FANDOM


WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic
Sci-fi writers do not know what "energy" is.


General

  • Any work with a "penniless tramp freighter captain" falls right into this trope, along with Space Is an Ocean (since the "tramp freighter" is copied from seafaring tropes). Realistically, decent spaceship engines start at the nuclear-submarine level (a NERVA rocket is essentially a nuclear submarine engine heating hydrogen for the exhaust instead of steam for a turbine), and the really high end ones make fission look like a cigarette lighter. It's generally agreed that if large-scale space travel ever does occur, it's going to be heavily regulated—many theorists doubt privately-owned spaceships will ever exist (after we graduate beyond chemical rockets, anyway), though a few might be technically private (albeit owned by corporations so huge they might as well be states).
  • Similarly, any spaceship that can do both orbit-to-orbit and surface-to-orbit flight should never be described as a "clunker" or a "piece of junk", since it's widely suspected that having one spaceship do both is effectively impossible. More realistically, spaceships designed to fly between planets will carry small, Space Shuttle-like landing craft. Even those landing craft are highly unlikely to get into orbit with a single rocket-stage—more realistic is multiple rocket stages, dedicated aircraft that carry the spaceships to a high altitude before they take off, or more exotic things, like space elevators that tow spaceships into orbit on a cable whose other end is in orbit.

Comicbooks

  • In V4 Legion of Super-Heroes, the moon is blown up. Earth hardly notices, even though just a few chunks of it should wreak disaster on the Earth equivalent to being hit by hundreds of asteroids at once. Later on, the Earth is blown up and said to damage the moons of Saturn, when the effect should be unnoticeable.
    • How much damage are we talking about? Earth-shattering energy levels translate to at least a couple kilograms of TNT per square meter at this distance.


Films -- Live-Action

  • In the Back to The Future films, time travel needs 1.21 gigawatts -- the only source of which is supposedly plutonium or a lightning bolt. Large-scale electrical generation power plants can generate several gigawatts or more. Not exactly something you can carry around in a Delorean, but not the impossibility the film makes it out to be.
  • Armageddon provides a shiny example in the categories of size, energy, and distance: An asteroid the size of Texas (roughly 700 - 1,000 km across depending on the axis chosen) is not an asteroid - it's a planetoid. It is comparable in size to the larger moons of the outer gas giants. The movie states that our heroes drill 800 feet into it. Many modern rig operations close on to twice that, while diamond-head drilling goes to four times the stated depth before hitting its cost-effectiveness ceiling. And lastly, they they split the asteroid planetoid in two by setting off a 20 megaton nuclear device in the hole. Now, setting aside the concept of getting a nuke into such a hole (which is fairly narrow in diameter), this is roughly equivalent to taking a bowling ball, pricking its surface gently with a push pin, and then farting into the hole.
    • That large an object that close to the Earth would be 3,000 - 4,000 times brighter than Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Solar System, and thus easily spotted with the naked eye. It would have naked-eye visibility for a least a few weeks before the 18-day deadline given in the film.
  • In Star Trek The Motion Picture the staggaring, awe-inspiring power of Vger's ball-lightning attack (which is at one point shown disintegrating an entire Klingon fleet) is measured by the Enterprise's sensors and reported by Sulu as being "One to the Twelfth Power". We will leave it as an exercise for the reader to calculate what 1^12 is.
    • Gene Roddenberry seems to have had a bit of a blind spot with the number 1. An original series episode reported viewscreen magnifications of "1 to the fourth power" and so on. In his original pitch, he reinvented Drake's Equation (he didn't have the actual equation on hand) to show how likely alien life was, and ended up with terms raised to the first power.
  • The Terminator asks for a phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range. The phased part is a bit of a mystery, but forty watts of plasma is about half a candle's output. Hitting your opponent with the output of a lit match might sting a bit, but it doesn't sound terribly lethal.


