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Mostly Science or Mostly Fiction? We Put these 2018 Summer Movies to the Test

Mostly Science or Mostly Fiction? We Put these 2018 Summer Movies to the Test

Summer blockbuster season is here, and an impressive crop of films feature science concepts. We sat down with scientists at the University of Texas at Austin to find out how close to reality the movie magic really is. So, grab some popcorn as we dust off our Science Truth Detector and see which 2018 films offer up sound science this summer.

Solo (May 25)

Plot summary: In a galaxy far, far away, a ragtag group of characters have daring escapades involving human-like droids, faster-than-light-speed travel and artificial gravity on the Millennium Falcon.

Hypotheses: Based on previous films in the franchise here are three sci-fi premises to run past the truth detector.

1) Human-like robots called droids can fly starships, fight battles, move around and interact like people.

"Robots in popular culture, such as C3PO, are far beyond the capabilities of robots today, as they can navigate and interact with the world fluidly, reason about a wide variety of novel situations using a breadth of previous knowledge and can understand subtleties of human interactions and social dynamics," said Scott Niekum, assistant professor of computer science who studies artificial intelligence. "We can currently replicate some limited features of these futuristic robots—for example, C3PO's language-translation capabilities—but are still a long way from fully autonomous robots that exhibit human-level competencies in a complex, unstructured world."

While some personal robots are starting to make their way into people's homes, they have no ability for physical manipulation, like picking up objects or opening doors.

"Manipulation in unstructured environments, such as homes, is still an open challenge in robotics and may not be solved for quite some time," Niekum said.

2) Faster-than-light travel is possible

Did the Millennium Falcon make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? Not likely, says Jacques Distler, a UT physics professor. Unless you also believe in time travel.

"Faster than light travel and being able to travel backwards in time are almost the same thing in the theory of relativity," Distler said. "I tend to think that time travel is so paradoxical that it's not ever going to be likely and neither is the other one."

3) Artificial gravity is available on starships.

Ever notice how all the characters in the Star Wars universe can walk around inside starships instead of floating? We're assuming they've perfected artificial gravity. A few other science fiction movies have shown a more realistic portrayal of how artificial gravity could work.

"There are lots of ways to produce artificial gravity of one sort or another. You can take something round and spin it and the people inside are pressed against the wall," Distler said. "The other is to just to burn your rocket continuously, but then you're pressed against the floor. So, artificial gravity in space is possible, but not with the way the ships are designed in Star Wars.

Our truth detector rating: Far, far away from reality.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (June 8)

Plot summary: In this documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, filmmakers examine some principles of child development that showed up in TV's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Hypothesis: Using strategies like labeling feelings and emotional empathy, while also being willing to tackle tough topics like death and divorce, is helpful for children.

Mister Rogers approached these strategies in a way that television programing never had and has not done since, prompting the release of this movie as the Children's Television Workshop turns 50.

"That show wasn't just something you watched, it was something that engaged you in a relationship," said Hallie Speranza, a lecturer in human development and family science and a master teacher at the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory. "It's so important that children have an adult that they feel secure with. For children who don't get that from their parents, they often turn to grandparents or siblings. For children who had no one else, they could watch Mr. Rogers."

Because Rogers spoke directly to the children watching, the show was very different than the cartoons and other children's shows at the time. Rogers tackled topics like racism, disability and divorce with compassion, teaching children in a way backed up by the science around human development, while simultaneously teaching adults how to talk about those things, Speranza says.

"When children don't learn to talk about their feelings they go outward as aggression or inward as anxiety," she said. "Fred Rogers did a very good job in teaching children to label their feelings and how to talk about them."

Our truth detector rating: It's a beautiful day for science.

Ant Man and the Wasp (July 6)

Plot summary: Ant Man teams up with new ally, the Wasp, to confront a dangerous new super villain in this sequel to the 2015 original, where quantum physics again makes amazing things possible.

Hypotheses: Two physics concepts feature prominently. 

1) Matter compression and expansion allow people to grow and shrink.

"The size of things like atoms are fixed by the physical constraints of nature," Distler said. "You can't just make them smaller or bigger by force of will."

The only way to make something smaller is to remove mass, and ridding oneself of chunks of atoms isn't possible. Another problem with shrinking and growing is the law of scaling. According to Distler, "Ants are a wonderful example of scaling laws in physics. If you scale them up to human size, they wouldn't be able to support their weight on their spindly legs. If you shrunk a human to ant size they would be ridiculously proportioned for that size thing."

2) Quantum technology makes it possible to walk through walls.

The villain in the film, Ghost, can do so and also uses this strategy to avoid getting hit in a fight.

"There is a phenomenon in quantum mechanics that is vaguely relevant here," said Distler. "Quantum tunneling is the ability to tunnel through barriers that would be classically impenetrable."

This is how radioactive decay works. In radioactive nuclei, a particle can escape that would usually be trapped in the nucleus. Quantum tunneling is where two objects can pass through each other.

"Doing that on the scale of a person, or even an ant, is not terribly likely," Distler said. "In fact, its astronomically unlikely."

Our truth detector rating: Neither premise has a ghost of a chance. 

Replicas (Aug. 24)

Plot summary: After a car accident kills his family, a daring synthetic biologist will stop at nothing to bring them back, implanting their memories/consciousnesses in new bodies.

Hypothesis: Memories can be downloaded and transferred to new bodies, with consciousness and personality remaining intact.

"This is not possible at all," Laura Colgin, an associate professor of neuroscience who studies memory, observed.

Mammals are just too complicated for something like this to work. Memory, consciousness and personality are extremely complex, and they change. According to one study, just the act of recalling a memory can change it.

"Memory is something that is dynamically changing over time," Colgin said. "Every time you retrieve it you make it malleable."

Our truth detector rating: Fuhgeddaboudit.

This summer, we'll continue to look at the science in popular films with dispatches on social media. For more ratings from our Science Truth Detector, connect with TexasScience on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. You can also catch segments with our scientists talking about summer blockbusters most Friday mornings this summer on Fox 7's Good Day Austin.

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Wednesday, 20 June 2018

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