Four concepts you have about space that are actually wrong

This is my lengthy and not required introduction. If you’d like to skip to the four concepts, click here.

Let’s be real, most people don’t think about space that much. They know the names and orders of the planets in our solar system, they know the name of our galaxy, and that’s about it. The average citizen doesn’t know, say, the distance from Earth to the sun (8.2 light minutes), the diameter of the Milky Way (100,000 light years), how gravity works (distortion of space-time), nor even a general idea of how far the moon is from the Earth (nor any other celestial bodies for that matter)!

Now, I am NO astrophysicist, but this is pretty basic stuff. Honestly, if we consider ourselves to be an intelligent species that may some day be able to travel freely off of our planet, we should at least have a general concept of how big space is. Unfortunately, such things are not taught in our public education system and therefore most people go through life never even pondering it.

Reader, I encourage you to learn about space. Watch some videos on YouTube. There are thousands of them, too many to list, about every topic, and they are incredibly informative. (If you are already a space video watcher and are ready for extreme hard mode, watch “The Inexplicable Universe” lecture series by Neil Degrasse Tyson, available on Netflix as of this writing. It covers literally everything.) When you start venturing into this topic, you start to realize that space is EVERYTHING. Earth is so damn small, knowing only about Earth is really not an accurate understanding of our universe.

The unfortunate consequence of the public lacking this general knowledge is that false information and unrealistic ideas about the universe get spread and accepted by people because they’ve got no knowledge against which to judge it. All of this information is available to us thanks to the glory of the Internet but people just don’t think to seek it.

Example: the film Gravity (2013). Y’all, this movie is so damn inaccurate I actually cannot believe it got made. Literally every scene is impossible yet I’m pretty sure it is supposed to portray real astronauts in the real future operating under real laws of physics. I have included a list sampling of three scenes from Gravity and how wrong they are. Feel free to skip if you are not interested in this film.

  1. Early in the film, the astronauts’ space walk goes wrong. Everyone dies except for the characters portrayed by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Luckily for George Clooney, he is on a tether and that tether is being held by Sandra Bullock, who is safely anchored to the spacecraft. George’s momentum is stopped by the tether. The energy of his motion is converted into rope tension.
    1. What should happen next: The tension is absorbed by Sandra’s muscles and reverses George’s direction and he is moving back towards Sandra, who can safely pull him back in. This isn’t even a space thing, that’s just how energy and force works. We have this on Earth.
    2. What happens in the film: The tension STAYS in the rope even though there is no force acting on George in that direction (????? magic?) and he says “Sorry Sandra you have to let me go die in space” and she regretfully lets go and he FLIES OFF INTO SPACE! Kinetic energy is spontaneously manifested. Jesus be a fence.
  2. Sandra manages to jet-pack her way through space (lol) from the Hubble Telescope to the ISS which is a convenient 100 km away (LOL). She manages to get inside (LMFAO). Unfortunately the parachute for the Soyuz capsule has been damaged so she can’t take it back down to earth, and also there is a fire on board and she must evacuate.
    1. What should happen next: Well dis bitch would already be so dead. You can’t just navigate around space freely like you can on Earth so she wouldn’t have been able to jet-pack to any point in the first place. Also you can’t just get inside the ISS with your space suit on without assistance from the inside. OK so forgiving ALL of that, she gets to the ISS, can’t escape in the Soyuz, there’s a fire, she would die. End of story.
    2. What happens in the film: She sees in the distance a fictional Chinese station called the Tiangong. In real space everything is REALLY far away from each other so IRL it would be too far away for her to actually see. It’s also likely that the Tiangong could be around the horizon and thus not visible from the ISS. But anyway she spots it and then DRIVES THE SOYUZ OVER THERE. HOLY CRAP. I already mentioned how you can’t ‘drive around’ in space, right? Like on Earth, I can see a building in the distance, get in my car and drive (effectively in two spatial dimensions because I am not flying) to that building. But ok in space we are in 3 dimensions also you and your destination are both orbiting AKA falling at like 5 miles per SECOND. No honey you can’t just scoot on over there in the Soyuz capsule you snatched that is not even designed for space flight but is actually built for returning to Earth.
  3. Ok so Sandra drives to the Tiangong. FINE. Then she gets in an escape capsule and finally, praise God, falls towards Earth. This is unplanned, there is no trajectory. There is no mission control. She just hopin’ for the best.
    1. What should happen next: Earth is 70% ocean so she should land somewhere random in a random ocean and then drown. Alternatively, she crashes on land. Bye bye Sandra.
    2. What happens in the film: She does not land in the ocean. She does not land on land. Dis bitch lands in like FIVE FOOT DEEP WATER ON THE BLOODY COASTLINE. I wonder what % of Earth’s surface is shallow coastal water in an area that happens to also be in a nice (read: not arctic or dangerously hot) climate like where she lands. I don’t know the exact number but I’m pretty confident it is near to zero.

