Great moments in pedantry: Scientists point out flaws in the science of Prometheus

I've not yet seen Prometheus, but as a genre, I honestly enjoy articles that are all about applying a (perhaps overly) critical lens to the way science is portrayed in science fiction. I think there's a lot to learn from this sort of story—both about how science really works, and how to write more believable stories. In this piece on Forbes, an archaeologist, a geologist, an animal biologist, and two physicists critique the methodology and professional practice of the fiction scientists aboard the Prometheus. (Via Miriam Goldstein)


  1. Oddly I didn’t have a problem with the scientists (especially the geologist and biologist) in the movie acting as bad scientists. I just figured there was a lack of good scientists willing to risk their lives and years of their lives on a mission where they wouldn’t be told where they were going or what they were doing until they got there.  Under those circumstances it make perfect sense that you’d get third rate personal who are only in it for the money.

    1. I totally agree.  I always assumed they were “scientist for hire” type of things, not top tier in their field professionals. 

      I mean you ended up with Hudson in Aliens…you’d think a company as big and powerful as Weyland-Yutani they’d have access to more “professional” space marines.

        1. But I thought he was the Ultimate Bad Ass from the State of the Bad Ass R part of the squad of Ultimate Bad Asses….

          But yeah, only 4 more weeks to go:

    2. And you’d also get bad scientists when the entire expedition is a science expedition only on paper, but is actually just a ferry ride for a certain person and his android. The film tried to make it exceptionally clear that the scientists were from the bottom of barrel, but only a few lines of dialogue implied that the entire mission only had the appearance of a science mission in order to satisfy the Board of Directors of Wayland Corp.

      1. +++
        I think many people are disregarding the fact that the “science” aspects of the mission were essentially a sham. I also think that if you view the two main archeologist characters less as hardcore mainstream scientists, and more as kooky-fringey “ancient alien” types a la Erich von Daniken who just happened to be right about a few aspects of their theory (and wrong about most of the others, as in, “We were soooo wrong!”) the whole thing makes a lot more sense, and allows greater suspension of disbelief.

        Me, I loved it. I found the special effects to be grand, Fassbender’s character to be extremely well-executed, and the action and pacing to be highly enjoyable.

        Sometimes I think some of the folks who are spending sooooo much time poking holes in Prometheus haven’t actually seen _any_ of the other previous four films in the franchise. I just re-watched Alien, and let me tell you, there are various aspects of that movie that if held up to the same scrutiny, would simply not make any sense either.

        1. I saw Prometheus opening day and loved it. You’re absolutely right about the characters and their motivations and the fact that the whole mission was a sham from the start. Not sure why it’s so hard for people to accept that… it’s shown very clearly in the film pretty much from the start, though you do have to think about it.

          I watched Alien and Aliens again last week and there is indeed a lot of BS that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. But, neither film is as complex/deep as Prometheus and it’s easier to not realize that things don’t make sense (and easier to dismiss things). 

          To understand and enjoy Prometheus you have to look past what seem like “obvious flaws” and get to the subtext and the important plot points that are only hinted at. Once you do that, of course, then you realize the obvious flaws weren’t actually flaws (not that it’s a flawless film).

    3. My problem was they weren’t just incompetent scientists, they were incompetent humans. You don’t need good training to know you should not hug cobras, or how to run sideways after something has been rolling at you for minutes. You just need a brain or a decent writer.

      People in the other movies make stupid mistakes, but at least they’re human-like mistakes. It does help they weren’t all about whatever quests for deep truths, though; Prometheus begged to be taken seriously, then wasn’t.

      Still, it has given us a lot of really excellent reviews.

  2. Prometheus was a gorgeous film, but falls flat compared to Blade Runner or Alien. I was sorta bummed it wasn’t better than it was. At least the Avengers lived up to the hype.

    1. Of course, some of us think that The Avengers didn’t live up to the hype either.  But at least you weren’t thinking about the horrendous plot holes and weird directorial choices whilst the film was actually going on, so I guess it was better in that respect at least.

