"I'm a filmmaker, not a scientist."
When it comes to science and history, we can't expect the writers to get all the facts right. Maybe we should be able to expect this, but such expectations will lead to disappointment. To be fair, though, good story will always trump good science.
Hollywood Science is common in Science Fiction, but does not generally apply to cases where the writers step outside the bounds of known science by applying generous quantities of phlebotinum to circumvent the normal rules. Often times, there's a Techno Wizard to help explain how it works.
If it's an intentional change from real science, it's not Hollywood Science. Thus, for example, the claim that the pyramids are much older than Pharaonic Egypt in Stargate SG-1 is not Hollywood Science. However, the scene in the Stargate movie where they track a probe sent through the gate, while it's dematerialized—that's Hollywood Science.
It's not always a bad thing. See Artistic License.
Types of Hollywood Science include:
- The Air Not There
- Artistic License Astronomy
- Artistic License: Biology
- Artistic License Chemistry
- Artistic License Geography
- Artistic License Geology
- Artistic License Physics
- Explosive Decompression
- Formulaic Magic
- Frictionless Reentry
- Hollywood Acid
- Hollywood Density
- Hollywood Psych
- Hollywood Silencer
- Improbable Taxonomy Skills
- Instant Cooldown
- In Theory
- Liquid Assets
- Magic From Technology
- Science Cocktail
- Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale
- Snow Means Cold
- Space Does Not Work That Way
- Square-Cube Law, Violation of
- Technicolor Science
- Variable Terminal Velocity
- Unit Confusion
- Universal Universe Time
As Science Marches On, mistakes can result from discoveries made after the show was written. In these cases, we must forgive the writers, since they had no way of knowing. Thus, I Want My Jetpack and The Great Politics Mess-Up are not really Hollywood Science.
- When footage of the space shuttle in orbit is shown (unless Stock Footage provided by NASA is used), the shuttle is almost always shown orbiting "right side up" with its cargo bay doors closed. In reality, the shuttle always orbits with its underside away from the Earth (because that's the side where the heat shielding is strongest), with its cargo bay doors open (because the radiators are on the inner surface of the doors). Curiously, one of the few shows or movies ever to get this right was The West Wing (where the shuttle was imperiled by an inability to open its cargo doors).
- Bullets and falling objects frequently disobey the laws of physics. See Blown Across the Room, Variable Terminal Velocity and Bizarre and Improbable Ballistics.
- Almost anything where someone or something is in danger of falling into a black hole. A black hole produces the same gravity as a normal object of the same mass and distance. It only can produce higher gravity than a normal object when you get closer to its center of mass than you can for a normal object. (Without going inside the object, where the gravity from parts of it starts to cancel out). You can still fall into a black hole like you can fall into the Sun, but the idea of a black hole as a sort of space vacuum cleaner is right out.
- If you're outside the event horizon, you can escape if your engines are strong enough. Once you cross the event horizon, nothing whatsoever can get you out, period. Physics acts differently inside a black hole. Not that there'd be much "you" left at that point.
- Montages used to demonstrate the effect of global events often show it being approximately the same time of day around the world.
- Armageddon is loaded with Hollywood Science, to the extent that it has become something of a Running Gag on the Bad Astronomy website. Some can live with it, some can't.
- An incredibly horrible example from Bad Boys 2: A truck carrying some cars is traveling at very high speed. One of the cars falls off but is still attached to the truck by a chain. It hits the ground and digs in, thus acting like an anchor. Said truck's rate of acceleration actually seems to increase!
- A good example of bizarre Hollywood logic can be found in the movie Batman and Robin, where one of the two villains has a diamond-created laser-powered cooling system necessary for his survival. Laser cooling Does Not Work That Way. It is for cooling groups of atoms from "cold" to "damn cold", please pardon the imprecision of that expression. It wouldn't work for anything like the setup in the movie.
