This post contains mild spoilers for Gravity.
After posting a series of humorous nitpicking tweets on Gravity last Sunday, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has taken to Facebook to compliment the movie's quality. In the lengthy post, Tyson notes that he was "stunned" to see the media attention given to the tweets, before explaining his actions.
"What few people recognize," says Tyson, "is that science experts don't line up to critique Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Man of Steel or Transformers or The Avengers. These films offer no premise of portraying a physical reality."
The converse is also true, he explains. "If a film happens to portray an awesome bit of science when there's otherwise no premise of scientific accuracy, then I'm the first to notice." He calls out Chicken Little's hexagonal sky tiles, Monsters, Inc.'s "functional wormholes through the fabric of space-time," and A Bug's Life's accurate use of the surface tension of water to form a makeshift telescope as examples of movies that deserve scientific praise despite not being grounded in reality.
So why was Tyson so harsh on Gravity?
"To 'earn' the right to be criticized ... is a high compliment indeed."
"To 'earn' the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed," he explains. "So when I saw a headline proclaim... 'Gravity is riddled with errors,' I came to regret not first tweeting the hundred things the movie got right." Tyson then lays out a few of the accurate representations of real-life events and phenomena found in the movie:
- "The 90-minute orbital time for objects at that altitude.
- The re-entry trails of disintegrated satellites, hauntingly reminiscent of the Columbia shuttle tragedy.
- Clooney's calm-under-stress character (I know dozens of astronauts like that).
- The stunning images from orbit transitioning from day to twilight to nighttime.
- The aurorae (northern lights) visible in the distance over the power regions.
- The thinness of Earth's atmosphere relative to Earth's size.
- The persistent conservation of angular and linear momentum.
- The speed of oncoming debris, if in fact it were to collide at orbital velocity.
- The transition from silence to sound between an unpressurized and pressurized airlock.
- The brilliantly portrayed tears of Bullock, leaving her eyes, drifting afloat in the capsule."
From the brief list, it's clear that Tyson wasn't kidding when he tweeted mid-tirade that he "enjoyed Gravity very much." Although it appears he'll temper his criticisms with more visible praise, he notes that he will "continue to offer observations of science in film — not as an expression of distaste or disgust but as a celebration of artists attempting to embrace all the forces of nature that surround us."