Literature

  • In the Riverworld series, food is provided by an energy-to-matter conversion. Three times a day, each Grailstone blasts out enough energy to create food for seven hundred people, and half that energy gets wasted into the air. There are some 20,000,000 Grailstones on the planet. Just for clarity, a one-kiloton thermonuclear explosion converts about .05 grams of mass to energy. The Grailstones should blow the atmosphere off the planet at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now that's a barbecue!
    • The source of this energy is also a problem: it's stated that the Grail system is powered by thermoelectric generators under the planet's crust. The available energy (3.6 exajoules per day) sounds like a lot, but it's only enough to synthesize about 40kg of food.
    • The extra matter also ought to turn the River Valley into a miles-deep sewer of human waste in a few short years. There would have to be some means of converting the mass back into energy to avoid this.
  • Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series is usually very good about keeping distances, masses and velocities in proportion (not too surprising, as Reynolds is an astrophysicist). He does lose track of energy sometimes though. "Redemption Ark" has "crustbuster warheads" with a yield of 1 teraton - that's a million megatons, - and mentions that a destabilized Conjoiner drive on a lighthugger releases three orders of magnitude more energy than THAT. Granted, nobody sane ever tries to harm a lighthugger in vicinity of an inhabited planet, but couple times in the series starships do go up. In "Absolution Gap" lighthugger Gnostic Ascension blows up when less than 20,000 km from an icy moon Hela. At the very least on hemisphere of Hela should have melted.
  • In one of the Star Wars Expanded Universe technical manuals, a starfighter's main guns are about 1/200,000,000th that of a capital ship's heavy guns, and yet starfighters still try to shoot at enemy capital ships like they can do more than annoy the enemy captain by obstructing his view out the bridge. The series that book belongs to throws out words like kilotons for star fighter weaponry, megatons for Slave-1's weaponry, and gigatons for capital scale weaponry. All this for weapons which, for the films that they're detailing, display yields that rarely stack up to the more extreme episodes of Myth Busters. The light ion cannons on the Invisible Hand are supposedly throwing out as much heat as a 4.8 megaton thermonuclear bomb, which is strange when compared to the Hoth Ion cannon, a weapon that disabled an Imperial Star Destroyer in a handful of shots and yet didn't produce enough heat to melt the surrounding snow. In general, you could probably knock off about six to nine orders of magnitude on anything written in those books and you'd still get way too much.
    • In fairness, the author Curtis Saxton is an astrophysicist so he's presumably well-aware of these issues. Most likely, he concluded that the amount of firepower on display is closer to what one would actually expect for a galaxy-spanning civilization capable of traveling many thousands times the speed of the light and creating planet-destroying space stations. That said, it is a bit of an oddity since he's also the author best-known for retconning the canonical size of the Death Star II and Executor super star destroyer based on what was to him self-evident from the film as shot. Even worse, Saxton is heavily suspected by his critics of being involved in the Pro-Wars side of the online Vs. Debate, and that his contributions were heavily influenced by the need to decisively win that. Gary Sarli, another scientist and Star Wars fan/contributor, analyzed Saxton's work and concluded that one of his more influential calculations overshot the mark by at least 5 orders of magnitude due to faulty assumptions on how the Imperials engage in planetary-scale scorched earth policy, particularly how Saxton seemed to have missed the dozens if not hundreds of ships that would be involved.


Live-Action TV

  • In Space: 1999, an explosion at a nuclear waste dump accelerates Earth's moon to a speed that defies the laws of physics. In fact, the energy required to get the moon out of orbit is more than enough to completely pulverize it.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Conundrum," the crew is brainwashed by a Satarran into helping them win a war against the Lysians, whose hardware is "greatly outclassed" by the Enterprise-D. Specifically, the energy output of the Lysian Central Command is given as "4.3 kilojoules". According to its packaging, the energy content of a single piece of After Eight chocolate is 145 kilojoules. The Lysians cannot protect their own starbase from a flashlight.
    • Even better: a Lysian destroyer effortlessly dispatched by the Enterprise earlier in the episode is mentioned as having disruptors worth 2.1 megajoules--500something times stronger than their starbase's shield output. The Satarrans' hat is brainwashing entire crews. Wasn't there a simpler way for them to win the war than to make an episode of television?
  • In the Secret of Bigfoot episodes of the Six Million Dollar Man, Oscar Goldman has to detonate a 500 megaton atomic bomb that's beeh burried 500 feet down to trigger a fault and stop a much bigger earthquake that will level the west coast. The Aliens, who have their base in the vicinity send The Beautiful Woman of the Week to defuse the device, and Steve Austin has to stop her. Steve overcomes the alien and then runs off with T -10 seconds before detonation. It's been established that Steve can run at a top speed of 60 miles an hour, so while I dont know the exact calculations, but 10 seconds of 60 MPH run from an atomic bomb (even 500 feet down) would mean that he gets turned into a slightly lesser grade of Extra Crispy. Although to be fair, writer Kenny Johnson pretty much addresses the problem and goes "Yeah, but what are you going to do?"
  • In the Supermarionation series ~Fireball XL5~, it only took a few missiles to blow up an incoming planet.
  • Every Star Trek with a ship exploding SERIOUSLY underestimates the size of the explosion. Take the Constitution Class. To do what it does, with as much as "20 years" of time between refueling quoted in the original Manual, 10,000 tons of antimatter is not an unreasonable figure to allow the immense, continuous power uses. At ~43 million tons of TNT equivalent for a kilogram of antimatter reacting with matter, we get 430,000 Gigatons of TNT. To put it in perspective, that's about three dinosaur killers. But we routinely see ships near other exploding ships being unaffected by the storm of hard radiation.