- In Batman Begins, the microwave device intended to vaporize all the water in Gotham City is turned on with people standing right next to it. Keeping in mind that people are 80% water, this is just one of the more obvious reasons why the city-threat plot device is implausible.
- They did say the microwave device was a weapon, and would as such almost certainly be a focused beam, and when they turn on the device, the beam is directed downwards, away from the people standing next to it. But turning it on inside a massive steel tram car above the ground and vaporizing water from pipes under the ground, while there are lots and lots of people standing on the ground is an exercise in absolute stupidity.
- While we're on the subject of Nolanverse Batman, The Dark Knight's "sonar phone" Deus Ex Machina has caught much flak for its... let's be nice and just say "implausibility".
- A Beautiful Mind features a scene in which John Nash explains his "Nash Equilibria" his big discovery that eventually won him the Nobel (Memorial) Prize in Economics. He explains it as "there are 4 guys at a bar, there are a bunch of ok looking brunettes and one hot blond. If everybody hits on the blond she will be turned off by the attention and turn all of them down, but then all the brunettes will be turned off by the fact that the guys are only hitting on them after the blond and thus the guys will all go home alone, but in the movie the "Nash Equilibrium" is to all make an agreement to snub the blond and go for the brunettes and thus for all of the guys to get laid." The problem is that a Nash Equilibrium is when no parties can improve their own situation by acting independently which the solution from the movie does not fulfill as any of the guys who was going to hit on the brunette could at the last moment switch to hitting on the blond. The real Nash Equilibrium is to agree before hand for one of the guys to hit on the blond with all the other guys to agree to hit on brunettes.
- Many a Disaster Movie. The most ridiculous, though, is definitely The Core. Magnets do not affect energy, regardless of what the movie says. A very tiny portion of the sun's energy hits Earth. Radio signals do not penetrate thick rock. Energy and sound waves diffuse as they travel and become distorted. 1,000 Megatons of force is far too weak to restart the Earth's core. A cave with 5,000 degree heat and 10,000,000 psi of pressure would collapse. Oxygen exposed to high pressure becomes a highly unstable polymer. Many more examples exist, but these are quite egregious. Weirdly, the portrayal of the space shuttle in Earth orbit -- "upside down" relative to Earth—is one of the better ones (see the space shuttle point, above).
- The most egregious of all is the premise: That a new Defense Department system has somehow stopped the Earth's core from rotating relative to the Earth. What became of the core's momentum and kinetic energy is never explained.
- A few of the promotional interviews for the movie involved the man who was the 'scientific adviser' for the film, who had a bit of an "it could have been worse" attitude. Apparently, the original script called for the Plot Bus to have a window.
- Some people, though, enjoy these sillier aspects of such movies, citing them as part of the fun. Deep Impact, however, was supposed to be serious, which arguably makes its inaccuracies worse. For instance, the four nuclear devices causing a clean cut in the comet (as shown in a graphic in the movie) is impossible on several levels.
- One troper's Astronomy teacher in college was a science adviser on Deep Impact. They ignored most of what he said, except for his strong warning about the ridiculousness of having astronauts hopping around on the surface of a comet as though they were on the Moon (if you were standing on a comet you more than likely wouldn't be able to tell there was any gravity, period); the scene was altered. Of course, he also got a cameo out of the deal (balding guy in mission control, even has a line).
- Skipping blithely over the biology in Evolution, there are two massive chemistry howlers in the the section where Ira Kane (played by David Duchovny) works out how to beat the aliens. Firstly, saying that arsenic is "our" (i.e. carbon-based life forms') poison doesn't really work. Lots of elements are more toxic to humans than arsenic, like, well, selenium, the aliens' poison. And secondly, the idea of a nitrogen-based life form is just whacked anyway, as nitrogen doesn't form into long chains the way carbon does. Nitrogen-based compounds... well, let's just say the shared syllable in Nitrogen, Nitroglycerine, and Trinitrotolulene is not a coincidence.
