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The science of Star Wars, Spider-Man, Avatar debunked by actual scientists

Spidey's mutation isn't so super in real life.


Dan Koboldt has a pretty good CV.

In 2007, the geneticist helped sequence the first ever genome of a cancer patient. That happened at Washington University, the same university that worked on The Human Genome Project, one of the biggest collaborative projects in the world. It was Koboldt's dream to work there when he read about it growing up.

Now, Koboldt is a principal investigator for the Institute of Genomic Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio. He's also a fan of movies. That's where his next goal lies: he wants to debunk the genetics misconceptions Hollywood portrays on screen.

With the help of scientific collaborators, he edited a book called Putting the Science in Fiction, out Oct. 16 by Writer's Digest Books. It's a guide for writers of films, TV shows and novels on fields like biology, physics and engineering. The aim is to provide a basic understanding of science and tech to encourage writers to be more accurate.

Below are common scientific misconceptions on screen, and some realistic examples, too.

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Unrealistic: Spider-Man

Take Spider-Man: Peter Parker plus radioactive spider equals superhuman powers.

"That's a big one, that mutations make you a superhero," Koboldt says.

He says a mutation is a random event that occurs in a single cell. "If it's a bad mutation, the cell dies. That's it. If it's a good mutation, an advantageous mutation, the cell usually will grow into a tumour." (A mutation that's advantageous to the cell, i.e. allowing it to grow and divide unchecked, can make a cell cancerous.)

But more often there's no effect. "Because the genome is massive and a single-based change at 2 billion base pairs probably isn't going to make a big difference."

Unrealistic: Star Wars

GIF by Jennifer Bisset/CNET

Star Wars, Koboldt says, is the easy target for space misconceptions.

For one: space explosions.

"Things don't really blow up in space, because if you want to blow something up in space, that means you need oxygen -- and space is a vacuum," Koboldt says.

So the Death Star's big fiery explosion wouldn't happen.

And you wouldn't hear that explosion either.

"You won't hear anything because sound can't travel across the vacuum," Koboldt says.


The Martian: Donald Glover can do anything. Including figure out how to rescue Matt Damon from space.

20th Century Fox

Realistic: The Martian

The 2015 sci-fi is based on a novel about an astronaut who finds himself left behind on the Red Planet. Koboldt says this is the movie that portrays space travel realistically.

"It's like oh, we have to move this thing and apply this force at exactly this rate to get it to the right spot," Koboldt says.

Spoiler warning: Mark Watney is eventually rescued by his team of astronauts, who return after 560 sols to pick him up "drive-by" style. It involves the complicated maneuvering of an orbiting vessel and a propulsion unit.

"That's what real space travel is like," the author says. 

For comparison, in Star Wars, "the X-wing fighters, when they fly around in space, they fly like fighter jets, and that is very unrealistic compared to what space travel is really like," Koboldt says.

Unrealistic: CSI

When it comes to DNA, CSI isn't textbook material.

"I remember watching years ago a CSI episode where they said, 'Oh, we have this new technology and we can take a DNA sample and we can predict what a person will look like,'" Koboldt says.

He says the characters made a composite image -- what a sketch artist might do -- but based on the genetics.

"And then they ran it and of course it looked exactly like one of the people that was the suspect. So that's a fairytale result there."

The reality is much different. "As a geneticist, we could probably tell you with some certainty -- just as 23andMe Ancestry could tell you -- what the likely ancestry is of the DNA sample.

"But it would be very difficult to predict their exact appearance based on that, because a lot of these are very complex traits."

(Disclosure: CSI airs on CBS, parent company of CNET.) 


Gattaca gets DNA right.

Columbia Pictures

Realistic: Gattaca

The 1997 cult classic is based on the premise that in the future, everyone has their genome -- your complete set of DNA -- sequenced at birth. Based on that readout, predictions are made on what your future life might look like.

That's realistic, according to Koboldt.

"What I liked about that is it's representing your odds of future medical conditions in terms of probability," he says.

Protagonist Vincent Freeman gets his readings in the form of probabilities: Chance of heart disease, 89 percent. Chance of asthma, 45 percent. "Which is really how we do that in genetics."

Because, Koboldt says, geneticists can't predict most things with certainty.

"In the future, if we know enough about the genome, we might be able to guesstimate your risk of heart disease or asthma or some other condition like that."

Unrealistic: NCIS, Bones and Arrow

One of the experts Koboldt worked with on the book is Judy L. Mohr. She was part of the MARS research team that developed the world's first spectral-CT scanner. She's a specialist in optics and imaging, and she doesn't like what she sees in CSI-type shows.

"How many times have you seen a picture taken at the time of a crime and the computer genius works a miracle pulling details out of the images that there was no way could have been there?" she said in an email.

These "miracles" include using technology to capture the license plate number off a car as it drives away, identify a face that's a perfect match to the criminal being hunted, and creating a perfect image out of the blurred reflection in a window.

It's all performed in a matter of seconds, and that's far from reality.

"It's beyond laughable," Mohr wrote. "Almost all CSI-type shows are guilty of it. More noted would be: NCIS, Bones, CSI and Arrow.

"I get that shows need to make some concessions for the sake of their viewers, but as a writer, we should aim to get at least some of the details right."

Realistic: Bond, Borne and Mission Impossible

So what does Hollywood get right in imaging and optics?

Spy satellite sequences.

The Hollywood spy satellite sequence typically involves a technician in a remote location controlling the satellite overhead to take highly detailed images of the terrain, occasionally in infrared.


Case in point: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

Paramount Pictures

It's used in James Bond, Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible movies. "That, believe it or not, is real," Mohr wrote.

According to Mohr, while those shots shown in the movies are fake, the concept they portray is based on technology that's been around for 20 plus years.

"Open up Google Earth and have a play," Mohr wrote. "Go to NASA's website and look at the images showing running water on the surface of Mars.

"Those images were taken using a satellite in orbit around Mars."

Unrealistic: Avatar

Another of Koboldt's collaborators is Rebecca Enzor, a nuclear chemist and author in Charleston, South Carolina.

Her peeve: Avatar. Sigourney Weaver plays an exobiologist, someone who searches for extraterrestrial life. And one particular part of her performance didn't impress: her pipetting skills.

"James Cameron's Avatar taught people how to use Eppendorf pipettes wrong … (that scene aggravated me so much!)" Enzor wrote to CNET in an email.

Here's how Weaver should have held the lab tool used for dispensing drops of liquid:

Realistic: The Expanse

If there's one show that does do chemistry right, it's The Expanse. The sci-fi TV series is set in the far future where a war is imminent between the citizens of Earth and Mars.

It involves a lot of futuristic technology, like power armour and focus drugs, seen in Limitless.

But it's the show's portrayal of illness that impresses Enzor.

"I work with a lot of radioactive substances in my lab, and one thing media almost always gets wrong is the time it takes from contamination to serious sickness or death," Enzor wrote.

"You don't ingest or inhale a radioactive substance and immediately keel over dead," according to Enzor. Depending on the dose, it will take hours to weeks for any symptoms to appear.

In the show, the entire population of the planet Eros is infected by something known as the Phoebe bug. The infection process takes weeks, and symptoms are similar to hemorrhagic fever. Then comes vomiting.

"The Expanse got this one 100 percent right, and so far it's the only show I've seen that does."

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy & Other Genres, edited by Dan Koboldt, rockets into stores Oct. 16.

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