With a title like that, you probably think this blog is about the recent Obama decision to deep six NASA’s plan to go back to the Moon. But no, the title refers to the 1950 scifi classic, “Destination Moon.” Obviously dated by today’s standards, this film was perhaps the first to treat the science in science fiction seriously. Granted, the timeline was too optimistic and some of the technology (an atomic powered rocket using steam as a propellant, for example) has either been abandoned or yet to be developed, but the basic science and the astronomical knowledge of the day was accurate.
Despite what many with vested interests would have us believe, we all learn a lot — right and wrong — from TV and movies. Studies have shown that a regular diet of bad or even criminal behavior from various entertainment venues leads to desensitization about those issues. I think very strongly that we learn good things from TV and movies as well. (You would not believe how much I learned as a kid from Captain Kangaroo.)
That said, blatant inaccuracies in TV and in motion pictures have always annoyed me. Among the most often cited are impossible scenarios (or at least very highly unlikely) involving gravity, inertia and sounds in space. Whole books can — and have — been written about this. There are some very good websites that deal with “bad science” or “bad physics” in movies, so I will not go into all of it here.
In “Destination Moon,” physics was treated with respect, and I have to say that today many major motion pictures hire legitimate science advisors (to whom they do not always listen), and many make an effort for scientific plausibility. It doesn’t always work. As much as I loved “Avatar,” some aspects (floating mountains, for example) are scientifically absurd. Obviously, without speculation or extrapolation from the known, there would be no such thing as science fiction. Still….
Let’s forget the transgressions of movie producers who obviously don’t know basic physics, and instead let me just mention the three errors that are most common, not just in science fiction, but in movies and TV shows of all genres. These errors reflect an ignorance or just plain carelessness on the part of director and photographers which, in my opinion, extend or perpetuation ignorance in the general public.
The first error is using the wrong image for a full moon. Take a look at the moon image we have here. It’s the full moon, right? Not exactly. As seen from Earth, the full moon shows a particular pattern of light and dark areas, typically highlands and maria. This constitutes the face of the “Man in the Moon.” Month after month, year after year, it is the same pattern, the same face that we see. Geographic location introduces differences in orientation, but it is the same face wherever you are on Earth. What we see as the Full Moon appears “upside down” to observers in Australia, for example, but pattern itself is unchanged.
Yet time and again, in movies and TV, we see this image of the “full moon” that was photographed not from Earth, but from tens of thousands of miles out in space by Apollo astronauts. Granted, it is the moon and it is more or less full, but it is a view never seen from our planet. The real view of the full moon, that is the one seen from Earth, changes orientation according to location and time of night (or day), but always keeps the same pattern. It is not the pattern in the NASA image above, but rather then pattern in this image of the moon:
Another thing that bugs the bejeebers out of me is the image of the Moon or sometimes the Sun rising or setting in the wrong direction. No, I don’t mean that they show the Moon or Sun rising in the West and setting in the East (which would be difficult to know anyway), but that the two celestial orbs rising or setting at the wrong angle. Granted, the angle depends on where you are supposed to be observing it from. The angles are different as viewed in the Northern Hemisphere v.. the Southern Hemisphere. But it is obvious where most TV shows and movies are supposed to be located, and most are in the Northern Hemisphere. Yet frequently we are show the Sun or Moon rising upwards to the left, or less commonly, setting downwards to the right. Yet the real objects in the sky do the opposite. For us in the Northern hemisphere, the Sun, Moon and planets (and stars for that matter), rise upwards and cross the southern part of the sky. In other words, if you are facing East to observe them, the appear to rise upwards to the right. Conversely, setting objects move downward to the left. Yet what we frequently see are objects rising upward to the left or downward to the right, attesting to the ignorance of the director and/or photographer of the scene. I suspect what happens is that they need a scene of a rising Sun or Moon, but have available a scene of a setting Sun or Moon. I can just here the conversation where the photographer says, “Gee Mr. director, we need a rising Sun sequence but we don’t have it and we don’t have time to photograph it. But don’t you worry. No sir, don’t you worry at all. We’ll just use the setting Sun sequence and run it backwards. No one will ever guess!”
Picky again? Yeah, probably, but it bothers me.
And finally, perhaps the worst and to me the most obvious and annoying transgression, is exaggerating the size of the Sun or Moon. Now, truth be told, displaying the Sun or more frequently the Moon at proper scale just doesn’t look right. It honestly does look too small. Somehow our brains are wired to insist that the Moon and Sun appear larger than they really are. In fact, it has been common practice for decades in planetariums to display the Moon about 4 times its true angular diameter. When shown at actual scale, people uniformly complain that it appears too small. SO a little exaggeration here is appropriate, I believe, if not entirely accurate. However, on TV and in movies the Moon in particular is often shown 10, 20 or even 50 times its correct scale. It’s like the old song about “When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie! even though the real Moon is only about half the size of a penny held at arm’s length!
And is not just TV and movies, but also websites for news agencies that claim to value accuracy in reporting, and even on stamps, such as the one here from Azerbaijan.
And I am sorry, but that bugs me!
P.S. If for whatever reason you are interested in my actual opinion about the Obama Administration’s decision not to return to the Moon, I will blog on that separately.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.