Top 5 Science Fiction Physics Fails

By: Shane Wednesday March 25, 2015 comments

How many times have you been watching a sci fi movie and thought, “Yeah, no way”?  

We’re going to discuss five of the most unforgivable physics fails in sci fi movies and TV.  It’s by no means a complete list.  Let us know in the comments if we missed your favorite physics fail!

1.) Superman saving Lois Lane

We could probably fill a dozen blog posts with Superman physics fails (or at least interesting physics questions) but this is probably the most famous – and most controversial.

The scenario: Lois Lane is falling from a from a building – let’s say accelerating at an initial rate of 32 feet per second per second.  Superman swoops to the rescue, catching her as she falls and flying her to safety.

The problem: Lois Lane is probably travelling up to 120 miles per hour at this point.  When Superman reaches out his arms to catch her, she sustains life-ending physical damage.

The controversy: Did Superman match her speed and decelerate?  Was there enough time?  It kind of depends on your perspective, and how much credit you’re willing to give Superman’s ability to bend physics – and how tall the building is.  Most people believe there isn’t quite enough time to slow down.

Our verdict: Almost definitely some broken bones and bruising.

2.) The magical gravity in Firefly

Firefly seems to at least make an effort to keep the physics legit…most of the time.  One major exception is in the episode “Out of Gas,” when the life support shuts off and the crew starts freezing to death and running out of air.

But the gravity on the ship seems to have no problems whatsoever.  Is it possible that there’s a special backup system in place? Of course – they could be totally different systems.  But in the show, there’s no mention of any kind of artificial gravity through spinning the ship or habitat, or keeping the ship accelerating at 1G – the standard hard sci fi mechanisms. 

Particularly in this episode, you’d think there’d be a line like, “Thank goodness the artificial gravity still works!” 

For now, we’ll just assume Mal’s ego and swagger has enough mass to establish gravity…just kidding.  We think it’s an oversight.

3.) George Clooney’s totally unnecessary death in Gravity

Gravity had the misfortune of being just accurate enough to make the few glaring physics fails really stand out.  For example, in the poignant scene where Stone and Kowalsky finally make it to the ISS, and they dramatically bounce along the side until Stone is lucky enough to get her foot stuck in the parachute wires of the backup Soyuz.

Kowalsky and Stone are still connected by a tether, which he for some reason unclips to “save” Stone.  The problem?  The two astronauts’ velocities relative to the ISS was zero.

Kowalsky dramatically tugging away from Stone?  Nope.  She could have literally just tugged him towards her, and they would have both been able to take shelter on the ISS.

4.) The Enterprise free-falling to Earth (and the crew somehow falling even faster)

This scene made a lot of people cranky for a lot of reasons.  Arguments abound for why the Enterprise could or could not have ended up free-falling to Earth in the first place (it probably would have ended up in orbit, or at least taken much longer to start free-falling), but what seems clear is that the crew would not have been tumbling and falling all over the place – at least not in the way they were.

If the ship was free-falling, and the crew was free-falling too, they would have experienced a zero gravity situation relative to the Enterprise.  The people plummeting through the ship to their presumed death?  Where’d they get the momentum to be falling so much faster than the ship? 

Even with the ship fluttering and possibly even rolling the way it was, it certainly wouldn’t have been pleasant conditions aboard, and everyone would have probably vomited, but no one would have hurtled to their death in the way it was shown in the movie.

5.) Any Sci Fi that thinks light speed is fast

Most sci fi shows give us some sense of faster-than-light travel, even if the mechanism isn’t explained at all.  But those shows where they engage “light speed” to travel between galaxies? Systems?  Even planet to planet?  It’s going to take more than a few seconds, let me tell you.

Light speed just means you’re travelling at the speed of light.  So, a light year is the distance light can travel in one year.  It’s nearly 6 trillion miles, which sounds like a lot, but let’s think about how far away stuff is in space.

To quote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big.  Really big.  You won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.”

The nearest galaxy to the Milky Way, Andromeda, is 2,538,000 light years away.  That means that travelling at light speed, you’re looking at a 2,538,000 year trip – so far away it doesn’t make sense to use miles as a unit.

Even reaching our closest neighboring stars in the Alpha Centauri system would take 4.3 years at light speed.  Light speed is just not a feasible method for travel beyond, say, Saturn.


Obviously, we’re just scratching the surface here.  There are way too many physics fails for us to even start counting.  Let us know what physics fails or misconceptions really bug you in the comments!



About the Author: Shane