“Danny Boyle doesn’t sweat the small stuff”

In my previous post, I wrote about fallacies in the general scientific concept behind Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (2007). This time, I’m gonna write about the scientific accuracy of some specific details of the film. Even though there are a lot of them that are scientifically accurate, there are also a bunch of fallacies about “smaller” astrophysical stuff, many of which are purposefully disregarded by the director.

First, at several times in the movie, one can hear whooshing and other sounds when the ship is shown from the outside, in space. As the environment outside the ship is high-quality vacuum – meaning it contains very few to no particles at all – there can be no sound as there so few molecules or other particles that can transmit sound waves through vibrations. This fact is also the reason why the temperature in deep-space is so low; as there are very close to no particles at all in space, there can be virtually no molecular motion, which is why the temperature of objects in space is very close to absolute zero (0 K or -273 °C) (provided they are not subject to radiation from, for instance, the sun). The vacuum itself has no temperature, but objects traveling through it do. If an object is facing deep space, its surface temperature might be almost as low as absolute zero, but if it’s facing the sun its temperature would be significantly higher.

Furthermore, this brings one to another detail of scientific inaccuracy in the film. About 62 minutes into the movie, the part of the crew that boarded the Icarus I have to use the airlock hatch to propel themselves back 20 meters through space to the separated Icarus II – at a temperature claimed by one of the crew members to be -273 °C. Like in The Core – where an accurate description of one earth science concept is used to instill plausibility for another, inaccurate one – this scene provides a good example of how accurate and inaccurate science is often combined to make unrealistic events seem plausible. Using the air lock to send them flying to the other ship could theoretically be possible because of the pressure differences between the inside and outside of the ship. However, the part in which Capa, Mace and Harvey are sent through the vacuum is wrongly depicted. First, one might think that at a temperature of -273 °C, Mace and Harvey – who aren’t thermally protected by a space suit like Capa – should freeze to death within an instant. This would be true in a, for us, normal environment, such as on Earth, where heat can be, and is, transferred through molecular motion of matter. Since the concentration of particles in the vacuum of deep space is so low, the transfer of heat would take significantly longer. After some time, whatever object is exposed to the environment of deep space would cool down to such a temperature. In Sunshine, it doesn’t take more than 20-30 seconds for Harvey to freeze completely, while in reality, the lack of particles to where heat could be transferred from Harvey’s body would make this process much longer.

Other details that represent inaccurately depicted science include the gravity onboard the ship, and how slow-motion is shown as an effect of weightlessness. There is no mentioning of any type mechanism for artificial gravity generation onboard the Icarus I and the Icarus II. Such a mechanism would be necessary for the crew members not to float around in weightlessness. Also, when the crew members are subjected to the lack of gravity outside of the ship, scenes portray a common misbelief that one of the effects of zero gravity is slow-motion. Boyle realized this after doing a microgravity flight in a so-called Vomit Comet, but chose to keep the slow-motion part in the film, for the effect as well as to meet the expectations of the audience.

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