Misaligned Stars

The New York Times

New York Times

July 22, 1998

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Now that New York City is relatively safe from muggers, Hollywood has resorted to monsters and meteors to trigger end-of-the-world fears in urban movie-goers. But unlike romantic comedies or action-adventure thrillers, most disaster films pluck the fruits science for their storylines. Deadly viruses, out-of-control DNA, evil aliens, and killer asteroids are all common themes in recent films. Unfortunately, a film's scientific literacy hardly ever measures up to its plot.

Am I the only one who cares?

I'm not talking about simple bloopers, such as when a Roman Centurion happens to be wearing a wrist watch. These mistakes are inadvertent. I'm talking about ignorant bloopers, like reversing the sunset to pretend you have filmed a sunrise. These are not time-symmetric events. Are cinematographers too sleepy to wake up before the Sun and get the real footage? And why is it that movie meteors have such good aim? Earth's surface is seventy percent water and over ninety-nine percent uninhabited, yet an incoming meteor decapitates the Chrysler Building in one of this summer's movies.

And why is it that James Cameron took the time to get every imaginable detail correct about the Titanic—from the rivets to the dinnerware—yet he got the wrong nighttime sky? Actually, he comes close. What could be the constellation Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown) is shown overhead on that fateful night. But it has the wrong number of stars. Why? I'd bet the costumes were researched to be precisely the styles of the period. Had someone been on board wearing love beads, bell-bottom jeans, and a large afro, you know that viewers would have complained loudly that Cameron had not done his homework. Am I any less justified in my outcries?

My gripes are not just with Hollywood. What about those majestic stars in the ceiling of New York City's Grand Central Terminal? Rather than just admitting that the backwards constellations were a mistake, a sign in the lobby tells us, Said to be backwards, [the ceiling is] actually seen from a point of view outside our solar system. But a second error has now been committed in an attempt to cover up the first: no point of view in our galaxy will reverse the constellation patterns of Earth's night sky. As you leave the solar system, and travel among the stars, all that happens to Earth's constellations is that they become scrambled and wholly unrecognizable.

What society needs are scientifically literate reviewers. Why should a critic be limited to saying things like, The characters stretched credulity or the tonal elements clashed with the emotional flavor of the set designs? Just once I want to hear a critic say, Flying saucers don't need runway lights (as was depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), or The Moon phases grew in the wrong direction (as what happened in LA Story), or An asteroid the size of Texas would have been discovered two hundred years ago (as was shown in Armageddon). Only then might the public begin to appreciate the role that the laws of physics play in everyday life.

If you want to write a book, make a film, or engage in a public art project, and if this work makes reference to the natural world, all I ask is that you call your neighborhood scientist and chat about it. When you seek scientific license to distort the laws of nature, I would prefer you did so knowing the truth, rather than inventing a storyline that is cloaked in ignorance. You may be surprised to learn that valid science can make fertile additions to your storytelling—whether or not your artistic objective is to destroy the world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the New York Hayden Planetarium. His memoir, The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist is available from Doubleday.