Copernicus On The Science Of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN!!
For those who don’t know me, I’ve been writing occasionally for AICN since 1996. But I’m also a professional astronomer at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. One of the things I write about often (or give lectures about) is the science in movies. I don’t do this to nitpick. On the contrary, I think it allows us to gain new insight into all of the thought put into a film, and appreciate it in new ways. And it is a chance to teach a little science, or even just the wonder of science, using a starting point that we’re all familiar with. If you really need to bend the scientific rules to tell a better story, that’s ok. But don’t do it just because you are too lazy to understand the subject matter you are writing about. So this is part fun, part education, part keeping writers honest, and part just to give us something to argue about.
Leonard Nimoy’s death hit me pretty hard. As I said in his obituary, in a time when there wasn’t an internet to help you find your tribe, and not even cable to show a wide range of interests, Spock was one of the first and, for a time, only icons for nerds and geeks. People who got regularly bullied in school could look to Spock and say, hey, this guy is logical and smart, doesn’t even understand people all that well socially, but he’s cool. More than that, Spock was a badass. And it wasn’t just the writing. Trek dialog can look pretty silly on the page, and sound that way coming out of the mouths of lesser talents. But Nimoy sold it like it was Shakespeare. I agree with Philip K. Dick, “It’s the tone of voice, the supernatural reasonability; this is not a man like us; this is a God. God talks this way; every one of us senses it instinctively.”
How many engineers, astronauts, and scientists would have been bullied out of their passions without him as a role model? Our nation, which is driven by science, technology, and innovation, owes a great debt of gratitude to Mr. Nimoy and his portrayal of Mr. Spock (and indeed the entire cast of STAR TREK). Here’s some firsthand evidence, after NASA built a real-world Enterprise.
And oh my god, WRATH OF KHAN. It is one of my top 10 films of all time. I watch it at least once a year. As I’ve grown older and started to mentor young people, its resonance has only grown. It is about experience vs. youth. But it isn’t one-dimensional. The young people have all the enthusiasm and vigor. The older crowd has the wisdom, and at times, the weariness. In most movies you either have young people as the protagonists and the older people as the foil or vice versa. But here they each learn from the other.
To a greater extent than any other STAR TREK story, TWOK is about the human condition first and foremost, and STAR TREK only secondarily. It has themes of obsession, friendship, aging, death, and spiritual rebirth. It could have been told in almost any time or place. Except that it is also perfect and quintessential TREK. It calls on the events of the series and expands on them. And because of that backstory, I’d go so far to say that Spock’s death is one of the most resonant and hard-hitting death scenes in all of cinema history. This was a friendship we’d seen grow over more than 80 hours of storytelling and nearly two decades of real time. And Spock was pure, perfect, and selfless. This is about having your best friend ripped away from you. I’m old enough for this to have happened to me. To get through it, I put on WRATH OF KHAN.
And of course I put it on when Leonard Nimoy died. He’s such an incredible actor that in the middle I was so wrapped up in the story, even though I’d seen it dozens of times, that for a while I forgot he had died. But then when it came to Spock’s actual death it hit me harder than ever. This was no longer a metaphor, and he wasn’t coming back.
So to make a short story long, I have nothing but love for WRATH OF KHAN. But that isn’t going to make me pull any punches on the science. Enough of my emo bullshit. Spock would not be pleased. Let’s do some physics!
Long about the time Kirk was spreading his own “space seed” with Drusilla the slave girl, Khan and his genetically engineered biker gang were getting screwed by the universe. I’ll let Khan explain in his own words — you’ll just have to imagine it in the mellifluous cadence of Ricardo Montalban, “Ceti Alpha VI, exploded six months after we were left here. The shock shifted the orbit of this planet and everything was laid waste.”
Now, I understand Chekov wasn’t exactly in a position to sass Khan right at that moment, but he should have called bullshit on Khan’s weak-ass grasp of astrophysics. For a start, planets don’t just explode. Second, how did he know it exploded, if he was trapped on the surface of a planet with no advanced equipment? If Mars exploded, we might see it get brighter for a bit, then eventually fade away, but without telescopes we’d have to guess what happened. Third, a shock is a specific kind of density wave moving through a medium. It needs something to propagate in — you can have a shock ripping through a star during a supernova, but it won’t just fly through empty space (supernova ejecta will but that’s not a shock). And fourth, even if he colloquially meant that a bunch of debris hit his planet and shifted it enough to change the climate, that is highly unlikely. Roughly speaking, the exploded planet debris would drop in density like the square of the distance from the explosion and other planets are always very far away.
But hey, we only have the word of a half-cocked madman to go on here. There are some astrophysical phenomena that can explain the condition of Ceti Alpha V. Let’s see if we can figure out what happened.
I said earlier that planets don’t just explode. I meant that after the planets are done forming, assuming nothing else interacts with them, they don’t explode. But the Earth has actually exploded in the past! Kind of. At least, that’s the leading theory for how the Moon was formed. Early in the life of the Solar System, the idea is that a Mars-sized body smashed into the proto-Earth. This created a giant cloud of debris, and out of that the Moon formed. But in those wild years things were pretty chaotic.