The Sciences

The Science of Avatar (Part II)

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumDec 29, 2009 4:16 PM


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After watching Avatar last weekend, I composed a post about being particularly appreciative that James Cameron and his crew so obviously did their homework when it came to much of the science depicted onscreen. I invited readers to share their impressions and many of you came through with terrific examples--some I hadn't even considered before. So I'll run through five of the science details I enjoyed most, followed by a few of the best examples from our reader community: 1) Dr. Grace Augustine. Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of a research scientist was uncharacteristically good. Instead of the typical caricature we see in Hollywood, she wasn't socially inept (i.e. typical Rick Moranis roles) or out to destroy everything (i.e. Dr. Evil). Instead, Grace conveyed the natural curiosity about the world that I observe so often in colleagues. Also noteworthy, she was funded by a program with corporate interests, but really using the opportunity to pursue her own research. Sound familiar to anyone? 2) The Skull. Did you catch the Toruk skull? It wasn't onscreen long, but it appeared to have characteristics of both birds and reptiles. I couldn't tell for sure, but it seemed quite detailed and cool. 3) Bioluminescence. With a background in marine biology, you know I'm going to appreciate that. 4) Scale. If gravity on Pandora is less than that on Earth, larger organisms would be supported. 5) Location. The choice of putting Pandora on a moon in the real Alpha Centauri star system (the closest system to Earth) was neat since scientists are looking at moons for life. The radiation anticipated could be mitigated by superconductivity. Which brings me to... Those floating mountains. Many comments expressed disappointment with them, however, it's not quite as implausible as you may suspect. The filmmakers put thought into this: Superconductors expel magnetic field lines, so the effect could make these mountains levitate like magnets away from the surface. (Details here).

There is a great deal more I like about the science of Avatar, but rather than compose an exhaustive list, I'll quote some examples contributed by readers below the fold... Phenomenal writes:

Enjoyed the fact it was a moon, different gravity & atosperic composition, the scientists passion for knowledge & care & respect, transduction between plants, several different layers to the food web, imaginative topography such as floating mountains & giant trees, Gaia theory, biomechanics of the creatures locomotion as six-limbed vertebrates, biolumeniscence & colourations of the flora & fauna.

Patrick B. writes:

..great thought went into the physics of the Pandora solar system, to the geology of the planet, to the plants and animals that evolved on the planet, and to the social structures of the Na’Vi. 1- Pandora appears to be a moon orbiting a gas giant. The gas giant can be seen in the sky in several shots in the movie, and you get the sense that the proportions are realistic. 2- Pandora’s atmosphere is not breathable to humans. I loved this! In Star Wars, Star Trek, and just about any other sci-fi film, there are countless planets with human-breathable air, which is not very realistic. The air pressure on Pandora is tolerable for humans, but humans need face masks in order to breath. It seems that the face masks somehow modify the Pandora air, perhaps by filtering out the bad gases. 3- One line in the movie establishes that Pandora’s gravity is slightly less than Earth’s. By adding this line, the film provides sufficient explanation for why Pandora has phenomenon like gigantic trees. 4- There was clearly a great deal of thought put into the diverse plants and animals we find on Pandora.

The Real World writes:

This article is nothing more than an advertisement in a media science magazine.

Huh? This is a blog TRW and I work at Duke. Lee writes:

I thought it was cool that you could see an evolutionary resemblance between a lot of the creatures. Everything except the humanoids and the rest of the animals, that is. If everything else on the world has six legs (or wings, or whatever), then why would the humanoids only have four limbs? What possible evolutionary advantage could they have for losing them?

Marshall P. writes:

sub-lightspeed space travel! After I left the theater, I was explaining to one of my friends that based on the stated travel time by the cryosleep doctor, and the distance to Alpha Cen, one could work out the ship’s velocity profile consistent with relativity. And few hours later at home, I stumbled upon the web page by the movie staff where they lay out exactly that! Someone did their homework on this one. Even the propulsion technology of the ship is quite plausible, given the just one highly speculative step of being able to manufacture large quantities of antimatter for fuel. I especially like the hybrid antimatter/fusion rocket combined with a beam-powered light sail. That’s exactly the sort of complicated trick that real-world engineers would use to reduce fuel and mass constraints on the spacecraft.

kchiou writes:

1) Despite their futuristic tools and their corporate ties, the scientists maintain a childlike curiosity and sheer bewilderment with nature. As a field scientist, that depiction really resonated with me because I see it all the time in the faces of field researchers. Just a thought: do you think Sigourney Weaver’s performance as a scientist was in any way affected by her work on Planet Earth? 2) As an extension of the first point, the scientists are conscious of the sheer wealth of knowledge in the Pandoran ecosystem and are careful not to presume too much. This is much more in line with true science. The way that Sigourney Weaver’s character said “What we THINK we know is . . . ” can be pulled right out of any science lab.

Gary Thomas writes:

I found it very annoying that they got the sound of the ducted fan aircraft so wrong. The whoop whoop sound of a large slow speed rotor on a helicopter is not the sound that counter rotating blades, especially small diameter ducted ones would make.

I don't know about ducted fan aircrafts, but an interesting observation. Rich writes:

The floating mountains were very clearly explained in the movie. They even show the unobtainium superconductor floating in a magnetic field several times in the human base, and then there are multiple lines of dialogue about the mountains being in a region of strong magnetic field. It does make me wonder why they aren’t mining the mountains though...Also, it’s refreshing that the scientists are the good guys in the film!

Great work so far everyone, and add any new observations in comments...

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