It's science FICTION, Neil!

Not Suspending Disbelief

Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once again has a scientific bone to pick with a motion picture.

This time, per The Hollywood Reporter, Tyson's qualms are with the second installation of Dennis Villineuve's "Dune" series — a film in which a superhuman cohort of women use a special voice to perform mind control and a very bald Stellan Skarsgård floats through the air. But as the scientist explained an appearance on the "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" last week, his issues aren't with the superhuman magic of it all. Instead, they lie in issues like sand physics.

"Somebody didn't do the research on that," Tyson told the talk show host, making the case that if you pound your fist into a sand dune, it wouldn't actually produce a thumping sound the way it does in the film. "You can't thump sand."

Colbert pushed back, positing that perhaps the giant sandworms in Dune — which the Fremen, the indigenous people of the fictional planet Arrakis, call by pounding sand dunes with special gadgets — might "hear things differently" than humans do. But Tyson stuck to his guns.

"If you wanted to insulate yourself acoustically from your surroundings, fill the volume with sand," the astrophysicist responded. "No one will hear you." But, he added, "I've got to let it go because there's no movie without it."

According to online forum discussions and a 2017 study, Tyson's right: sand is pretty good at absorbing noise. But, hey, they don't call it science fiction for nothing.

Wiggle It

The sand thumping wasn't the astrophysicist's only concern with Arrakian physics. When the planet's massive sandworms move, they barrel forward in a straight line. But as Tyson points out, pretty much all legless, worm or snake-like creatures on Earth have to slither in S-shaped lines if they want to move forward.

"Have you ever seen a snake chase you as a straight snake? No!" Tyson exclaimed. "They've got to curl, and they push off the curl."

Colbert and Tyson then went back and forth with some worm movement theories; the former offered that perhaps they have some sort of propellant system on their underbellies, while the latter wondered whether they might simply be "pooping really fast." Why not! (Slate also questioned the movements of the worms, with a biologist effectively coming to the conclusion that the hulking beasts are less like worms, and more like burrowing snakes.)

At the end of the day, though, it's often these not-so-science-bound details that make science fiction so fun. What we're really dying to know? What Tyson thinks of AMC's worm popcorn buckets.

More on Neil deGrasse Tyson going to movies: Neil Degrasse Tyson Is Fighting with a Retired Astronaut about "Top Gun: Maverick"

Share This Article