- It also depicts evolution as inevitable progress towards intelligent mammals, while a line in another part of the film correctly states that natural selection doesn't favor complex animals over simple ones. And it depicts a simple soft-bodied crawling invertebrate as having a mouth on the dorsal surface and an anus on the ventral surface, while every real-life analog is the other way around. On the other hand, it's a comedy.
- Fantastic Four (2005) has a Star Trek-esque "cloud of cosmic energy" floating by Earth's orbit, and Reed believes this type of cloud may have triggered evolution, and could have untold benefits for humanity and biological science. It looks like the writers were trying to take the hokey "cosmic radiation" origin from the comics and make it more relevant to modern science. But there really is an area of concentrated space radiation right around Earth's orbit, the Van Allen Belt, where the Fantastic Four in the comics encountered high levels of space radiation due to poor shielding. The made up glowing energy blob has less of a basis in reality than the origin from the 60's.
- Godzilla. Not including the giant rampaging dinosaurs, the film series is just full of 'em. Oxygen Destroyer, anyone?
- In Highlander, Brenda dates Connor's sword by its absorbency. Yes, the absorbency of a katana. In real life the metallic composition of a sword (which can sometimes give clues as to its date and place of manufacture) can be ascertained by subjecting a small sample of its metal to something called atomic absorption spectroscopy. WE won't go into details (though if you insist) but the absorption in question is of light. Evidently the writers had vaguely heard of it but misunderstood what it involved, unless the katana really was made by the legendary swordsmith Andrex.
- The Rocketeer: Zeppelins do not burn like that, dammit!
- Spider Man 2 has a depiction of nuclear fusion that is almost, but not entirely, completely unlike real fusion techniques.
- Total Recall has a fairly bizarre example: in the film, Mars' core is supposedly made of ice in defiance of density and temperature issues—never even mind what jettisoning the core of a planet should do when you have a space that will probably be filled by the most expedient mean possible (total collapse). Then again, it's probably All Just a Dream.
- Also, when the villain explodes by being sucked out of the building on to the surface of Mars.... there are many, many things wrong with this. For one, Mars is not a vacuum, it has an atmosphere (Though to be fair, not much of one, so the surface pressure would be much lower than the interior of the building which had Earth-like atmosphere). Even if it was a total vacuum, going from Earth atmospheric pressure to a total vacuum will not make anybody explode. The human body is much more resilient than that - astronauts have lost pressurization in parts of their suits while doing space walks and come back only noting a mild discomfort in the part which had been de-pressurized. Full body vacuum exposure will kill you, but from suffocation, not from exploding.
- Twister: The antics of the chasers in the movie would get real chasers killed in the field. Add into this that they get some chaser terminology wrong, some of the science of tornadoes and other severe weather wrong, and that the climax is the heroes riding out a violent tornado just by tying themselves down when they would have been ground into beef by the debris is real life, it is little wonder that this movie is watched by chasers and meteorologists just to mock it mercilessly.
- Not to mention the fact that a twister can well outdistance a human on foot and thus it would be impossible for the protagonists to run away from them as they did several times. It's also fairly obvious how the speed of the twisters are changed to suit the scene's needs.
- Buffalo Soldier contains a scene where someone in charge of a large-scale heroin synthesis operation warns that if the solution hits boiling point, dire consequences will occur. Conveniently enough, as we later discover during a dramatic close-up on a thermometer, it boils at exactly 100 °C. (Even if it were to hit the actual boiling point of ~270 °C, the result wouldn't have been nearly as explosive as shown in the film.)
- Equilibrium has the concept of Gun Kata, a combat martial art whereby it is possible to determine the locations of opponents in a gunfight and their most likely lines of fire, breaking it down into a statistical formula that can be memorized to allow the Grammaton Cleric to evade incoming fire and shoot back at his opponents without looking. Needless to say, this doesn't work in Real Life, as actual gunbattles are based around cover, maneuver, and lines of sight, and can be extremely unpredictable and chaotic. They are virtually impossible to control, let alone analyze for statistical study, and the vast range of variables inherent to a gunfight simply cannot be predicted.
