles) from Earth. For the next 20 minutes the ship seems to be motionless (relative to the Moon). Then, out of nowhere, the Enterprise starts to fall. I listened really careful the second time – no hint is given why that suddenly happens… (Probably Earth was buys with pulling on so many object, that it simply overlooked the Enterprise :D)
    From the start of the fall until touching the clouds, about 10 minutes pass (I took the time).
    The resulting cruise speed is pretty astonishing: ~2.28 million km/h (1.47 million mph) 😀

    All known Numbers in short:

    Distance to Earth: de = 380 000 km (236 000 miles)
    Distance to moon: dm = 20 000 km (12 400 miles)
    Travel Time: t = 600 s
    Earth mass me = 5.9*10^24 kg
    Moon mass mm = 7,4*10^22 kg
    Ship mass ms = 3^10^9 kg (see [1]. I know it’s not the same ship, but other versions of the Enterprise weigh about that too)

    -=# 2) What would have happened #=-
    Using Newtonian gravity laws, I calculated the distance from Moon, towards Earth, where the gravitational pull of both would cancel each other out. Result: nearly 40 000 km (~24 800 miles) away from the Moon, both forces are about equal [3]. Therefore, the Enterprise should have “dropped” onto the moon (at least in the German version ;))
    Next I wanted the exact numbers for the travel time (with respect to dynamic gravitational pull – due to the distance). To my shame, I wasn’t able to find/use the appropriate formulas… well, let me put it another way: Before I was able to find the formulas, I remembered that I had a cool little program on my pc, which would allow me to simulate that scene: Universe Sandbox.
    And so I went ahead and placed a – wait for it – teapot (with a diameter of 400 meters and a mass of 3 million tons) 20 000 km away from the Moon. After two days, the teapot crashed onto it 😀 How long would the Enterprise have taken to reach Earth?
    Placing the teapot far away from Moon but still 380 000 km away from Earth, it fell for 12 days! The final velocity was about ~46 000 km/h, pretty far from the cruise speed in the movie (2.2 Million km/h). Considering the decrease of gravitational pull by r², the maximum speed should be much higher. Let’s see…

    -=# 3) How the travel speed could be achieved and what would the impact be like #=-
    Note: I do think this following part would require a relativistic approach…? But neither I nor Universe Sandbox can perform such a thing. So: Newton all the way! Just don’t take the following numbers too serious. If you can calculate the exact values, be my guest 🙂

    Toying around with Earth’s mass, I found a value which would accelerate the enterprise fast enough:
    10 times the mass of the sun! Or 3 000 000 times heavier than it actually is! Short before reaching earth, the teapot was flying about 6% light speed:
    More than 64 000 000 km/h (39 000 000 mph)!!! 😀
    Remember: they managed to stop the ship within seconds! Yeaaa… right 😀

    For the final part I’m really going on a limb. I know the necessary calculations are much more difficult, especially if one takes the geometry of the enterprise into account. But… whatever 😀
    Let us put this impact into perspective and compare it with the meteor exploding above Russia [2] earlier this year.
    The meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere with about 67 000 km/h (41,750 mph) and a mass of ~10 000 tons. The Enterprise is at least 300 times heavier and, according to the simulation, had been nearly 3000 times (!) faster. Take a look at the formula for kinetic energy: E = 1/2 * m * v². The v² is really kicking in here.

    The energy turnover from that impact would have been – grab your skullcap so it doesn’t pop off – 300 000 000 times greater! xD

    I don’t think there’d be a sequel to that ;D

    Ok, I’m done.
    I hope I don’t enrage anyone with my corner-cutting physics 😉

    -=# Sources and Stuff #=-
    Calculation for gravitational equilibrium:
    de = distance: Earth to equilibrium point
    dm = distance: Moon to that point
    dem = distance: Earth to Moon

    Fg = (G * m1*m2)/r^2 | Gravitational Force
    dem = de + dm | Distance from Earth to Moon = distance from Earth to equilibrium point, plus distance from the Moon to that point

