“Sunshine” and the Death of the Universe

Danny Boyle’s acclaimed science fiction movie “Sunshine” (2007) exemplifies many examples of both accurate and inaccurate science, mixed together in a nice package of good acting, great visuals, and a dramatically affecting but seemingly plausible storyline.

The general concept employed in “Sunshine” concerns the apocalyptic threat of the earth freezing over because the sun is dying. Writer Alex Garland got the idea from reading about a concept in physics called the “heat death of the universe”. This idea is based on the second law of thermodynamics, which states that energy is not converted with 100 % efficiency in chemical reactions; some of the energy is lost to entropy (energy dispersed into a system and thus made unavailable for mechanical work – a measurement of the disorder in a system), and the free energy left after a reaction is thus less than before. Heat death suggests an ultimate fate of the universe where the total entropy has reached a maximum, and all energy has been diminished to such a degree that there’s no thermodynamic free energy left to sustain mechanical motion or life. Moreover, Boyle wanted to make a movie about something different from the typical disaster movies about the environmental issue of global warming. So, the film was based on the idea of the sun dying, leading instead to an issue of global freezing.

Looking into the concepts of heat death, and the death of the sun, fallacies can immediately be found. It’s important, however, to point out that these ideas do represent actual, well-founded scientific concepts, and that technically, the scenario in the movie could happen in the future. The problem that makes the scenario in the movie implausible is that neither heat death nor the death of the sun could happen anytime in the near future. According to physicist Gary Felder, Ph. D., such an event could not happen in a very long time, stating that “heat death of the universe will not take place until after a length of time that makes the current age of the universe seem miniscule by comparison”. Concerning the sun dying, it is true that it, like all stars, will eventually die. All stars have a limited supply of hydrogen fuel in their cores, and once a star has exhausted that hydrogen supply, it will turn into a red giant, and will swell up and engulf nearby planets before eventually turning into a small white dwarf. However, according to NASA, a star the size of the sun has enough hydrogen fuel to shine at constant brightness for about nine billion years. As the sun has existed for about 4.5 billion years, it has burnt up about half of its hydrogen supply and is expected to live for another 4.5 to 5 billion years.

The plot of “Sunshine” is based on scientifically accurate concepts, but the employment of these concepts to create a scenario like the one in the movie makes for an inaccurate and implausible storyline, although it is held up well by the overall quality of the production.

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