- All About Steve has a case of this, among other things. What was the deal with that hurricane getting downgraded into a mere tornado?
- A book from a series trying to capitalise on the popularity of Goosebumps, in which the Mad Scientist 's device uses "infrablue light". Apparently the colour green can do some pretty weird things.
- David Brin repeatedly makes the same mistake as the Doctor Who episode "Blink" in the Uplift Storm trilogy. There is a stasis field where people inside only seem to move when nobody is watching them and an off hand statement that someone shouldn't stare at that quantum life form because it's having trouble and can't do anything while being watched.
- Not only that, but machine life was nearly crippled in certain environments due to its inability to "observe". Brin got it wrong in Earth, too...a scene near the end has a scientist creating a new universe by simply looking at an artificial singularity. Given his background in science, one might expect better...
- Despite being technologically savvy (he invented the communications satellite), Arthur C Clarke gave a ridiculously impossible ending to 3001: The Final Odyssey; he Failed Computer Science Forever, because Emulation Doesn't Work That Way.
Live Action TV
- Eureka. Every. Damn. Episode. It's as if the entire series was written by Treknobabble writers.
- And writers who don't even bother to look terms up when they're trying to be accurate, as when the term "distal phalange" was used to describe a pinky bone. "Distal" is a correct description for a fingertip-bone, but "phalanx" is the proper singular of "phalanges". Somebody put the dictionary away too soon.
- Black Hole High seems to want to convince children that science is kind of cool. Unfortunately, "science" is taken to generally mean, "String random scientific terms together and claim this makes sense somehow."
- For example, the space around a metal ball "loses its gravitational field" therefore, it "makes perfect sense" that it would not only float, but would accelerate every time it collided with something—and this is claimed to be a "textbook" example of Newton's second law of motion.
- Also, physics seems generally flexible. This has something to do with the nearby black hole. That a nearby black hole could alter the normal behavior of the laws of physics is entirely reasonable. That it doesn't just destroy the planet isn't. And that it might alter physics in such a way that it can be trumped by one's emotional state or plot-induced personality flaws is... well... Television.
- "Probability" takes the cake. This week's anomaly inverts the bell curve, inverting "likely" and "unlikely", as a result of Marshall's writing a list of predictions for the future. The last of these is that a science club member will die. As the science club members each narrowly survive dangerous accidents, they "realize" that they are now safe, as the laws of probability say that to be so endangered once in a day is at the "far edge of the bell-curve" and therefore it is nigh-impossible for such an accident to happen twice to the same person. This ultimately leaves Marshall in mortal peril as he is the only member of the club not to be "pre-disastered", until he has his own narrow escape. All this adds up to Professor Zachary being patently unqualified to teach probability. If it worked that way, a lot of gamblers would be rich men now: the idea that one unlikely random event happening could make other independent random events less likely is the single biggest fallacy in all of probability—and all of gambling (It's called "The Gambler's Fallacy", in fact).
- Worse, even if probability worked like that, the whole idea of the episode is that the laws of probability have been inverted, so if the odds really had gotten worse, it should have made their deaths more likely.
- CSI: Miami: "Prey": A suspect's IP address is traced as 3184.108.40.206. This is actually a new variety of 555 (while intentionally avoiding private IP address, like 10.X.Y.Z, 172.16.X.Y or 192.168.X.Y). All of those examples are possible with IPv4. The exact behaviour is not defined, but most systems will do modulo 256 on all four numbers. This was used in many movies to create weird IPs that people who know just enough to recognize an address think it's bad, while those that decide to try hacking end up attacking for example 127.0.0.1
- To be fair to CSI, an IP starting 10 or 192.168 would also be problematic... those ranges are different to 555 in that 555-numbers are normal phone numbers that just aren't (or weren't) used... however the private IP ranges are used, but aren't normal... and their use in the CSI scene would be just as worthy of appearing in this list (whoa, this hacker is hacking via the Internet, but from a private IP!)
