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Review: How Space Physics Really Works

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How Space Physics Really Works: Lessons from Well-Constructed Science Fiction
by Andrew May
Springer, 2023
paperback, 157 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3031339493

Scientists, engineers, and others in the space community usually have one of two reactions when they see bad science or engineering in a sci-fi movie or TV show. One is to simply let it go: it’s entertainment, after all, not a documentary. The other, of course, is to loudly complain about it on social media. When the movie 65 made its way to Netflix recently after a brief flyby of movie theaters, curious people tuned in—space and dinosaurs, after all—only to quickly complain that the movie was messing up its portrayal of spaceflight or asteroids (never mind aliens that, 65 million years ago, looked and acted just like humans.)

If you’re in that latter camp, Andrew May feels your pain. With a PhD in astrophysics, he has suffered through plenty of bad science fiction that ignores basic laws of physics. Sci-fi movies and TV shows are “notoriously inaccurate when it comes to portraying the physics of outer space,” he writes at the beginning of his new book How Space Physics Really Works. It’s so bad, he concludes, “that, if physical effects were shown working the way they do in the real world, many viewers would perceive it as an error.”

It’s so bad, he concludes, “that, if physical effects were shown working the way they do in the real world, many viewers would perceive it as an error.”

May, though, is not here to bury those works that screw up basic physics but instead to elevate those that get it right. The book is a primer of sorts of physics and orbital mechanics, with chapters on topics like gravity, orbital dynamics, and space propulsion. (He stays away from more exotic forms of physics, never mentioning the “dreaded Q-word”—quantum—until the end.) He goes through the details about how they actually work, illustrated by passages from science fiction stories and novels that get the science right. He argues that “outer space is the perfect physics classroom” and that stories that are technically accurate are educational for those unfamiliar with physics and entertaining for those who are.

He leans heavily on a handful of science fiction authors—overwhelmingly male—to make his points in the book. Arthur C. Clarke is the most heavily referenced, along with some contemporaries like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. He relies less on more contemporary writers, other than Andy Weir of The Martian fame and also retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has written one alt-history spaceflight novel (see “Review: The Apollo Murders”, The Space Review, December 13, 2021.) Notably, he avoids television and film, including shows like “The Expanse” and “For All Mankind” that make much more of an effort to be faithful to science and engineering than other shows.

What How Space Physics Really Works shows is that it’s possible for science fiction to be both entertaining and accurate when it comes to spaceflight, at least for some subset of mostly classic written sci-fi. That can be beneficial, and many people have used such works to fuel an interest in spaceflight even if the stories are dated in other ways. But there’s still something to be said about that other camp: disengaging one’s brain and ignoring those technical inaccuracies to instead enjoy the show. In the case of 65, that means rooting for the dinosaurs to get one final kill, of alien intruder Adam Driver, before being wiped out by the Chicxulub impact. Right?

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