Geez, I hate that movie. The point is, this film is accepted as a realistic portrayal of space and propagated huge amounts of false information to the public. The public is not able to spot blatantly false information about space. And that is sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are some spacey things you may believe but have not given much detailed thought to.

1. Humans will be able to travel outside our solar system.

Let me lay this out for you. The distance from the sun to Pluto is about .0005 light years. I think we can all agree that Pluto is pretty far away. Still, it’s within our reach. The New Horizons spacecraft got there in less than 10 years! So freaking fast! That thing is going at over 36,000 mph. Nice. Within 100 years, travelling to Pluto will be a piece of cake. We will be capable of sending manned missions to Pluto and other other outer/exo planets. Though I’m thinking we probably will not because there’s nothing out there that is worth an in-person human visit that a robot couldn’t check out just fine.

Ok so the good part of our solar system (fuck the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud) which lies within a .0005 light year radius of us is accessible. That’s truly great. The next nearest object of interest to us is the star Proxima Centauri, so named because it is the nearest star to our solar system. That shit is 4.3 light years away. Quick review: Pluto = .0005 light years. The next fucking star = 4.3 light years. Pluto = accessible. Proxima Centauri = not accessible.

Maybe I’m underestimating future human technology. Maybe in 500 or 1000 years we will have crafts that can travel near light-speed and we will be able to get to Proxima Centauri within a reasonable amount of time. But remember, the next star after that is ANOTHER 4 light years away. Or 10, or 20, or 100. Proxima, while on a human scale is very very far away, on a universal scale is… insignificant. We are insignificant, and all the celestial bodies within our reach past, present, and future are insignificant too. We are small. We can’t help it.

In conclusion: while we will likely be able to send unmanned crafts to “nearby” points of interest outside the solar system, we will never be able to shuttle humans around, nor will there be any reason to because none of those places can support life.

Bonus: “Intergalactic” travel is even more of a fantasy and will literally be impossible forever. Try if you dare to imagine the distance from Sol to Proxima Centauri magnified from a single star-scale to a galactic scale. Nevermind, don’t try. Our primitive brains cannot comprehend a fucking galaxy. Also, the universe is expanding and galaxies are moving away from each other so the distance between them is always increasing. So even if we did depart from earth and head towards Andromeda, it would recede from us faster than we could approach it.

2. We will find life elsewhere in the universe

There is undoubtedly life elsewhere in space-time. The universe is so so vast that any scenario you can conceive of has at least some probability of occurring. It’s like Hitchhiker’s goddamn Guide to the Galaxy out there.

Just because there is life in the universe does not mean we can detect it. Our ability to observe the universe is limited to what our technology can read, what our minds can comprehend, the small time frame we inhabit, and what our four dimensions can express. Life could be all around us, just beyond the reach of these impassible barriers. Life could just be too far away for us to detect (a likely scenario, see above paragraph about how far away our neighbor star is) or maybe it existed in the past or in the future. Time is theoretically as vast as space and we take up such a tiny speck of time the way we take up a tiny speck of space. Once again, we are just too small to contend with the universe.

If we can’t discover aliens, maybe they can discover us. But if aliens exist that are capable of finding our little Earth, a needle in a trillion trillion haystacks, then they 1) are so much more advanced than us that they would not deign to contact us and 2) will have located many, many more interesting planets to visit than ours. Thems the facts.

So yes, aliens exist, but not in a way that is accessible to us.

3. If and when we establish contact with intelligent aliens, we will be able to communicate with them.

Many science fiction stories portray aliens as humanoid, able to understand English (obviously fiction) or at least having some form of language that we can decode and use to exchange information with them. Is this realistic?

Not 👏 a 👏 chance.

We have so many other beings right here on our own planet! Some of them (ex. dolphins, many primates, elephants) have their own methods of communication that we can observe, but we cannot meaningfully communicate with them.

Answer me this: if we cannot communicate with our own fellow Earthlings that have 98% or more common DNA with ourselves, how the fuck are we gonna communicate with super-advanced, possibly not carbon-based, possibly multi-dimensional beings that have for some inconceivable reason decided to pay Earth a visit and not blow it up instantly and farm the debris for resources?

Rhetorical question, obviously. We can’t.

4. We are intelligent.

I think it is clear that we are not (yet) really intelligent, if you define “intelligent” as having a decent understanding of our universe. You might think we understand the universe because our understanding is the only concept we have, but y’all, we only JUST got a picture of Pluto. We don’t even know how life started on our OWN planet. Have you heard about dark energy/dark matter, the mysterious stuff that we know exactly zero things about? This mystery thing (a force? a substance? something in another dimension that manifests itself in our dimension as gravity?) makes up 96% of our universe. We can only observe four 👏 percent 👏 of the universe right now.

So no, unfortunately we are not yet intelligent. But you know what’s amazing? We can imagine it. We little brand new humans with 3 pound brains can contemplate the beginning and the end of existence, multiverses, ridiculous things like String Theory and wormholes. That’s extraordinary. We may never be able to physically exceed the limits of our tiny plot of space-time, but our imaginations are limitless. In that way, we are intelligent.