Sex, 'Gravity' and a force even physicists can't explain
I knew, before I went to see "Gravity" that the filmmakers took a few liberties with the science. I'd read a New York Times story explaining that they conveniently placed the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station within a hop, skip and jump of each other when in reality they are in different orbits. One more than 100 miles lower than the other.
That bothered the Times writer but I thought I could forgive it. It's fiction, after all.
What bothered me was something that didn't save our heroes – it foiled them. (Spoiler alert! If you haven't already seen the film and plan to and haven't already read about the science goofs, beware.)
George Clooney's character seemed confident and competent up in space. He heroically ferries himself and Sandra Bullock's character from the shards of the dead Space Shuttle and Hubble to the still intact International Space Station. They have some trouble grabbing on, but luckily Sandra Bullock's foot gets caught in the parachute lines.
Since she's tethered to Cooney's character, she would seem to have saved the day. Now they just have to haul themselves aboard. But then something terrible happens. Clooney starts complaining that those parachute lines can't hold both of them.
This is a load of space junk. Bullock's character should have yelled at him: "You can't fall idiot – we're in microgravity g. We're on orbit!" There's nothing known to physics pulling him away from her, except perhaps his own pathological fear of relationships.
And then he does the unforgivable. He unhitches himself from her. Why?
This is an outrage. It's not that I'm averse to witnessing a Clooney character die. I watched him drown in The Perfect Storm, but at least there we get to watch him through the whole movie and he died honorably and rationally.
I considered the possibility that the Clooney-killing force we're being shown in the film corresponds to something that was discovered after I studied physics in college back in the 1980s. So I asked Sean Carroll, who is a physics professor at Caltech. According to his bio, he studies the physics of dark energy, modifications of general relativity, the arrow of time, the foundations of cosmology, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and complexity. Nope, he said. There's absolutely no reason known to physics that Clooney's character should fatally unhook himself. We're left with just the mysterious of the male mind.
The oddness of this scene also came to the attention of astronomer Phil Plait, who wrote about Gravity for his science blog at Slate. In a post on the film, Plait agreed that there's no physical force pulling Clooney's character away from the Sandra Bullock and salvation. Plait suggests that our intuition would make us think it's natural for Clooney to pull away. Speak for yourself, Dr. Plait.
Is this a guy thing? Do men automatically sense a powerful force pulling them away from promising but potentially challenging relationships?
Plait also wrote that this incident didn't detract from the movie – he still raves about the overall awesomeness.
I have a thought experiment for him. Imagine your favorite actress out there on the outside of the tether. Maybe it's Sandra, or maybe it's some other hottie: Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie. And the filmmakers use nonsensical physics to make her unhook herself and float off to her peril, leaving us to watch the rest of the movie with just the guy, floating alone in his underpants.
Then how would you feel?
And call me a romantic but wasn't the filmmaker setting up just enough minimal dialogue to show us that the two astronauts were both single and perfect for each other? So it was not just killing the guy but ruining a perfectly promising relationship.
There are limits, even in fiction: As Mark Twain once said: "The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable."