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Review: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

poster for Austin Powers

I know what you're thinking.

``Austin Powers? Has the Bad Astronomer lost his mind?''

The answer to that is, of course: ``Yeah baby, yeah!'' Well, maybe. Sure, it's a silly satire, but what the heck. There is some astronomy in it. A lot of the jokes were funny, but the astronomy wasn't exactly shagadelic. And before you accuse me of being a square, remember, this page isn't really about getting all steamed about the way astronomy is distorted in movies. It's about using those distortions to show the way things really are. So let's go baby, yeah! Oh behave!

Austin's archenemy, Dr. Evil, builds a laser on the Moon. As he shows a simulation to his nefarious minions, he says, ``As you know, the Moon rotates around the Earth.''

This is a minor but common transgression. The Moon doesn't rotate around the Earth, it revolves. Something that spins about an axis is said to rotate; something that makes a path around another object is said to revolve. The Earth rotates around its axis, but it revolves around the Sun. I once read in an astronomy textbook that the type of gun called a revolver should really be called a rotator!

Actually (as always in astronomy), the situation is a bit more complicated. In reality, the Moon and Earth revolve around a common center of gravity. But that's getting too picky for this, even for me!

In another scene involving the laser, Dr. Evil says that it will takes another six hours for the Moon to move into range of Washington DC (Dr. Evil's first target for destruction).

In reality, the Earth rotates much faster than the Moon orbits around. It takes the Earth 24 hours to rotate once, of course, and it takes the Moon roughly 27 days to go around the Earth once. So it would have been more accurate for Dr. Evil to say that it will take 6 hours for Washington DC to rotate into range of the weapon. Again, a minor point, but the reason I bring this up is that a lot of times you need to remember that everything in space is in motion, and even a simple situation can be more complicated than you first supposed.

This one's not astronomy, but what the heck: when the laser fires you can see the red beam shooting into space.

One of the things that makes a laser beam a beam is that the light is collimated, or lined up. All the photons that make up the laser move in the same direction: along the path of the beam. That means that unless it's headed right at you, you cannot see the beam. Sometimes here on Earth, though, you can see it. What happens then is that particles in the air can scatter the photons, aiming some into your eye. When we played with lasers in college, we would clap chalkboard erasers together; the chalk dust would drift into the beam and get illuminated by it. That's a pretty effect, like fairy dust. On the Moon, though, there's no air, so the beam would just shoot off unseen.

I wouldn't normally mention this little bit of bad physics, but it's so common! There's a scene in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard and Riker actually see a phaser being shot at them and they dodge out of the way. They'd never see the beam! Worse, the beam is actually moving at (duh) the speed of light. Dodging would be a bit tough (and yes, Star Trek rationalizers, phasers are beams of light. ST:TNG established that by talking about how they fire gamma rays).

Dr. Evil and Mini-Me Bad:
Near the end, Mini-Me gets blown out into space. We hear him scream as he's launched into orbit.

Tsk tsk. The most common error in any sci-fi flick: sounds cannot travel in space. Sound is actually a compression of air (and a rarefaction, or lessening of pressure too). When that compression/rarefaction hits your ear, you eardrum vibrates, which our brain interprets as sound. Without air (or some other medium like water, say) sound cannot travel. So out in space, no one really can hear you scream!

Also, Mini-Me wouldn't get very far. To get an object into orbit around the Moon means giving it a velocity of roughly 1800 meters per second (roughly 6000 kilometers an hour), and to get it to escape it needs to move 2500 meters per second (roughly 9000 kilometers an hour). Accelerating Mini-Me that fast by blowing him out an airlock would require a force which would turn him into Mini-Goo. Ick.

When Dr. Evil's rocket launches, it is seen by people all over the Earth (including the U.S. and China).

The Earth is a giant ball. It's pretty unlikely that people all over the planet will see the same thing in the sky at the same time; if someone in the U.S. sees it, the people in China can't because it's blocked by the Earth itself. That's why, for example, when China has night the U.S. is in daytime; the Chinese are essentially in the Earth's shadow. It is possible for everyone in the northern hemisphere to see it at the same time though: if his rocket launches from the North Pole, then anyone in the northern hemisphere can see it. However, there aren't too many hollowed out volcanic islands near the North Pole, though. Incidentally, both Deep Impact and Armageddon made this mistake too.

Well, that's about it for this one. I'll admit I didn't like the movie all that much; in my opinion the first one was better. There was a lot of funny stuff in it, but it was a little too uneven for my taste. Maybe the next one will be better.

If you're looking for Austin Powers websites, as of the time I write this (June 21, 1999) there are about a billion of them. The official one is

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