      1.  It wasn’t prefect – but it was very… “Comic-book-y”. I liked how they mixed in classic vs. bouts among their ranks. It was fun and the plot hole were not a distraction to me (which is saying alot because in many a film I am screaming “this makes no god-damn sense!)

        Comic aren’t perfect either – no form of entertainment is, but I thought they really captured the larger-than-life-ness of comics in the film.

  3. There have been a bunch of these articles, more than usual probably due to the really idiotic behavior of the scientists in Prometheus. It is practically a manual on how to do everything wrong despite the fictitious project having apparently unlimited funding (they mention a trillion dollars at one point). You’d think they could have spent a few bucks on a sane crew. But all in all, the story suffers from the usual problems of horror movies: if people acted reasonably, very few of the things that happen in the story would actually occur; everybody would be running away.

    1. Come on it happens in 2089.  At the rate we are going we will have some trillionaires in the world by that time.  Especially once a couple nations are purchased by corporations.

      1. Also, did they mention how much a cup of coffee costs? If it’s a million dollars, a trillion isn’t that much.

      2.  At 5% growth (3% real + 2% inflation), in 78 years the GDP of the United States would be something like 675 Trillion dollars.  So spending 1 trillion on a project then would be like spending 22 billion today.

  4. One ridiculous thing I pointed out to the person I went to see the movie with: isn’t it kind of weird that their space suits are so easily flammable?  Considering they were going to a planet they really didn’t know much about, wouldn’t they want some kind of material that tends to be mostly non-reactive (and probably good at conducting and radiating any excess heat away from the wearer inside.)

    Regardless of the flaws, I actually enjoyed the movie.  People are only analyzing and criticizing the science in it because so much of it is better than the average sci-fi movie Hollywood makes.

    1. A flamethrower doesn’t just shoot out fire. That fire is launched with flaming fuel or goop. The suits probably could withstand the extremes of heat and cold (that’s why the Captain told those stuck in the cave overnight to put their helmets on–it was going to get cold). 

      But a burning fuel is a different story. 

  5. Very funny critique here:
    But wait – the balls on the pool table (yes, the pool table – what about it?) are all sliding over to one side by themselves – the destination threshold has been reached and the spaceship has, believe it not, put the brakes on at the last minute. Fassbender goes to the bridge, and fires up the computers to see what’s going on. Colourful displays shimmer into being – motion sensitive read-outs unfold and hover in front of him, their only goals in life are to provide him with information he needs, and to look great. Fassbender smiles, perhaps marveling at the possibility that one day in the not so distant future, all this glittering technology could be replaced by clattery keyboards, blinking LEDs and monochrome cathode ray tubes – almost like something out of a 70s horror movie. . .

    I wonder what RedLetterMedia will do with this…. Oh look, they already did one:

    1. But, but, but…that was Weyland’s private boat so to speak.  Of course it’s going to be the highest tech there is….

      Yeah that explains it.

      (If the set didn’t look awesome then we’d have to focus on the actual story.)


    I enjoyed the movie, and only convulsed occasionally at the cavalier disregard for physics and science.  The thing that got me was: Okay – they’ve invested a trillion dollars in the mission, travelled a bazillion light years or whatever, given up several years of their lives, and the minute they get there, what do they do?  Send in robot probes (like maybe even one of those flying balls) or even some kind of rover to scout ahead?  Or maybe remote-control one of their vehicles to test the terrain?  Or even pick some poor bastard in a red shirt to drive there first?  Noooo…  They all jump into various futuristic-looking wheeled ground vehicles (wouldn’t they at least have a hovercraft or something?) and – yeeeehaw! – go roaring across a completely unknown landscape at about 70 MPH toward the “artifact”.  I don’t know about you, but I personally think it would be _highly_ embarrassing to spend that much, travel that far, and employ that much technology only to break my neck when the vehicle hit a rock and flipped, or be swallowed up by a giant sinkhole, or drive into an open alien manhole (alienhole?) or something equally low-tech.  At least some of these people are ostensibly archaeologists; haven’t they ever seen “Indiana Jones” or “The Mummy” or anything?  After that, it was almost a relief to see them be orally tentacle-raped to death.  And really?  Don’t aliens have safety switches or electric eyes or something on their garage doors?  OSHA would get their panties in a _huge_ wad over workers getting beheaded by closing garage doors because there were no safety devices.  *sigh*  And what are the odds, really, of having a falling giant alien battleship tip over exactly right to crush you?  And wouldn’t you maybe… I don’t know… run _perpendicular_ to the projected impact vector of a long narrow object, as opposed to running _parallel_ underneath it, glancing over your shoulder in the finest Wile E. Coyote tradition until it ponderously rolls over and crushes you?  *meh* 