- It's even worse in "Big Brother", where the last numbers of the IP addresses have four digits. Also note that IP v6 would use Base 16, where 1) 255 would appear as FF, 2) numbers are separated by colons, not periods; and 3) the numbers are based on 8-digit binary numbers (known as a byte), so IP numbers would still never rise above 255, which is 11111111 in binary.
- The writers of the third season of Heroes clearly have no idea how solar eclipses work, giving us a total solar eclipse within a year of the previous one, which is visible all over the world for several hours. Oh, and it has some sort of effect on people's genes. Right.
- In the Doctor Who serial City of Death, the Mona Lisa plays a significant role as MacGuffin, but the painting shown is much larger than the actual Mona Lisa (most people who have never seen it in person would be surprised by how small it actually is). It's also depicted as being painted on canvas, not wood. Even the My Favorite Martian episode with time-travelling da Vinci got that part right.
- The Mona Lisa is also too large in Mona Lisa's Revenge, a story of The Sarah Jane Adventures—but they do mention in dialogue that the painting is smaller than most people think.
- CSI is often accused of Hollywood Science; which arguable applies to the time compression more or less necessary for dramatic purposes. Early on in the show's run, the producers stated that they made the science deliberately bad, to avoid becoming a primer on evading detection for budding criminals.
- In one episode of How I Met Your Mother, a character waits for a phone call at 11pm at night from Germany. Although there is a six-hour time difference between New York and Germany, Germany is six hours ahead: 11pm in New York is 5am in Germany, not 5pm.
- Possibly justified, as she was in Germany on a culinary fellowship. Perhaps she had to get up early to cook breakfast.
- The Numb3rs episode "Backscatter" had, in a background shot, the phrase "Email response IP address: 192.3382.1043.010.255".
- A more recent episode of Numb3rs involved a coded message whose solution was an IP address with a first octet of 275. Way to make the puzzle impossible for people playing at home, guys...
- Spoofed in Odyssey 5. At one stage the Odyssey team consult an abrasive sci-fi writer clearly based on Harlan Ellison (who conceived the series). As they can't tell him the truth (that they've travelled back in time five years to avert the destruction of the Earth) the team pretend they're writing a science fiction novel. The sci-fi writer goes into detail on how cliched and scientifically implausible their 'novel' is.
- Stargate Atlantis featured an episode where one of the heroes had a hard time closing a space station's bulkhead because the air rushing out kept blowing him back. We can assume that he didn't seal himself on the "You die now" side of things, so it seems that air pressure flows from low to high in the world of Stargate.
- Star Trek: The Original Series has a season one episode "The Alternative Factor" where Spock declares the planet they are orbiting has a "oxygen-hydrogen atmosphere". This is extremely unlikely, as oxygen and hydrogen are highly reactive and react rather violently with each other, producing water. Specifically, this is the strongest chemical reaction per weight unit we know about, and we use it in rockets like the Space Shuttle to get satelites and other equipment into space. Very likely Spock wanted to say "oxygen-nitrogen" instead, describing an atmosphere like the one we currently enjoy on earth.
- Another episode had the cast using what they probably thought was a high number - one to the twenty-fifth power, which is...one. What they probably meant was 1 x 10^25, which is 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000.
- Team Knight Rider once claimed that "Liquefied nitrogen gas" was a high explosive, even though nitrogen is well-known for being functionally inert in most situations. Presumably they meant "Liquified natural gas".
- Or someone noticed the shared syllables in Nitrogen, Nitroglycerine, and Trinitrotolulene. Again.
