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Review: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
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!
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!
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).
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 austinpowers.com.