Astrophysicist explains why The Expanse is more realistic than Star Wars, Star Trek

Set a few hundred years in our future, The Expanse is a terrific science fiction show that just wrapped up its fifth season on Amazon Prime Video, but it’s not your ordinary sci-fi show. There’s no warp speed, light speed or teleportation. People can’t project themselves across the galaxy or even communicate between planets without a long delay, and the whole thing takes place entirely within our own solar system.

The Expanse, in short, isn’t part of example of what astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley Alex Filippenko would call, “extreme science fiction,” or sci-fi with technology that might as well be magic. “A lot of science fiction shows just assume you have the technology to be able to get certain things done while ignoring how realistic it is to get those things done,” he told SFGate. “TV shows like ‘Star Trek’ and sets of movies like ‘Star Wars’ didn’t really try to pay much attention to the science, but ‘The Expanse’ does.”

I’m not knocking ‘Star Trek,’ and other extreme science fiction, I actually liked the series growing up. I’m just saying they pulled technology out of the air and said, ‘We’re going to have transporters, inertial dampers and other stuff, so don’t worry about it.’ But ‘The Expanse’ really paid attention to the science the way few movies and shows have done.

In what ways is The Expanse more realistic than Star Trek or Star Wars?

So what are some of the ways that The Expanse brings a dose of realism to the genre? To start, there’s the travel-through-space thing. “In ‘The Expanse,’ they try to speed up and slow down at reasonable g-factors and even there, they have to include a little magic in the form of a juice you inject that helps mitigate the effects of large G’s on things like blood flow,” Filippenko said. “If you look at fighter pilots and others who experience high G’s, bad things can happen to them under high G’s such as inhibition of blood flow. ‘The Expanse’ tried to recognize that with the juice, which is kind like an inertial damper, but nowhere near as extreme.”

Then there’s the matter of how there’s gravity inside a spaceship. “The Rocinante is built more like a skyscraper with decks like floors,” Filippenko said. “And accelerating perpendicular to those decks, at least according to Einstein’s principle of equivalence, that acceleration would be equivalent to gravity in the opposite direction. By accelerating, they realistically create gravity on the decks of that spaceship and it’s an amount of gravity that’s doable and comfortable for the humans that are on that particular ship.”

Most spaceships in other shows have been flat platforms that, if you’re looking at a football field, only accelerate in the direction of the plane of the football field. That doesn’t create gravity for you. In ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ they did it by rotating the spacecraft, which is a reasonable way to generate gravity, but the better way to do it is the way ‘The Expanse’ did it with perpendicular acceleration. I commend the creators of ‘The Expanse’ for creating gravity in a realistic way.

And then there’s the communicating-through-space problem. “Communications are not faster than the speed of light,” Filippenko said. “It takes light about 40 minutes to go from Earth to Jupiter, and from Earth to Mars, it’s about 15 to 20 minutes. They took it into account that communications are not instantaneous.”

That said, there are some things that The Expanse does stretch, like the Epstein Drive, which allows the spaceships to maintain acceleration through their entire voyage. “You’re going to need a lot of energy for that, and they don’t really talk about how that’s done,” Filippenko said. “It’s presumably nuclear, but then you have to deal with the fact that what’s emitted will do damage to the ship. Maybe one day humans overcome those barriers, but the Epstein Drive is extreme science fiction in that sense, but not as unrealistic as faster than light travel or the warp drive from ‘Star Trek.'”

And then there’s the matter of sound in space. As anyone who remembers high school science knows, there isn’t any, but most sci-fi shows bring you explosion and laser noises anyway.

“Sound doesn’t carry in a vacuum, but you lose dramatic effect if you don’t incorporate sounds,” Filippenko said. “The drama withers away if don’t have sound. That’s an obvious area where they ignored science, but I give them a pass for that one.”

The one is really easy to remember — there’s no sound in space — but the rule is so often broken that I’m guessing it has to be producers or network heads insisting that we hear everything go smash and plooey. One of these days, a network will have the stones to follow this rule and we’ll all feel silly for ignoring it for so long.

“As a scientist, I respect when writers and producers pay attention to the science as currently known so science fiction isn’t a complete fantasy,” Filippenko finished. “Which is not to say I don’t enjoy extreme science fiction, it’s just that they’re mostly fiction. In ‘The Expanse,’ they tried to meld science and fiction much more than other shows have.”

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