Avatar’s Pandora is Beautiful
But Too Good to be True
So, we went to see Avatar last night — in glorious 3D at the IMAX theater. It’s a beautifully rendered film and I was reminded of scenes from the game Uru (which, nearly a decade ago had similar lovely landscapes). I won’t go into the storyline in case readers haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’d like to use the world Pandora (where the movie’s action takes place) as a way to talk about other worlds and why they’re never going to be quite like they’re portrayed in the movies. We’re all pretty used to seeing alien worlds in movies like the Star Trek franchise, Star Wars and others. There’s a long tradition in science fiction (movies and print) of casting them as places where humans can go and explore. Hence, they kind of have to be places where humans can exist, even if they can only do it in space suits and habitats. That’s okay — most of us have grown up knowing that humans on the Moon or Mars will be wearing space suits for a long time. And, that will probably be the case on at least some planets that humans may one day explore beyond the solar system.
However (there’s always a gotcha), the planets have to be at least somewhat approachable and not be instant deathtraps for human explorers. Io, in our own solar system, is a place that might be fascinating to explore, but it’s embedded in a deadly zone of radiation trapped within Jupiter’s magnetosphere. While you could theoretically send humans there, they’d have to be really well protected — not a simple thing to do! And, their habitats might not last very long, shortening their useful exploration time.
Pandora is a planet that seems to be set next to a Jovian-type planet in the movie Avatar. As such, if this Jovian planet is anything like the solar system’s Jupiter, there’s bound to be a HUGE magnetic field emanating from it, and magnetic fields trap charged particles. Where you have charged particles, you get radiation — and voila, Pandora could well be a deathtrap for humans. Yet, in the movie, there are humanoids living there on a lush, green world that defies current understanding of how such a world could exist next to a gas giant. And, there ARE humans there, and we ARE told that Pandora’s atmosphere is deadly to the humans but not the native humanoids. The humans walk around with masks on (presumably sucking in oxygen), but are otherwise dressed in shirtsleeves.
So, deadly atmosphere and a presumed high-radiation environment don’t exactly say “run around in t-shirts and shorts with a mask on” to me. But hey, I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story — I just won’t suspend the laws that govern planetary atmospheres and magnetospheres. As beautiful as Pandora is in the movie — and hey, I hope that we DO someday find a planet as beautiful as it is — it can’t really exist in reality in the given circumstances of the movie (i.e. smack up next to a Jovian planet, embedded in its magnetosphere, and very likely also feeling the force of the Jovian’s gravity via tidal forces).
That’s just one science quibble I have with the movie. There are others — but I think you see where I’m going with this. Real-life planets around other stars are going to be far more alien than our filmmakers can imagine. They’re going to have their own life forms and appearances and environments that follow the laws of nature. I think that someday, when our descendents are exploring those worlds, they’ll look back on our movies (if they have access to them) and probably laugh at how simplistic our viewpoint was — that we could remake worlds in our own imaginations and image and ignore the science that governs how worlds are created and how they evolve (with life or without).
All that being said, I really enjoyed the movie. I’ll probably see it again just to catch some details in the story and sets that I missed the first time around. As long as I (and you) go into it with eyes open to the nuances and enjoy it for what it is, that’s cool.
For another scientist’s viewpoint on Avatar, go to Seth Shostak’s discussion here.