looking for science in all the wrong places

December 24, 2010 — 3 Comments

After mentioning Tron Legacy in a follow-up to a post about digital transhumanism, then seeing the film and writing down a few thoughts about its recurring themes, I thought I’d be pretty much done with the topic. It’s not exactly a controversial work, and there’s really not much there beyond the visual effects which try to make the ordinarily tedious process of writing code seem somehow exotic and exciting. But then I came across an odd post from Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance, saying that there was no real science in Tron, for which he was a science consultant, as he simultaneously tried to pat himself and his fellow science consultants on the back for convincing the director to put in unmentioned tanks of raw material used to reassemble humans emerging back from The Grid into the real world somewhere almost off camera for two frames that may have made it into the final cut. And after emphasizing this scientific victory, he goes on to say that just a tiny little bit of scientific content can add a lot of depth and believability to films, and Tron is a recent example of just that.

Let me get this straight. We’re talking about a movie in which a programmer is trapped in a computer by an AI with an authoritarian streak after discovering self-manifesting super-programs, ages by several decades in a safe-house despite inhabiting a purely digital realm where nothing needs to age, and is then joined by a son who was vaporized into the same computer with a laser. Pardon me but where exactly is the science in any of this Hollywood fantasy of how the world inside computers should look like to an audience which is just barely familiar with the concept of computing? Oh, right. If we strain really, really hard, we might see some unmarked tanks which we’re assured contain the oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, hydrogen, and metals needed to bring a human back from a virtual world and re-assemble him one subatomic particle at a time. That’s the science of the Tron universe and a step towards seeing more and more scientifically accurate movies? Sean, really? Come on, from any scientific or engineering standpoint, the whole movie is just a fantasy where little people inside microchips are called programs and somehow, objects ordinarily requiring terabytes of memory to run can fill an entire virtual city in an arcade from the 1980s. But hey, we got those tanks, right?

And here’s another thing. Sean is a physicist, and he participated in the science consulting through a project that’s rather heavy on experts in physics and biology. Now, were Tron’s creators to ask someone with even a basic background in computer science, they would’ve learned that for The Grid to work, it would’ve had to exist on a server the size of the Encom tower and consume slightly more electricity than a small developing country to allow astronomical amounts of code to compile and run non-stop for decades at a time. They also would’ve found out that programs can’t just randomly manifest themselves unless you specifically experiment with your code to tease out some sort of behaviors you may not anticipate, behaviors that usually only happen because you left so much room in your code’s rules for the program to do something seemingly bizarre under a certain set of conditions. Finally, they’d have to come up with an explanation for how at a time when supercomputers were about a million times slower than they are today, someone could create an architecture only possible for the kinds of machines which are still just rough sketches on drawing boards. It’s not the design that wouldn’t work here, but the fact that in the 1980s, the computers weren’t fast enough to execute Tron-level instructions, and come to think of it, even today’s best computing devices simply aren’t up to par.

I could raise a few other issues but I don’t want to give away the ending and I think you get the point. There’s a dearth of any scientific merit to the movie and the tanks Sean mentions were so memorable, that after seeing the movie, I had no idea they were even there until I read his post on the matter. But you know what, that’s ok. I can live with a scientifically and technologically inaccurate movie. There’s certainly value in scientific advice to filmmakers when their goal is to be as accurate as possible and make a realistic and believable movie. When it comes to movies like Tron, though, the goal is to entertain, not educate or stay plausible, and we should let them just be entertaining rather than trying to squeeze in some hard science or make it seem as if the director heeded his scientific advisers when he didn’t really do anything noticeable. We shouldn’t be relying on movies to teach us about science or desperately try to latch something scientific onto a movie with good buzz just for a shot at getting an audience that may sort of be interested in seeing a few more clips from the movie between the scientist droning on about something that has to do with a scene they heard was really cool…

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  • Russ Toelke

    Dear Movie Maker:

    We know your sci-fi masterpiece is escapism. Don’t waste too much time trying to make the “science” sound convincing.

    It is for this reason I prefer B movie sci-fi to blockbuster productions.

  • Paul

    It’s quite jarring when they try to force an explanation where it doesn’t really improve things. How is Tron Legacy’s magic-laser-with-magic-tanks any more scientific than Tron’s magic-laser?

    Could be worse… Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

  • Sam

    I hate so say it, but the movie is most “Fi”, with very little “Sci”. It is a bit disappointing to hear that science experts were consulted and yet this version of “Tron” is no better with regard to having a solid scientific backing, than the original.