Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Your choice of least facepalm-able space travel mechanism

  1. Jan 21, 2014 #1
    Your choice of least "facepalm-able" space travel mechanism

    If I may use the "facepalm" meter of Sci-Fi hardness.


    The film Gravity, in which only the astronauts in your audience would complain loudly about technical details such as how quickly Sandra took off her space suit, has an incredibly low facepalm index.

    Whereas, in 2012 a boffin runs into the room proclaiming that the neutrinos have mutated and they're gathering in the Earth's core. At which point more than half the audience facepalm, giving this film a high facepalm index.

    And just for the sake of completeness let's use a highly subjective scale in which;
    An fp (φπ) index of 0 means no-one in your entire audience in the whole world would facepalm at a particular notion.
    An φπ index of 1 means every single audience member will collectively slap their foreheads in disappointment at a particular notion.

    So, I'm looking for various space travel mechanisms used in science-fiction and fantasy (in any medium) and your φπ index.

    Remember, just because a story features FTL travel doesn't automatically give it an φπ of 1. Personally, however, I'd give FTL by Spice a higher value than FTL by Alcubierre drive.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 21, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 21, 2014 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    The spice didn't cause FTL travel by magic, the spice gave the navigators superhuman thinking ability, which was needed to control the ships without the use of computers, which were forbidden.
  4. Jan 21, 2014 #3
    Good point. In order to illustrate the point better I'll replace it with something else that'll have a high φπ. Any suggestions?
  5. Jan 21, 2014 #4
    The fact that, in Gravity, they jumped from one space station to another while both stations were in different orbits, is quite a large facepalm, if you ask me...It takes a whole lot of energy to get the delta v necessary to complete a proper transfer orbit without smashing into the target at thousands of miles per hour.

    Clooney pulling at the cords as if he were dangling from a cliff was perhaps another one (maybe there are arguments as to why that was occuring, but not many stand up to scrutiny).

    And how dare you facepalm at Dune!!! haha But in all seriousness, something like this would have to be weighted based on the the intended "hardness" of the sci-fi, no?

    One for me was the viper piloting in the new Battlestar Galactica. I personally enjoyed the show a great deal, but I had to strain to suspend my disbelief whenever they had a space battle scene...banking, and rolling, and spinning...ayayay. Pretty similar to star wars in that respect; but then, this is a mistake that pretty much every sci-fi movie makes when they have fast attack ships.
  6. Jan 21, 2014 #5
    For a maybe non cliche idea, i liked the hypertunnels of Cowboy Bebop, although they didnt really explained, how they deal with different orbits of planets... but stars move less compared to each other as far as i know.
  7. Jan 21, 2014 #6
    :redface: I had the feeling I'd get a bit of flak for the Dune comment haha, which I admit was completely misused. As soon as a janky FTL idea comes into my head I'll replace the example.

    You're right though, Clooney pulling on the cords as if he was under some unseen (and unmotivated) force was a bit distracting. Mostly because it was such an apparent plot device to get rid of him it felt more of a facepunch than palm.

    The BSG Vipers held fast to Newtonian principles didn't they? At least at the beginning of the show I remember they could reorient themselves with thrusters around their centre of mass whilst continuing to move along their original vector. Lower φπ than Star Wars space travel at least.

    With regards to a works intended "hardness" I suppose there's no harm in letting φπ be completely subjective and down to the individual. Taking the average would take into account the spread of people's tastes.

    Cowboy Bebop was apparently
    according to someone on another site.
  8. Jan 21, 2014 #7
    yea, they tend to keep moving in the same direction, but then they just hit the thrusters and head back the other way. They fight in asteroid fields too and it's basically a bob-and-weave through them. Starbuck fights that Scar ship and has the dogfight where she "pulls up" at the last second then banks around to recover.

    Sure, but my point was that if this is with regards to "facepalming", then one would imagine that in a movie where science is treated seriously and all other aspects of the plot adhere strictly to science, something being blatantly off would really irk you. Whereas if you are watching Farscape, a little blip here and there would hardly warrant a sneer, let alone a facepalm.
  9. Jan 21, 2014 #8
    I see what your saying. I'll roll with that. Earth-centric wormholes that continually popped up right in front of Crichton's nose irked me. Nothing comes to mind about Farscape's space travel though. Did they ever try to explain Starbursts or the fuel Moya needed?

    Ooh, suddenly remembered just after posting; Crichton's strange new air braking actually accelerating you to incredible speeds conceit of the shows core inciting incident. There you go, with respect for the intended softness, that was still a bit of a suspension of disbelief problem, for me at least. Not that it took anything away from the rest of the show, but just as a breakdown of very particular notions used within sci-fi.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 21, 2014
  10. Jan 21, 2014 #9


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Has anyone read "The Makeshift Rocket" by Poul Anderson? A spaceship powered by beer. Although the milieu is pretty high on the facepalm index (and national stereotypes abound to the point of racism, begorrah), the beer powered ship isn't too much of a stretch. Although I wouldn't want to drink anything capable of producing noticeable delta-v from it's CO2 content alone...