      1. This is how we used to denote italics, before there was all sorts of fancy text on the interwebs. And in forums where italics are not possible. And sometimes, purely out of habit or for stylistic/aesthetic reasons. DUH!

          1. Incidentally, google chat (at least the javascript/html client) autoconverts *this* to bold, _this_ to italic, and -this- to strikethrough – and I believe Markdown syntax is about the same. It’s not quite dead. :)

        1. We work our fingers to the bone so that you kids can have html tags and you still use underscores.

          1. Faster than tags. Though in our tradition, underscores mean, well, underscored text, and slashes italics. AT LEAST CAPS LOCK STILL WORKS.

          2. If you should unexpectedly find yourself with some spare time, a short reminder under the reply box that HTML works here (and perhaps a list of accepted tags) would be most welcome. :)

            I tend to forget which sites accept HTML (with or without links)/BBcode/Markdown/nothing, and that leads to conservative fallbacks like, well, underscores.

          3. You say this as though most people A: know html and B: realize that it would actually work in the comments here, unlike many other forums and the like where they are disabled.

    1.  Having driven a modern car 70mph, I feel qualified to tell you that it sure doesn’t feel unsafe. It looks like they had the appropriate suspension for the terrain. Only a soulless person would go that far to drive at martian rover speeds.

      1. Do that across an entirely unfamiliar mile or two of the Badlands at dusk and get back to me about how safe it feels, will you? I would also note that there’s rather a wide range of speed options between “Mars Rover” and interstate highway…

      2. 70 mph isnt’t fast at all, when on a decent road.  Hell, over here some people often drive 120 – 130 mph.  
        But it’s a wee bit different on rough terrain.   On another planet.  Thanks guys, drive as fast as you want.  I’ll walk.  Can I have your stereo in case you break your neck?

    2. Exactly. You have super-advanced AIs of David’s calibre (capable of learning how to operate alien ships within a few hours), but you have no advanced non-humanoid drones, and populate the mission with heat/light/food/water/oxygen/protection from cosmic rays needing humans.

  7. I think it was on the official Prometheus site, I saw a discussion of how they actually could have gotten to the planet 34 light years away in two years because, if they were almost at the speed of light, the two years would’ve been ship time, but like a 100,000,000 years would’ve passed on Earth. It’s amazing how much filling in your brain has to do for this film.
    Now I’m seeing people say that it’s fiction and you shouldn’t have to follow the Laws of the Universe if said Laws impede the story. But to me, that’s ridiculous because this is the Universe we live in and it’s also incredibly lazy.

    1. Also, it’s SCIENCE fiction. So it helps if there is some actual science in there too.

      1. No, I think it was Space Horror.

        There was definitley space, and there was definitely horror (for certain, limited definitions of the term “horror”).

        Now, as far as “science” goes…. well, maybe for certain Erik VonDanniken-definitions of “science.”

        Which doesn’t bother me in the least.

        Stop calling it “SCIENCE” fiction, you Gernbacky-fanboys.

        It’s SPECULATIVE fiction.

        Fiction about science is BORING, unless you’ve got a glowing Marie Curie wandering about radium-ating Europe, or Edison electrocuting elephants. Or possibly Tesla duplicating hats and magicians.

  8. I wonder if the scientists of Mary Shelley’s time were nonplussed by the scientific aspects of that tale of Prometheus as these today?

