Discussion about scientific backing of space movies draws Paly students

Aaron Chum, Author

“Out of This World: The Science of Space Movies,” a talk on the physics behind several iconic science fiction movies, provided an entertaining look  for Paly students and faculty  into science’s role in Hollywood.  The talk took place Saturday at the Palo Alto Square.

The Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in conjunction with the Palo Alto International Film Festival presented the talk.

Paly students took advantage of the presentation to earn extra credit for their science classes. Physics and astronomy teacher Josh Bloom gave extra credit to Physics 1 students who attended the presentation.

Adam Weiner, a physics teacher at The Bishops School in La Jolla, Calif., hosted the presentation. Weiner has made presentations at places such as Comic-Con and also wrote “Don’t Try This at Home! The Physics of Hollywood Movies”.

The presentation consisted mostly of Weiner analyzing certain scenes in different movies, pointing out the scientific backing or inaccuracy behind them. Movies reviewed included “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Apollo 13” (1995), “Event Horizon” (1997), “Armageddon” (1998), “October Sky” (1999), and “Star Trek” (2009). 

Weiner covered a variety of topics presented in the movies such as black holes, distant alien civilizations, Einstein’s special theory of relativity and warp drives.

“Is it ever possible to go to distant places in the galaxy?” Weiner asked. “Go to see strange civilizations which no man has seen before? Well, we don’t know. But sci-fi fans can always live in hope.”

Also speaking were Science and Technology Council Director Andy Maltz, visual effects supervisor Richard R. Hoover and screenwriter Philip Eisner. 

Hoover, the visual effects supervisor of “Armageddon” (1998), spoke about the need to balance scientific accuracy and action. Specifically, Hoover talked about the asteroids that were depicted in “Armageddon.” 

“We got as many pictures from NASA as we could and it [the asteroid] looked like a little white blurry thing with a tail on it,” Hoover said. “We saw some illustrations that looked like Mr. Potato Head with craters on it. And we decided that that wasn’t good enough for the movie. So, Michael [director Michael Bay] wanted it to look dangerous and menacing and sharp.”

Eisner, whose portfolio includes “Event Horizon” (1997) and “Mutant Chronicles” (2008), echoed Hoover’s sentiments as he described the difficulty of writing an interesting script while maintaining a scientific basis.

“It’s a fight keeping the physics in a film,” Eisner said.

Junior Scotty Bara attended the presentation and thought it was entertaining.

“I thought it was interesting how movie makers could get away with making the physical realism so believable,” Bara said. “The presenter really seemed to know what he was talking about.”