    On the high end of the scale, E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series had the inertialess drive. You activate your Bergenholm generator and nullify your inertia. Then you fire your rockets and instantly accelerate to the speed at which the drag from the interstellar medium counters your thrust. The more you think about that the less sense it makes. Particularly as intergalactic travel is thereby possible in a matter of weeks - Einstein? Didn't he make Battleship Potemkin?
  11. Jan 21, 2014 #10
    :biggrin: You got good cinema brain there.

    Great examples too! Bergenholm even sounds like the Applied Phlebotinum from the Mohs Scale of SF Hardness.
  12. Jan 21, 2014 #11


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Bergenholm was the inventor of the generator. If memory serves, he was an all round genius, handy in a fight, long-time friend of heroic protagonist and Mr Scott style genius mechanic. I think that's on TV Tropes too...
  13. Jan 21, 2014 #12

    Filip Larsen

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    While visually very well made, I had many facepalm moments with Gravity.

    Among the biggest was the complete lack of acceleration of free floating objects inside the various spacecrafts while said crafts clearly are rotating (like the broken space shuttle) or accelerating (like during reentry). Most of the implied orbits and orbital mechanics for the involved debris and stations also didn't seem right to me. The stations were too close to each other and the debris shouldn't strike twice since it came from "another orbit" (and with a speed that, if retrograde, would have made its perigee well into the atmosphere anyway). And then there is the silly moment, as others have mentioned, where George is "pulled away" from Sandra ... huh, couldn't they loose him in a more realistic way? Even assuming they were "hanging" towards earth the gravity gradient shouldn't have required the tether to carry more than a few tens of grams. And then there is Sandra getting raised CO2 levels when she is running out of oxygen. Somehow it doesn't seem very plausible to design a spacesuit to stop scrub CO2 when it runs out of oxygen. I guess that perhaps the storyboard had her just run out of of oxygen and then someone late in the production made them aware that you can't really feel lack oxygen and they then tried to fix that by introducing raised CO2 levels.

    Oh well.

    My price for least facepalm moments in a space movie goes to "Apollo 13", closely followed by "2001 : A Space Odyssey" (which, however well-made at the time, did had a few such moments).
  14. Jan 22, 2014 #13


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    The infinite improbability drive from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gets an unambiguous φπ of i from me.
  15. Jan 22, 2014 #14
    :approve: love it! As the ex-engineer I'd give it a φπ of j^2. Where you're not entirely sure who's doing all that facepalming, or whether they even have faces. Way to go Doug.

    The Bad News drive was pretty convincing though.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jan 22, 2014
  16. Jan 22, 2014 #15
    What were those moments for you?
  17. Jan 22, 2014 #16

    Filip Larsen

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The scenes on the moon mostly. In general people moves around like in earth gravity when indoors, but not when suited up outside (a common fallacy in sci-fi movies I guess). Also, when the small shuttle is in free fall on the trip to the excavation site people inside moved around like in earth gravity instead of being in free fall as expected. This is in contrast to the many other scenes in the movie where free fall is explicitly depicted. I never got around to finish reading "The Making of 2001" from Modern Library so I don't know if there is a good reason why the moon scenes "lack" so in this department.
  18. Jan 22, 2014 #17
    "Pretty similar to star wars in that respect; but then, this is a mistake that pretty much every sci-fi movie makes when they have fast attack ships. "

    I read that are no sharp turns in Babylon 5, i havent checked it.

    In Space Battleship Yamato, movement at least was also more realistic.
  19. Feb 5, 2014 #18


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I like the system in Al Reynolds Poseidon's Children trilogy (third not yet out). Essentially new theories beyond the standard model are developed that allow for novel ways to extract energy from matter allowing generation ships to get up to small but significant percentages of the speed of light. What I like about it is it doesn't rely on too much technobabble, in fact these new models aren't really explained at all aside from what they allow and their limitations. It's my interpretation that a mechanism is revealed to cause the annihilation of matter without needing large quantities of antimatter in a controlled way.

    Bottom line though it's nice because it's simple, not overly-explained and comes with rigorous capabilities AND limitations.
  20. Feb 5, 2014 #19
    Limitations and drama go hand in hand. Often actually selecting for certain limitations (that suit the story and even themes of the story you're trying to tell) makes for a more satisfying literary playground whilst limiting conceits.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Threads - choice least facepalm Date
Several lifestyle choices Jan 7, 2016
Dense exoplanet atmosphere, choice zeppelin vs. plane Feb 12, 2015