The Biggest Science Errors in (hard) Sci-Fi

One of the problems with having just watched a whole lot of Star Trek is that, while I like a lot of the characters and plots and ideals, it’s a poster show for demonstrating some of the biggest scientific problems in modern science fiction. So, without further ado, I break a long silence to present my Top 3 Science Errors in Sci-Fi.

#1: Sensors

If you are the captain on the bridge of a Star Trek ship, you have the advantage of being well-informed beyond the limits of physical possibility. Your science and tactical officers can consult the Sensors and instantly list for you every object within a few light years. They can tell you what each object is made of. They can give you a map of a planet surface, or approach a never-encountered-before alien spaceship and produce an interior schematic. They can rattle off the number, species, sentience, and state of health of every living thing on a planet. They can tell you what systems are active on an enemy ship. They can even quote for you what the enemy ship’s computers are calculating.

Decades worth of scientific data-gathering and interpretation, happening in an instant

It might seen like “sensors” capable of many of these feats are plausible, given some of the technologies and techniques available to us today. We have telescopes that conduct all-sky surveys and see billions of light-years; so why not give Starfleet captains an immediate cosmic census? We can do spectroscopy to determine a substance’s constituent elements remotely. And we can detect electromagnetic signals, which might emanate from even the smallest electrical circuits. But what’s missing from this picture is the presence of uncertainty, noise, and time delays, all of which make measurements harder – and make the conclusions you can draw from those measurements much less certain. At the very most, when Spock or Data or Dax quotes the composition of a strange starship, they should include a measurement of probability with each component – and those probabilities should be well under 100%! Not only will that percentage depend on the quality of the instruments, the measurements, and the data processing, but there are even certain physical limits that prevent it from ever reaching 100% or even from getting to a reasonable level of confidence without a certain amount of observation time. If you want to map an alien planet, for instance, you need to spend time in orbit imaging and analyzing its entire surface, if for no other reason than that you can’t observe more than a small sliver of the planet at once!

Another important point involves the physical infrastructure required to give instruments the sensitivity they would need to do all these things with high certainty. Suppose we want to alert Captain Picard to the fact that the Borg ship is charging its weapons to fire. (And, obviously, I don’t mean Borg led by a relatable megalomaniac queen; I mean terrifying faceless drone Borg coming to assimilate you.) Presumably, the phrase “charging weapons” means that the energy in some kind of battery or capacitor bank is building up. We could, theoretically, detect photons emitted from such a system. But, first of all, I would think that the Borg shield systems like that, since they value efficiency so much – so very few photons will come out for us to detect. Second, a single photon won’t be enough for us to tell what’s going on. We need enough to get a good signal-to-noise ratio: that is, we need enough photons from the Borg weapons system to confidently say that they are from an energy buildup in that weapon system, and not from anything else. If there’s a fixed number of photons coming out of the Borg weapon, then there are basically two ways to build that confidence by measuring more photons: give your sensors a long time to measure, or catch photons from a larger area. We want to give Picard a result fast, so we’d have to go for the bigger photon-capturing. Much bigger. Especially if you want to pin down the exact location of those photon emissions: angular resolution at any given wavelength of light depends directly – and only – on the telescope baseline size. Therefore, first up on the Enterprise’s battle plan should be the deployment of a giant reflector dish. I think something with a diameter of a couple hundred kilometers should suffice!

The impossibility of Sensors as we usually see them depicted could have a huge impact on many sci-fi storylines. For instance, characters should have to make decisions on much more restricted information – or spend much more time considering their actions. Our characters will also find themselves in many more situations where they can’t solve the problems we throw them up against, simply because they don’t have enough information about the problem or they have to take too long to figure things out. There are other impacts, too. For instance, I’ve seen arguments on the web that stealth spacecraft are impossible (because any spaceship with humans in it will be at a temperature much higher than ambient space, so it will emit thermal radiation). These arguments assume the existence of Sensors, and further assume that the Sensors will always trump alien thermal management schemes. And in hard sci-fi circles, particularly in computer-game universes, there is also the concept of active versus passive Sensors: active Sensors are like radar, which bounce a signal off of enemy ships (thus making your ship easier to detect); while passive Sensors are like cameras, which just collect emissions. However, though that distinction may be meaningful, it’s not practical! Unless you really want to deploy those huge detector telescopes, you had better break out the radar if you want to locate your enemies before they fire all their missiles.

