Gravitational pull: dissecting the science of Gravity

Gravity is something of a big deal in 2013’s roster of big screen experiences. It’s also turned the lens of the scientific community towards filmmaking.

Gravity.Earlier, I got a fairly hefty email from my editor, Mr Parrot, containing a list of Gravity science pieces I can only describe as “formidably comprehensive”. What’s interesting about Gravity is the degree to which scientists have appeared in the press to talk about the flaws and accuracies of it. I mean, it’s a given that astrophysicists are going to take an interest in a film about two astronauts that attempts to maintain a fair amount of realism, but I’m glad the scientific community are popping in for a chat about the accuracy of the film.

Of course, I’d be remiss in my duty of covering this if I didn’t make your first stop Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments on Gravity. He’s an extremely well-respected scientist and is very good at explaining his points to any audience. Unfortunately, his explanation of Gravity mainly centred on how everything down to the title of the film itself is wrong. A medical professional servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, hair unaffected by zero-gravity, and other issues came up in his criticisms.

However, what was neat about his conclusion is that he thinks it was an enjoyable film despite the mistakes and enjoys the idea of spectacle. “My Tweets [sic] hardly ever convey opinion… Mostly perspectives on the world. But if you must know, I enjoyed #Gravity very much.”

Over at The Telegraph, Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, had some thoughts to share, primarily about the fact that Gravity’s director, Alfonso Cuarón, was a little confused as to why Tyson was being so critical, given the sheer amount of effort that went into the film’s scientific accuracy in other areas – something Gravity has been praised for. Highfield elaborates:

“Even though it was not perfect, the way the film portrays life in orbit is impressive. Many people mistakenly think that gravity does not exist in space. In fact, the typical orbits for human space flight vary between 120 and 360 miles above Earth’s surface, where the G is anything but zero. If an astronaut on the space station drops an apple it falls just like on Earth. But it doesn’t look like it’s falling because the apple, the astronaut and the space station are falling together – not towards Earth but around it. Objects inside the station float because they’re all falling at the same rate.”

It’s an interesting bit of science, and not something people tend to think about, but one that was clearly incorporated into the film. Even Tyson admitted that its portrayal of zero-g was fine bar the fact Bullock’s hair wasn’t floating around – a fair point – so all is not lost as far as Gravity’s realism score goes.

What was interesting to learn was that Bullock must’ve gone through at least some amount of trauma filming the zero gravity scenes. Tim Webber, the film’s visual effects guru, spoke on the topic alongside Brian Cox. “Sandra Bullock had been in, I think, two plane crashes,” says Webber, “so getting her to go up into an aeroplane that dives thousands of feet every so often would have been a big ask.” I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like, to go through something like that twice in a lifetime, then return to the big screen in a film about you risking the ultimate fall.

Weighing in, everyone’s favourite physicist, one Brian Cox, went into a little more detail about the science behind the risk of space debris in Gravity. “This concept of space debris being a threat (which is not a spoiler because you’ve seen the trailer) is absolutely real. I was speaking to NASA a few weeks ago actually who were saying things move very fast in space and the energy that even flecks of paint have are like bullets. So something even about as big as my hand can take out a space shuttle and absolutely destroy a space station.”

Can we just take a moment to appreciate how terrifying that is?

Of course, this is all a bit pointless if you’re not actually going to speak to any astronauts, and Garrett Reisman, an astronaut with the coolest photograph I’ve seen in a while, gave some insight on what Gravity is like from the perspective of someone who actually works in space.

“The question that most people want me to answer is, how realistic was it? The very fact that the question is being asked so earnestly is a testament to the verisimilitude of the movie. When a bad science fiction movie comes out, no one bothers to ask me if it reminded me of the real thing.”

He goes on to talk about how well Gravity captures space-walking, how the right valves were used in a certain scene, and how space debris can be a serious danger. “During my first spacewalk, my partner, Rick, had to bring in a handle that was stowed on the outside of the station. When he got it inside he noticed a hole, about a millimeter in diameter, that was shot through the half-inch solid aluminum material by a piece of orbital debris. It looked like someone had taken a cocktail straw and shoved it right through the metal. He looked at me and said, ‘If that hit one of us…’ There was no need to finish that sentence, since such an event would have been instantly fatal, although I pointed out that he is about 6′ 2″ tall and I am about 5’5″ so it was much more likely to hit him instead of me.”

Then there was German astronaut Walter Ulrich who discussed the dangers of a fire on a spaceship, as well as what it’s really like to die when you’re running out of oxygen. He says that astronauts are required to do altitude climbing as part of their training. When you’re running low on oxygen, “Everything seems funny. And as you’re laughing about it, you slowly nod off.” So not too bad then.

It’s great to hear so many voices weighing in with stories, analysis and thoughts on how Gravity represents the experience of being an astronaut and making the crucial choices regarding your own survival in space. I mean, it really reflects the gravity of the situation. Right guys?


VN:F [1.9.13_1145]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)