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CINEMA SCIENCE: Cinema Science is an explores how cinema --particularly popular, contemporary cinema --employs science and mathematics concepts. In each instalment, DAVID CREWE will explore how movies can help facilitate learning in STEM subjects.

Passengers and the Specifics of Space

First up: 2016 Hollywood space blockbuster Passengers. Just how realistic is this depiction of interplanetary travel? Is it possible for humans to hibernate? Could you really grow a forest in a spaceship? And why is Jennifer Lawrence's hair immune to zero gravity?

The erosion of the monoculture can make things tricky for a secondary school teacher looking to build student engagement by digging into pop culture. Take any sizeable group of teenagers and it's hard to find anything they'll all be intimately familiar with. Some might use Facebook obsessively; others might have never made an account. Some students might obsess over the Marvel Cinematic Universe; others might not know the difference between Captain America and Captain Marvel. This student plays videogames obsessively; that student is subscribed to hundreds of YouTube channels.

While cinema's cultural domination might have faded long ago, it's a safe bet that most of your students will have watched a movie in the recent past. Cinema Science is aimed at science and/or mathematics teachers looking to leverage modern movies into (hopefully) more engaging lessons, and as such will generally focus on prominent movies--with big budgets, big stars and big box office receipts. You can't guarantee that all your students will have seen the films I'll focus on in this column, but with any luck they'll at least be aware of them.

Which brings us to this issue's focus: 2016 Hollywood movie Passengers (Morten Tyldum). While not exactly a blockbuster, the him--which can be described as something between speculative sci-fi and romantic comedy--performed well in Australia, likely thanks to its high-profile stars, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.

The film also earnt its fair share of controversy thanks to its dubious ethical underpinning. Passengers, set some time in the future, takes place on Avalon, a spaceship hurtling towards a distant, uninhabited planet. Everyone aboard is supposed to be in suspended animation for the duration of the journey--some 120 years--but Jim Preston (Pratt) is woken up far too early by an asteroid-impelled glitch. Driven to desperation by his solitude, he ends up awakening Aurora Lane (Lawrence) for company, a plot point conveniently concealed by the film's marketing. Many critics have attacked the film for implicitly excusing, even endorsing, Jim's reprehensible actions.'

Passengers undoubtedly opens up rich questions regarding ethics and gender, but my emphasis here is what the film offers to science and mathematics teachers. While the film's focus is on character, the spaceship setting accommodates some in-depth consideration of space travel that opens up ideas relating to human biology, gravity, fluid mechanics and communicating in space. The film is best suited to senior science classes (Year 10 and up) both due to its M classification and the complexity of its associated scientific concepts.


The characters' journey to distant solar systems is made possible by a familiar science fiction concept: suspended animation. This acts as a solution to the problem of interplanetary travel in a universe that's, frankly, just too damn big. Where plenty of settings rely on faster-than-light travel--Star Wars' hyperspace, Star Trek's warp speed--suspended animation offers a more realistic, if more narratively challenging, answer to traversing distances of many light-years.

Suspended animation features across a range of sci-fi universes. From Lost in Space to Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) to Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), audiences are accustomed to stars taking an extended nap as part and parcel of their space adventures. Passengers feels like a natural reaction to the ubiquity of the device, asking a simple question--'What if you woke up too early?'--to an audience very comfortable with the idea. It seems reasonable to expect that even if your students have yet to see Passengers, they'll know what you're talking about when it comes to suspended animation and space travel.

The big question for science classrooms: is it realistic? Well, if we want to talk about the way it is depicted in this film, even the screenwriter, Jon Spaihts, acknowledges that, no, it isn't:

I looked at a lot of ways of potentially putting people to sleep for space, and there, as in many places in sci-FI screenwriting, I ran into tensions between the dramatic reguirements of the him and hard science. Our best bet for putting people down right now would be either an extreme therapeutic hypothermia or a freezing process coupled with the development of some perfect cell-by-cell antifreeze to prevent ice crystal rupture of tissue. None of those things are real sexy to wake up from. None of those are states in which Sleeping Beauty in her bed would look particularly gorgeous. (2)

If we disregard the cosmetic realities of Hollywood filmmaking, there's a wealth of discussion points for the Biology classroom. It allows for a considered discussion of animal hibernation, and whether or not the same principles could reasonably apply to human anatomy. By focusing on freezing, (3) one can examine the limits of human endurance, and the chemical challenges of, as Spaihts suggests, ice crystals rupturing cellular membranes. (Also a good opportunity to remind your students not to refreeze thawed food.)

This isn't a purely theoretical debate, either! A significant challenge facing modern astronomical engineers is how to safely transport astronauts to and from Mars, and suspended animation--of a sort--has the potential to be an efficient solution. A recent paper presented at a NASA symposium found that placing astronauts in 'an inactive, torpor state for the duration of the in-space mission segments' through therapeutic hypothermia could 'double the number of crew members for the same habitat mass'. (4) While century-long sleeps are a long way off, artificial hibernation has a lot of potential in the near future as a way to conserve energy and expense in space travel.