#2: Orbits

When you arrive at a planet from deep space, you want to park your spaceship. The parking space is an orbit. Contrast with deep-space maneuvering, when your spaceship can go any direction it likes any time it wants.

Well, no. Not exactly. Not at all, in fact.

Orbits aren’t just for parking – they dictate everything about moving around in space. The International Space “Station” is always moving at many thousands of kilometers per hour because of orbits. Geostationary satellites are at a really high altitude – over 35,000 km – because of orbit mechanics. We only launch space probes to Mars about once every two years because of orbits. Interplanetary space probes can only reach certain destinations with the amount of fuel they carry because of orbits.

Whenever two sci-fi spaceships meet at a planet, they aren’t going to be exactly next to each other except by design. If their orbits are inclined or eccentric relative to each other, or at different altitudes, then the ships are going to be continuously moving around relative to one another. If these ships get into a space battle, then they are likewise going to be moving around each other in arcing paths. The trajectories of the arcs will change as the ships maneuver, but there is definitely going to be constant, hectic motion, and it definitely won’t all align nicely with some arbitrary 2D plane.

Nice neat flying-wedge-style formations in orbit?

The worst offender on this point, in my opinion, is Ender’s Game. One of the premises of the book is the argument that, in space, the enemy could attack you from any direction and at such speed that you cannot anticipate the attack; therefore, defense of a planet is impossible and everyone has to be on the attack all the time. This is an interesting idea, but it’s true only if the attacking spacecraft have unlimited power and propellant. In reality, those resources must be limited and so the attacking fleet is going to have to take some orbital trajectory to get from their planet to yours. Just like NASA planning the launch of a Mars rover, they’ve got to pick their launch window carefully – which means that you actually could predict which trajectories the attackers are more likely to use.

The mechanics of orbits matter to sci-fi stories: they are like the layout of highways and roads across a country. If some characters need to get from one planet to another, there are certain orbits they could use and certain orbits they could not. They determine how long the trip takes, and what subsequent destinations the characters can reach. And orbits keep ships moving with respect to one another along curving paths in all three spatial dimensions, making spacecraft behave in a manner that is completely unlike watercraft (or even aircraft), which is how we usually see them depicted.

#3: Co-opting a Current Science Word to Mean “Magic”

Nanotechnology. Genetic engineering. Biotechnology. Mutation. Cybernetics.

All of these words, even the more sciency-sounding ones, are often thrown around in sci-fi as synonyms for the word “magic.” My favorite examples come from Peter Hamilton’s Void Trilogy, when characters with all sorts of technological implants “manifest a quantum field function” in order to do things (unlock doors, tap into computers, fire lasers, etc). What the heck does this mean? Hamilton just strung together some cool-sounding words. His characters might as well be waving magic wands or using the Force. At least the Star Wars universe is honest about this!

The thing is, terms such as the ones I listed describe technologies that we have now and don’t mean at all what the sci-fi writers think they mean. For example: nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the manufacturing capability to build things with sizes measured in nanometers, and it happens all the time in the electronics industry without giving anybody superpowers. What nanotechnology does give us is a ton of transistors on a silicon chip. Same for genetic engineering: we have been splicing genes and resequencing DNA for decades now – and cruder genetic engineering in the form of selective breeding goes all the way back to Gregor Mendel. You can thank genetic engineering for apples and insulin, but again – no mind-melding, magnetism-wielding, or time-winding powers.

I do not think that it’s inconceivable or wrong for writers to take the Arthur C. Clarke leap, and posit that sufficiently advanced technology is “indistinguishable from magic.” But in order for that to work, the technologies have to have either technical explanations that use concepts we can’t relate to our current understanding, or leave off the explanations entirely. Think of explaining that Droid phone to a Roman: it wouldn’t make sense to say, “Oh, you have aqueducts. Well, over time, aqueducts got better and smaller and eventually people built this handheld device which works by really good aqueducts.” That extrapolation of technology is misleading and incorrect. The “indistinguishable from magic” idea comes into play because the Roman doesn’t understand electrons or transistors or LCDs, and those terms are completely meaningless to him.