    (G*me*ms)/de^2 = (G*mm*ms)/dm^2 |:G |:ms
    me/de^2 = mm/dm^2 |:me |*dm^2 |^1/2
    dm/de = (mm/me)^1/2 |*de | de = dem – dm | (mm/me)^1/2 = 0,112
    dm = 0,112 * (dem – dm) = 0,112*dem – 0,112*dm |+0,112 dm
    1,112*dm = 0,112*dem |:1,112
    dm = (0,112/1,112)*dem
    dm = 0,101*dem |dem = 380 000 km
    dm = 38 380 km

  33. Steven Novellaon 09 Jun 2013 at 9:06 pm

    jeryo – We know it’s fiction.
    But –
    In my opinion science fiction that get’s the science right is better. I forgive bending the science when it’s interesting and necessary for the plot. I am critical of gratuitous bad science that’s just lazy.

    But mostly – it’s just a fun vehicle to discuss science and technology. SciFi is a futurism thought experiment. We’re just participating.

  34. ChrisHon 10 Jun 2013 at 1:25 am

    Moe: “380 000 km”

    Which is closer to what I think I heard in the English dialogue. They do seem to talk fairly fast.

    I have not taken a calculator to your figures, but I agree that it would have been more likely that the Enterprise end up on the moon. And that there be more structural damage. Just a feeling from after seeing what v2 does, along with calculating some multi-G impacts. Ouch.

    Oh, and something that was not taken into account: in order for them to have “gravity” on different angles, there would have been some spin. So what about the rotational forces?

    By the way, I thought the Dreadnaught crashing into future San Francisco was awesome. Though not quite as catastrophic has I would have thought given the diameter of the saucer versus the height of the skyscrapers.

  35. ChrisHon 10 Jun 2013 at 1:26 am

    Rats! I wish I new how Moe got superscripts for velocity squared! Cut and paste test from Moe’s comment: v²

  36. ChrisHon 10 Jun 2013 at 1:27 am

    Le sigh. Should have cut and pasted from Moe.

  37. BillyJoe7on 10 Jun 2013 at 6:33 am




  38. BillyJoe7on 10 Jun 2013 at 6:34 am


  39. locutusbrgon 10 Jun 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Yes it is a fictional story and yes if you want to do a complete fantasy you can do whatever you want.

    No one points at superman and says well why does he have a cape whats the cape for why does he need it. Because he is not superman without the cape. Star trek is not star trek without the ship. The ship is not real the warp drive is not real the physics is not real. You suspend your disbelief IE there is a superman, you accept the cape. What you would not accept is that superman suddenly got into a jam and shot spider webs to get out of it. Yes they are all equally fallacious, but the webs destroys suspension of disbelief. Ruins the experience.

    Star trek has always tried to present some semblance of “reality”. If there were aliens-space travel-spaceships- advanced technology in the future. If Spock suddenly flew(unassisted) around the volcano to get out. It is no longer star trek.
    This is the problem of intellectual laziness by writers. If fractures your suspension of disbelief and bludgeons you with a reminder that this is all BS. A easy solution instead of continuity or imagination. It fractures the story and it fractures the rich science history of the franchise for fans. I also find it intellectually insulting. We’re to dumb to notice.

    I think this answers your point as well Moe.

  40. babelfishon 10 Jun 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Theory: STID was used to save money on the production of the Star Wars reboot. I don’t have any real evidence to support this but since JJ Abrams is involved in both movies and there are a number of scenes in STID that were eerily similar to Star Wars scenes while not being similar to past Star Trek movies I think there might be something to this.

    here are some examples that stood out to me:

    1) Klingon ships chasing the Shuttle and the shuttle squeezes through a narrow opening – doesn’t that exact thing happen when they explode the deathstar in Star Wars?

    2a) Kahn’s hand-to-hand combat with Klingons looked a lot like some of the fight scenes in Star Wars. Much closer to a Jedi vs the world than the typical Kirk vs Gorn scene.

    2b) Kahn’s hand-to-hand combat with Spok on flying vehicles is like a jedi vs a bounty hunter on flying vehicles.

    3) The enterprise lifting out of the water is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker lifting his fighter out of the swamp.

    4) The blown up moon is like the blown up Deathstar.