* How does hibernation differ, biologically, from sleeping?

* What benefits are there to suspending animation in space travel--whether travelling to distant planets, or within our own solar system? Is the representation of suspended animation seen in popular films (like Passengers) realistic?

* Is it feasible to 'unfreeze' a cryogenically frozen organism? What are the associated challenges, and how might they vary for different organisms?

* How does therapeutic hypothermia work? What risks are associated with the technique?


The immensity of the universe--and the time taken to traverse it--poses many problems. But so too does the absence of something: gravity. Human bodies accustomed to Earth's gravity are ill prepared for extended exposure to zero gravity. Muscles atrophy; bones weaken. Nor are these issues easily addressed by conventional solutions like, say, regular exercise to simulate the influence of gravity. NASA observes that '[s]pace flight may result in changes to muscle metabolism [...] that can not be counteracted with routine exercise'. (5) Even one's skeleton erodes under microgravity: 'Bones lose calcium [... and] the skeletal system becomes weaker and less capable of withstanding the stresses associated with daily life on Earth.' (6)

The importance of these problems becomes literally astronomical when long-term space flight is taken into account, like, say, a 120-year journey to a distant solar system. More practically, it's a logistical nightmare to try and set a movie entirely in zero gravity (7) (somewhat ironically, Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 film Gravity is the only example I can think of). Most movies opt for the easy solution of 'artificial gravity' with no particular attempt at an explanation, but Passengers offers a more robust--if not especially explicit--solution to simulating gravity in the empty expanse of space: centripetal force.

Centripetal force is the force acting on any object travelling in a circle, directed towards the centre of the circle. In practice, if you spin a spacecraft at the right speed, passengers will experience acceleration pushing them towards the centre of motion that roughly approximates a gravitational held. There's no explicit explanation of this within Passengers' diegesis, but given that Avalon is consistently shown revolving at a constant speed except when the gravity fails, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw. (8)

The underlying concepts and mathematics of such simulation provide a rich vein for Physics teachers. Students could independently explore how such systems might operate; the spinning-water-in-a-bucket trick is a good way to see the phenomenon in practice. They could also look into the drawbacks associated with this methodology, such as the Coriolis effect, or specifically investigate whether or not Passengers represents the phenomenon realistically. For example, by watching an exterior shot of the spacecraft and timing the period of rotation, students could--with a few approximations and assumptions--determine the size Passengers' ship would need to be to reasonably simulate the Earth's gravity.

As with suspended animation, these applications aren't relegated to the world of speculative fiction. While there's yet to be a real-world space project to substantially incorporate centripetal concepts to simulate gravity, a number of proposals--such as the Nautilus-X (9)--have included such features in their design. There's plentiful potential for tasks built around how different engineers have proposed to address the challenges of artificial gravity for the future of space travel.

* Given the period of rotation of Passengers' spacecraft, how large would the ship have to be to convincingly approximate the Earth's gravity?

* When the gravity fails in the film, the ship's rotation swiftly comes to a halt. Is this a realistic outcome? (10)

* Aurora almost drowns in the swimming pool as the water forms bubbles without gravity to keep it in the pool. Is this how you would expect fluid to act in zero gravity? Would there be any way for her to escape from the water without gravity?

* Other than centripetal force, how could one simulate gravity in outer space?


Suspended animation and artificial gravity are science fiction (and, potentially, science fact) solutions to the problem of how to sustain human life on an intergalactic voyage. But the challenges of space travel go beyond how to survive the trip: the larger question is, simply, how do we even get there?

That's clearly a question on the mind of Spaihts, who again endeavoured to keep as closely as possible to realistic science. Where, as discussed, many fictional universes rely on faster-than-light travel expressly forbidden by our laws of physics, Avalon has 'no warp drive', nor can it go into hyperspace. (11) While these particulars aren't discussed within the film proper--despite being an engineer himself, Pratt's character is more interested in his personal predicament than how his home-turned-tomb gets from A to B--they have the potential to open up a range of discussion points for Physics students.

For starters, there's the logistics of space travel. To travel long distances requires a source of energy, and the most efficient sources of energy--fossil fuels--take up a not-insignificant amount of room and, more pressingly, mass on board a spaceship. The further you want to travel, the more fuel you need, which means you're carrying more weight, which means you need more fuel... and so on and so on, even without considering the necessary gear needed to account for repairs and sustenance. A task structured around these challenges would help students to recognise that resourcing is a significant real-world limitation on any scientific innovation.

Of course, the real underlying challenge is the sheer size of the universe. Students could explore nearby systems and the distances to them--invariably measured in light-years--to understand the scale of space. Once we narrow our criteria to planets that might potentially sustain life (more on this later), the distances become even more immense. This also opens up the opportunity to investigate how we know the distance to remote interstellar bodies--a convenient segue, perhaps, into spectroscopy, Hubble's law and the big bang theory.

At the upper end of secondary school science, these conversations could also incorporate an inquiry into why spaceships are unable to accelerate faster than the speed of light. Relativity--both special and general--could be naturally included in an astrophysics unit centring on concepts relating to the origin and scale of the universe.