Videogames

  • Kind of energy: the Pokédex entries for some Pokémon species. "Magcargo's body temperature is 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit" (Sun's surface: 5,800 Kelvin, or 9980 F), "Charizard's fire is hot enough to melt boulders" (1200 Celsius, 2192 F)...
    • It should be noted however that numerous Pokédex entries are contradicted by both the games and the anime, contain a suspicious amount of rumours and conjecture, and considering the favoured tactic of Pokemon researchers is to recruit ten-year-olds and send them off without instruction, there's a strong implication that science in the Pokemon world is of a very poor quality.
  • In Metroid Prime Hunters, the Volt Driver is said to fire multi-terawatt bursts of electricity. A terawatt, or one trillion (10^12) watts is the unit that measures the total amount of power used by humanity (about 15 terawatts). The Judicator fires supercooled plasma that reaches near Absolute Zero. Both of these are hand held weapons.
    • The annihilator beam of Metroid Prime 2 combines matter and antimatter. This would produce a blast comparable to a nuclear bomb. The beam is semiautomatic (0.5 grams of matter and antimatter produce roughly 9 * 10^13 Joules of energy -- which is, roughly, the energy output of a Fat Man type nuclear explosion. And even 0.0001g of matter and antimatter each would still produce enough energy to melt a metric ,ton of steel.
    • On the other side of the scale, the Shock Coil weapon somehow manages to kill things with neutrinos. Neutrinos are famous for having almost zero mass. Trillions of them are passing through your body right now. The description says these neutrinos are "high density" but the sheer amount it would take to do even the smallest bit of damage would be absolutely insane.
  • Averted in Mass Effect 2, with the Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest SOB in space sequence. The gunnery chief is about right about the energy yield of the Everest-class dreadnought's main gun.
  • The fusion or antimatter powerplants for the starships in the X-Universe have laughably low power outputs. The net output of a 4 kilometer long destroyer's antimatter reactor is about the same as burning a couple gallons of gasoline. Shields would be incapable of protecting a ship from flecks of dust because of how low their rating would be in reality.


Western Animation

  • In Ben 10 the self destruct mechanism on the Omnitrix releases enough energy to destroy the entire universe. One of many problems with that idea is if you ever got that much energy into one point (assuming it existed in the first place), the total absence of energy from the rest of the universe would destroy it anyway.
    • Also in the episode "Ben Versus the Negative Ten", the artifact the villains are trying to steal is described by Grandpa Max as containing "The power of a thousand suns... enough to blow a continent off the face of the Earth!" [1]
  • The Superfriends frequently have their heroes performing feats that even the pre-Crisis Silver Age comic authors would have blanched at:
    • In one World's Greatest Superfriends episode, a giant Space Viking several times the size of Jupiter steals the Earth, puts it in his belt pouch, and stomps away (!) through interplanetary space. While Apache Chief distracts the villain by growing to his size and wrestling with him (!!), Superman sneaks into his belt pouch, recovers the Earth, and then pushes the Earth back into its proper orbit in the space of a few seconds (!!!). Ignoring the fact that pushing on the Earth that hard would turn it inside-out, this operation would require many times more energy than Superman can possibly store within his own body, even if he were powerered by antimatter.
    • In the Challenge episode "Invasion of the Fearians", Green Lantern is sent out to divert some meteors that are on a collision course with Earth. Unfortunately, the meteors are yellow, so his power ring won't affect them. What does he do? He moves the Earth out of the way.
      • And neglects to put it back.
  • The nineties version on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had in one episode the attempt of villains Shredder and Krang of depleting the sun to power the Technodrome, it gets worse if you consider that in another episode they had tried to steal the power of a nuclear submarine for the same purpose. Go figure.

Return to main.

Notes

  1. Which is a true statement, if slightly misleading, as that sort of power could easily blow the face of the Earth off the face of the Earth many, many times over.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.