Thursday, February 21, 2013

I'm a Leaf on the Wind, Watch How I...


If you haven't seen Joss Whedon's Firefly and its subsequent film, Serenity, then we need to have a serious talk about how committed you are to your geekdom. I'd like to take this moment to encourage you to go and watch it as soon as possible. All of it. Just call in sick to work tomorrow, it's worth it. Feed your inner fanboy (or -girl), it likes it. From this point on I'm going to assume those of you who are still reading have seen the show and movie. You've been warned.

Let's be honest, I've got a thing for Captain Tightpants. And Jayne...well, a "man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything." Kaylee and her love of shiny, frilly fripperies is cute as a button. Inara is gorgeous and has a wardrobe I might kill for. Zoe equals honor, dignity, and all that is badass. Book is a conscience with barely contained hair. Simon and River are pompous and crazy while at the same time being charming and funny. And, finally, Wash (who is probably my favorite) is Hawaiian shirts, plastic dinosaurs, and geese juggling stories.

And then it was over. Cancelled. We all sat in stunned silence. Then we raged. And we cried.

We all know how abruptly the show ends. We also know how amazing it was when we first heard there was going to be a movie (you can admit it, there was a happy-dance). Serenity gave us a few more hours to spend in the 'Verse. And then it happened...the ship crash-landed at Mr. Universe's base and Wash got impaled by a Reaver spear. I don't know about your jaw, but mine hit the floor. Now, if you watched enough of Whedon's work then you know he's known for killing off your favorite character, yet you are still surprised every time it happens.

But now we are offered hope. Scientifically accurate hope.

Kyle Hill is a graduate student, a writer at the Science-Based Life blog, and a contributor to Wired, Popular Science, Scientific American, and Nature Education. This fanboy has decided employ his skills at math and physics to try and rewrite Firefly history by proving that Wash's death was scientifically impossible. His original article appeared in Scientific American with a an updated version appearing in Wired. He makes a compelling argument, relying on information we already know about objects in space:

Space debris is a real and serious problem. Just around Earth-That-Was are tens of thousands of pieces of extraterrestrial trash litter (see NASA's Threat of Orbital Debris, 2009). Debris (even the really small stuff) is harmless here on land, but put it up in space, where it travels at 10,000 meters per second, and it becomes a lethal, hypervelocity bullet. Even the comparatively primitive shuttles of Earth-That-Was had shielding to prevent such harmful impacts. A paper in 2001 details a crater created by a fleck of paint to the window of STS-92, a flight to the International Space Station. In his calculations, Hill assumed the fleck of paint to be similarly sized to a metal sphere. This brought his numbers in line with the hypervelocity testing that NASA had already conducted. Taking into account size and speed of the object, he calculated that "the window weathered an impact with around 20 Joules of kinetic energy - equivalent to four milligrams of TNT or a decently thrown baseball." (see his equations in the article). Such damage is not uncommon. Pilots routinely dodge debris throughout their missions, and NASA replaced parts each time they got a shuttle back. Now, up the size of the object. Debris as small as 10 cm can cause damage equivalent to a large bomb (see Aerospace's Debris Risk Size Chart). Starting to see where Hill is going with this?

Armed with this information, Hill took a closer look at the Wash-killing-spear itself. By watching the scene in question he was able to get the general dimensions of the spear. He then used an earlier chase scene to estimate spear size and speed. He concluded that Reavers shoot spears at a speed that has an upper limit of around 100 miles per hour (45 m/s), about as fast as baseball's fast-ball pitch. Guesstimating that the spear was made from "average" metal and weighed around 100-200 lbs (45-90 kg), he was able to calculate its kinetic energy (equation can be found in the article). Hill found the Reaver spear to have 45,500 Joules at the low end, which is 3,700 times the energy of the largest recorded impact to a shuttle window. Hmmm...okay. This means that a spear could conceivably go through a window, and as flimsy as Serenity's windows look, they would not have deflected a Reaver spear. 见他的鬼 (jiàn tā de guǐ)

I still give Kyle Hill major geek points for attempting to save a beloved sci-fi character from his ultimate demise. But physics and math have spoken: There is no saving Wash. I'll give you a minute to find a tissue to wipe the tears away. Don't worry, we can still blame Fox and Rupert Murdoch.

I think it's time for a rewatching of the series.

I'll be in my bunk.


Here's Kyle Hill's original story in Scientific American:
"Saving Lives in Serenity: Can a Fanboy and Physics Change a Movie?"
and the updated article in  Wired:
"Firefly Fan Tries to Retroactively Save Dead Character With NASA Data"

And go over and take a look at Kyle's blog: Science-Based Life

All of the above in-text links are references from Kyle's original article.

(image via Objects in Space)
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