    5) Thrusters from the underside of the Enterprise is something I’d expect to see in Star Wars instead of Star Trek.

    6) I can’t place it exactly but the scene where Scotty sees the Dreadnaught really reminded me of Star Wars.

    7) oh and Scotty’s little friend looks a lot like an alien i’d expect to see in Star Wars.

    Perhaps some of the contrived plot is to fit in these Trek-Wars scenes and save money. I agree that the movie was fun but disappointing because it was not the Trek we grew up with. It did not give us a utopian society brought on by technical advances.

  41. bthomas001on 10 Jun 2013 at 10:30 pm

    @Bruce Woodward

    There have been instances (probably just creative writing) where methods have been devised to transport through the shields from time to time. Sometimes they need to be very close to the ship to transport “between the shield generators”. Sometimes they’re able to “tune” the transporter beam to the precise shield frequency. Sometimes they employ tachyon bursts to force a reset of the shield harmonics. I believe once they used a beam that was slightly out of phase with the rest of the universe and thus doesn’t interact with normal matter and energy.

    I sort of assumed that the advanced weaponry and starship design afforded them a little leeway to employ one or more of these methods to a redesigned transporter system. NOT any kind of Trekkie here ;D

  42. Bruce Woodwardon 11 Jun 2013 at 4:24 am


    OK, I accept the use of the transporter in that case. I think I got it wrong anyway in retrospect, I think I mixed scenes up in my head after the film.

    Just listened to the podcast with the review… damn you skeptics for pointing all the holes out with even more clarity, I had happily turned my brain off and despite the “cold fusion” nonsense had managed to let most other things go during the actual film.

    The thing that gets me most is that they so should have let Khan go with the battleship and Kirk should have stayed dead for at least one film. Or even forever, they have a new timeline, why not Game Of Thrones the crap out of it… change things and push the boundaries?

  43. Bruce Woodwardon 11 Jun 2013 at 5:56 am

    In my trek through SGU back episodes, I just hit episode 182, where one of the days in history is the death of none other than the death of Ricardo Montalbán… the original Khan…


  44. Waydudeon 11 Jun 2013 at 8:46 pm

    i also really enjoyed the movie and thought it was fun and well made. I discovered the secret to enjoying movies I will probably be disappointed by is to get all the spoilers ahead of time. I learned this from the Matrix sequels. If you go in expecting too much you will invariably be disappointed. I just saw STID after I listened to the podcast, and a bunch of other stuff, and I was able to just sit back, eat popped corn and enjoy the spectacle.

    Everything above aside, the thingI found the most disappointing was the BIG REVEAL. So Kirk says , “who are you really?” or something, and Cumberbatch replies “Khan” with big music as if that is supposed to mean something. At this point, there is no space seed, no Wrath, They don’t know him from shit so who really cares who he is?

    Except us. The movie was so laden with WOK references almost to the point of silliness. After he said that, I wouldn’t have batted and eyelash if he just looked over at the camera and winked.

    Besides, I always got the idea that Khan (not Kahn Steve!) was his title. From that part of the world, and from the plot of SPace Seed it makes sense, he is the Khan of his people. So when he just says “Khan”, its like asking someone their name and they say “Lord”. Or you go to England and meet Charles and he says “Hi, I’m Prince”. That only works if you are a brilliant musician or Michael Jacksons son.

    that whole scene only made sense in light of STWOK. If you hadn’t seen it or ever heard of it, then its just “um, ok.” He might as well have said, “Hello Jim, I’m Khan”. Curse you Eric Bana! Hello Christopher, I’m Nero. wtf.

    A much better scene would have revealed the character and his arrogance as something that is new to everyone. Something like “I… am Khan Noonien Singh. On earth, 300 years ago I was a prince… with power over millions…” And then you get a sense of the person he is instead of wink wink nod nod, say no more.

    THe ship (they got from the Mudd incident… did u hear that?) going through sideways, ripped off from Empire. The whole movie just shows Abrams doesn’t get Star Trek, but he makes fun movies. I for one am looking forward to the next Star Wars where no one cares about the science.

    Just make sure you show Bob Fett clawing his way out of that Sarlacc Pit!

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