Admittedly, concepts of relativity are quite a few steps removed from Passengers itself. An investigation that could be linked more explicitly to the film and its depiction of interspace travel is to determine how fast Avalon is supposed to be moving. When Jim attempts to send an SOS message back to Earth, he's shown that it would take over a decade for that transmission to reach Earth, and even longer for the reply to come. If we assume that these messages are transmitted as radio waves, and therefore at the speed of light, it would be relatively trivial for students to approximate the velocity of the spaceship.

* Research the maximum speed a man-made spacecraft has been able to achieve in space. At this speed, how long would it take for us to reach nearby solar systems / galaxies?

* One of the primary restrictions on long-distance interstellar travel is fuel. Can you think of any ways that this problem could be resolved?

* Why can't spaceships like Avalon simply accelerate to faster than the speed of light to travel to distant planets?


The previous three topics are built around extended classroom tasks, whether for assessment or otherwise, on the assumption a teacher might need to take time out from normal class activities to show the entirety of Passengers. However, the film also offers potential for smaller learning experiences built around clips or concepts rather than the entire movie.

For example, in light of NASA's recent discovery of 'seven Earth-size planets around a single star' in the Aquarius constellation, (12) one could branch off from Passengers' trip to a habitable exoplanet to consider the question of how scientists could identify such planets. Or, instead, classes could discuss the necessary conditions for sustaining life--a topic that incorporates chemistry (What does it mean to be a carbon-based life form? What temperature does a planet need to be to have liquid water?), biology (What are the necessary conditions for a biosphere to form? How does complex life evolve from single-celled creatures?) and geology (What materials would a planet need to consist of to be sufficiently stable to support the evolution of life?).

Robotics, a relatively new branch of learning in many schools, could also benefit from using Passengers as stimulus material. The film features a very advanced take on artificial reality in Michael Sheen's robot bartender, Arthur. But it also includes more rudimentary robots, like the remote-controlled device that Jim uses to ask Aurora out on their first date. The latter could be a goal for a robotics class to work towards: a robot that can deliver a message to someone just like in the movie.

There's even the unlikely pairing of the film with agricultural science, despite its extraterrestrial setting. How, exactly, is Jim able to successful grow a tree--and, eventually, an entire forest--within the confines of a metal-plated spaceship? Essentially, what are the environmental requirements for plant life, and is it realistic that these requirements would be met on a closed spaceship?

For all the educational potential of Passengers, it is important to note that the ethical questions raised--particularly those of consent--are almost certain to come up if the entire film is screened for a class. Whether or not a teacher wishes to engage in an extended discussion on the topic will likely vary from person to person, but given the controversial nature of the film's 'romance', it's something worth carefully considering before screening the film.

David Crewe is a secondary school teacher and freelance writer based in Brisbane, Queensland. He shares his reviews and ruminations on his own website, ccpopculture, and has been published by SBS Movies, Metro magazine. The Guardian and The Big Issue.


(1) Rebecca Hawkes, 'Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence's Passengers Isn't a Romance: It's a Creepy Ode to Manipulation', The Telegraph, 16 December 2016, <>, accessed 15 February 2017.

(2) Jon Spaihts, quoted in Sheila Roberts, 'Passengers: 8 Things to Know About the Science Behind the Space Drama', Collider, 20 December 2016, <>, accessed 15 February 2017.

(3) Another common trope, whether in Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), stories about Walt Disney or even Encino Man (Les Mayfield, 1992). (Alright, it's probably unreasonable to expect your students to have heard about that last one.)

(4) John Bradford, Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitat for Human Stasis to Mars, SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc. and NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, May 2014, available at <>, accessed 23 March 2017, pp. 2, 3.

(5) 'Maintaining Strength in Space: Bone, Muscle, and Metabolic Studies', The NASA Shuttle Web, 24 October 1998, <>, accessed 20 February 2017.

(6) ibid.

(7) Beyond the budget for visual effects, every actor needs a crew cut--realistically simulating the motion of hair in zero gravity is incredibly difficult unless you actually film the scenes in freefall, as in Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995).

(8) There's extratextual evidence to support this interpretation: Spaihts describes the ship as having no artificial gravity in Roberts, op. cit.

(9) Details on the Nautilus-X can be found at Jonathan O'Callaghan, 'Nautilus-X: The Multi-purpose NASA Spacecraft That Could Take Humans to the Moon and Beyond', Space Answers, 14 January 2014, <>, accessed 24 February 2017.

(10) In short: no. For starters, the angular momentum of the ship--and the presumed lack of any significant friction in space--would mean that it would take an awfully long time to come to a stop and thereby return the passengers to zero 'gravity'. Equally, the film's sequencing of events suggests that the failure of the gravity causes the ship to stop spinning, rather than the other way around.

(11) Spaiths, quoted in Roberts, op. cit.

(12) 'NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-size, Habitable-zone Planets Around Single Star', media release, NASA, 23 February 2017, <>, accessed 25 February 2017.
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Author:Crewe, David
Publication:Screen Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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