- On Veronica Mars, Veronica and her dad ring in the new year by watching the ball drop in Times Square. Three hours earlier. (It should be noted, however, that the Times Square festivities are in fact broadcast "live" on the West Coast on a three-hour tape delay.)
- Fringe is probably a deliberate example, violating every physical law and then some, normally as some sort of fringe science doing it.
- Somewhat justified by the acknowledgement that, at least in some cases, the laws of nature and physics don't follow those of the real world.
- In the 1977 Doctor Who serial The Robots of Death, a character dismisses the Doctor's explanation of what's going on as impossible, and the Doctor retorts that bumblebees fly even though that's also "impossible". This is an urban legend which has been traced back to at least 1934 if not earlier and is based on applying equations to bumblebee flight that were known to be the wrong ones even back then.
- Community: While running a psychology experiment Prof. Duncan has a total breakdown when he encounters the outlier of extreme patience that is Abed, ranting that his Duncan's Principle has been completely broken. Of course any scientist can tell you a single outlier is hardly enough to totally disprove a hypothesis concerning human psychology. Possibly an intentional example, since Duncan is clearly demonstrated throughout the series to be a fairly inept psychologist.
- World of Warcraft uses the colour "Infragreen." That's yellow, for those of you playing along at home. Naturally, Gnomes are involved.
- This may be a tip of the hat to the "infra-green" headlights on the Green Hornet's car. Blizzard is particularly fond of pop culture references.
- To be fair, the "Infragreen" dome itself is yellow while the rest of the references are green. Perhaps a developer tried to make an optics joke that was misunderstood by others.
- And perhaps Gnomes visible light spectrum ends with green instead of red as ours, which would make it just fine to use infragreen for red, yellow and all the other colors with lower frequency than green.
- To be even more fair, this is Gnomes we are talking about. Gnomish Engineering includes such gems as the Gnomish World Enlarger - which 'shrinks' the user by literally enlarging the entire universe - the Gnomish Poultryizer and various Wormhole Generators. All of these items have internal failure rates between 10-15%, and can backfire with hilarious results. Gnomish 'physics' are gleefully and deliberately impossible, and Gnomish 'science' is really just magic with wrenches instead of wands.
- And perhaps Gnomes visible light spectrum ends with green instead of red as ours, which would make it just fine to use infragreen for red, yellow and all the other colors with lower frequency than green.
- In Captain SNES, this is invoked deliberately: Alex points out to his captor that Videoland doesn't have science; rather, it has Science!!. Basically, Videoland science works on what's cool or useful, not by logic or by real-world science.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal parodies this here.
- Xkcd has "Movie science montage / Real science montage" strip.
- Parodied, like nearly everything else, in Italian Spiderman.
- The classic website And You Call Yourself a Scientist! is devoted to pointing out the numerous examples of bad science in cinema.
- Likewise, The Nostalgia Chick's video "Playing God" has numerous helpful tips about how to stop science going wrong in movies.
- In the Justice League episode "The Enemy Below", the villain tried to melt the arctic ice cap to flood the world, even though since arctic ice is floating in water it wouldn't change sea levels much, if at all. However, this may have been a confusion of wording on the part of the writers; while arctic (i.e. north pole) ice floats in water, antarctic ice does sit, in large part, on an actual continent and could indeed cause flooding if it melted quickly enough (Though it still wouldn't be enough to cover the Earth's entire landmass). In fact, an explosion or "impact" destroying the latter is what triggers many of the events in the main plot or characterization in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
- Futurama's pilot episode, "Space Pilot 3000", had the whole world ring in the new year on New York time. Twice. 1,000 years apart. (Including a couple of shots on other planets.) Although, as the show is a comedy, this may have been intentional.
- Possibly justified, and more of a cultural issue than a science issue in any case. If there's a Galactic Standard Year and a Galactic Standard Time, everyone would celebrate the new year at the same time. To a lesser extent, this happens today, with many people in different time zones still watching the ball drop in New York.