    1.  Mary Shelley had good grounding in the science of her time.   Percy Shelley and his friend Byron were avid science geeks who often attended lectures and shared what they learned with her.    Victor Frankenstein was likely based on various real-life scientists as well.  There was actually very little hard science in Frankenstein so  she could hardly be faulted for plot holes.

  9. To be fair, none of the scientists came out with overblown-yet-tantalising claims and demanded additional funding before they could prove their paper-thin theories. I found that quite refreshing, although of course utterly unrealistic.

    1.  Paper-thin theories seldom gets multimillion funding – except possibly in the shadier corners of the pharmaceutical industry, but even there they generally aim for “not worse than the patent-lapsed/cheap stuff we’re going to claim it’s better than”.

  10. BB had a great article dissecting  misconceptions about medical shows like HOUSE. What I found most interesting was the skewed survival rates, vastly inflated. 

    1.  And the way Dr House can pull out half your organs and drug you to the edge of death, but as long as the very last thing he tries works, you instantly return to perfect health.

  11. My problem with all the ‘Stupid Human Tricks’ was that they drove so much of the plot.  With a little more work, the writers could have written a script where the scientists acted like intelligent people and still have had everything go to hell.  There was no reason other than laziness to have the whole story driven by the crew’s stupidity.

  12. Anyone else get hung up on the use of carbon dating in the movie (which shouldn’t have been possible on an alien world with an unknown geological history)?

  13. Scientists don’t like the way scientists and science are handled in the movies?  What makes them so special that we’re always hearing about this?  Movies and television don’t portray ANYTHING accurately.  Ask anyone who is an expert in their field and I guarantee, whether the field is science, art, dance, music, business, politics, computer programming, medicine, ANYTHING, that the person has issues with how their profession is portrayed on screen.  Get over it, already.

  14. This is the worst kind of criticism. Attacking science fiction from the field of science. Star Trek was a far cry from reality as well, but many, many future scientists were inspired by the show and have used it as a guide for new technologies.

    I find this article a useless exercise in the expertise of the impossible, chortle-chortle, snot–you can’t do THAT in science. Pfff.

    1. On the other hand, the Enterprise wasn’t crewed by a group of borderline-psychotic kamikaze “git ‘er done!” types, either.  Except maybe the security guys, and that was in their job description…

      1.  Yes, Kirk, the one who ended up with his shirt ripped open/off in each episode.

        Also, these people are set in a time not far off from ours. What’s so hard to believe about there being idiots in space?

    2. There’s a difference between imagining new technologies and not being able to tell your own ass from a hole in the ground.

      1. This movie was more “philosophical/theological” first, then sci-fi. But I’m by no means stating that it was deep in either mode of thought or genre. 

        It’s an obvious set-up film for more to come. It was very entertaining. Better than most of the garbage that’s been released recently.

        I don’t think it needed to be scientifically sincere in order to work.

        Also, we all knew it was written by the LOST guy, so we knew what to expect as far as M.O. is concerned.

        I thought is was beautiful to watch and interesting to see the irony and folly play out, no matter how far Vickers thought they were from Earth.

  15. Yes, the original Alien films aren’t scientifically accurate, but they had good stories, so nobody bothered to pick them apart. Shows like Red Dwarf and LEXX are fun to watch even though full of improbable happenings.
    I thought the story in Prometheus was boring and the pacing was leaden. I agree Michael Fassbender did a great job portraying David, but I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater. If I hadn’t been there with someone else, I would’ve left. 
    And there was also the whole ‘drag this flimsy idea out over however many sequels’ thing.

  16. Best line in one of the linked articles, ever: 
    “And WTF fuck does the head explode?”

    *WTF fuck*

  17. Weyland should have been either Lance Henriksen, or an aged-up but still recognisable Michael Fassbender.

    For all the ropey plotlines, I still had fun watching the movie.  Shaw’s “baby” was a nicely done bit of birth-horror (on par with Twilight’s dental caesarean).  I would have liked to see a bit more focus on her and the tentacle-baby, like if it turned out that the creature really liked her and she was stuck on the lifeboat with this strangely affectionate monster that she couldn’t bring herself to reject.

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