Science and Fiction

by PhysicsJenn

Well, my last two posts have been rant-y things whining about the lot of women in the sciences.  So today I’m going to write something funner*.  Partially inspired by a conversation with a coworker outside a thesis defense-in-progress, and partially inspired by my college friend Lisa’s birthday cake, I’m going to discuss depictions of physical phenomena in fiction.

Lisa’s cake reminded me of the conversation, which was also about the depictions of things/people “falling” into black holes.  Okay, it’s become pretty well-known that black holes don’t actually suck; they do attract things due to massive gravity, but they follow laws of gravitation, and objects can actually orbit a black hole, the same way they would orbit any massive body.  But what happens if you get perilously close to the event horizon?  Do you fall in and disappear?  What about that spaghetti thing?

The conversation went like this:  Supposedly (according to coworker’s general relativity professor), objects crossing the event horizon appear to slow to a near-stop due to the effects of a black hole on the perception of time.  So, to an outside observer, it would just look like the object was perpetually, and ever-more-slowly approaching the event horizon, all the while having its emitted light shifting red, and fading away to the observer.  This is a far cry from most depictions of black holes, which show the unfortunate victim accelerating into the void, perhaps stretching and distorting in some gruesome way.

Think about that, though.  How heartbreaking a sci-fi scene could some director make if s/he, instead of showing someone get sucked into a black hole, showed a victim appear to be slowly drifting away, as perhaps a reddish cast overtakes his features.  The crossing of the event horizon is inevitable, but he’s still there, still apparent to the observers (future mourners).  What can they do?  It might not even be his real facial expression or form, since there’s a difference in their perception from his, due to the massive difference in the fabric of space-time for each.

And what other physical phenomena could actually be made more dramatic by trying to represent them accurately?  I bet one could do something spooky with entanglement (pun intended).  Any other ideas?  Anyone from TV want to hire me as a science consultant?  That could be fun…

*Note that at this point I was utterly confused by the WordPress word processor’s failure to flag this as a misspelled word.  Which is made more amusing by the fact that “WordPress” is flagged.