Often, terms like these are handled well – and science fiction is a tremendous vehicle for exploring the potential implications of emerging sciences. Where I have my biggest problem is when a story says something like, “after the introduction of nanotechnology in 2167, nanotech-enhanced human muscles, nerves, and brains entered the market.” Lines like that show that the writer just thought the word “nanotech” sounded cool and didn’t want to think very hard about how the theories or technology we have now would feed in to the technology of tomorrow. It’s a cop-out that doesn’t align well with either our current understanding or the effects the writer is trying to describe. Where those cases are concerned, I kind of like it better when we have “the Force” and “red matter” and other such things without any explanation.


I decided on a top three based on those issues that I think have the biggest impact on sci-fi stories. There are, of course, a whole host of other science problems in most popular sci-fi.

The closest runner-up, in my mind, has to be designing spacecraft like ships – with planar decks stacked on top of one another, such that if you stand on the surface of a deck you can face in the direction of travel of the spaceship. There is no reason whatsoever to do that. In fact, if you’re interested in getting some artificial gravity, it makes much more sense to stack the decks vertically, so that the lowest deck is toward the engines and the thrust is always “up.” But if sci-fi starship designers want to really go nuts, they ought to start canting decks at angles, wrapping them around cylinders, or just having a string of cabins that the starship crew floats between. Written sci-fi is much better about all this than movies, TV, or games are. (Artificial gravity itself is something I’m willing to give sci-fi movies and TV shows a pass on, simply because I understand the production limitations and I’d rather see more innovative sci-fi come out of Hollywood than less. It can fall into the “magic” category. But it’s no excuse to design ship-style decks.)

Sound in space is also a science error, but I’m happy to let it slide for the sake of artistic license. Same goes for big fireball explosions. Some shows go a long way, stylistically, by muting or eliminating sound from their spacecraft, though!

Most sci-fi gets the idea of rocket engines way off. Orbit maneuvers – including getting onto a transfer orbit to another planet – require a change in velocity known as delta-vee. Delta-vee comes from firing a rocket engine. The more the engine fires, the more delta-vee the spaceship gets. Simple enough, but the problem lies in propellant consumption: a spaceship only has a finite amount of propellant aboard, and when you use it all up in engine burns, you can no longer move your spaceship around. So spacecraft rocket firings necessarily happen only during brief intervals, when absolutely necessary. A real spaceship will never have rocket engines on continuously in an “idle” state, or to overcome friction like a boat or airplane has to! (Electric propulsion, like ion engines, behaves a bit differently – those engines are almost always very low-thrust devices that have to be on for months, say, to get a space probe from the Earth to the Moon.) Worse, something like the Starship Enterprise would have to devote most of its mass to housing propellant reserves to accomplish many of the maneuvers we see. To get around this issue, many sci-fi universes include some kind of “reactionless” drive or other engine based on as-yet-unknown physics that can use the Clarke argument. I’m not sure why those engines need to have glowing backward-facing exhaust vents, though!

Orbit-to-surface-to-orbit shuttles are pretty bad. Barring some future magical physics, a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle is the holy grail of launch. It takes an enormous amount of fuel and propellant to escape the Earth’s gravity – far, far more in terms of mass than the rocket payload. Most launch concepts we can envision involve some component of the vehicle that doesn’t make it into space – whether it’s an expendable booster stage or a carrier aircraft that stays behind for reuse. Re-entry can be just as problematic, as the vehicle has to get rid of a ton of kinetic energy (to make a long story short, that’s what space capsules’ heat shields do). Shuttles can be obnoxiously necessary for crews of planet-hopping explorers, though…

Like shuttles, faster-than-light travel is tough. It’s the elephant in the room of most science fiction: writers are just dying to have it, but it cannot be accomplished by any means we currently know about. There are some theories out there that might give us FTL capabilities, but only under the most extreme and unrealizable conditions. (Things like…being inside a black hole and whatnot.) However, being able to move characters from planet to planet very quickly can make for richer storylines, more imaginative settings, and more exciting descriptions and visuals, and so it becomes a kind of necessary evil.

Addendum: Reader Nominations

A couple readers have commented on some other effects or technologies commonly depicted in science fiction that commit scientific faux pas.

  • Will pointed out “shields” and “force fields,” which form an impenetrable (or, at least, as penetrable as the plot requires) bubble wall around a starship. The idea of a deflector shield has its basis in scientific fact; but there is no real way to project a solid wall around your favorite spaceship that prevents matter and energy from passing through.
  • Jon mentioned that many movies and TV shows include “energy weapons” which produce blasts that travel slower than not only light, but also sound!