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Avatar: Vision or Mere Entertainment?

by Larry Klaes

Long-time Centauri Dreams readers will know that Larry Klaes is a frequent critic of the portrayal of science in movies, and in particular of the ways Hollywood looks at aliens and our interactions with them. Larry has again been to the cinema, this time to see the new James Cameron release Avatar. He brings back a rich description of the film along with numerous insights on its potential for reaching the public.

When the United States was preparing to send the first humans to Earth’s largest natural satellite in the 1960s with Project Apollo, there were numerous scientists of the day who protested this effort. They felt that knowledge and even surface material could be gathered from the Moon far more cheaply and efficiently with automated probes than with astronauts.

On a technical and pragmatic level, those scientists were essentially correct. But as with many things in human society, the primary reasons for the existence of Apollo were about politics and power, specifically in this case to show up America’s chief Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, in the vast arena of space.

Most astronomers of the era eventually realized that if they wanted to learn a lot about the Moon and beyond, they had to jump on the relatively expensive and resource-intensive government-sponsored bandwagon or end up literally left behind in a cloud of smoke. Apollo may not have been the most efficient and productive way to reveal the ancient secrets of our nearest celestial neighbor, but it did work in the end.

This is how I have decided to approach the currently quite prominent existence of the new science fiction film Avatar by James Cameron in terms of educating the general public when it comes to the film’s themes of exobiology, exomoons, exoplanets, and human interaction on an interstellar scale.

Interstellar Ideas and the Public

Avatar is hardly the most efficient or inexpensive way to bring these major topics to a wide swath of society. However, just as the money, resources, and technology poured into Apollo brought hundreds of pounds of lunar rock and other invaluable space science data to Earth – as compared to the few ounces of lunar regolith retrieved by the three successful automated Soviet Luna craft during the 1970s – Cameron’s latest cinematic extravaganza will probably do more to make people aware and think about these literally universal ideas than dozens of books, articles, and documentaries on the same subject.

I and others may not agree with this, but the reality is that many people do get much of their “education” about the world and especially science from film and television, which is not obliged to be any more accurate and educational than it has to when their primary goal is to entertain in order to make a profit. So to dismiss Avatar out of hand because it may have a less than original plot and characters of limited depth is to dismiss as well a major opportunity to guide a public that may otherwise never bother to contemplate and confront the issues raised in this film.

Astronomers have detected over 400 alien worlds since 1995. Every day we come closer to finding the first Earth-type exoplanets and the first exomoons. When this happens, many consider it a given that various space agencies will begin to make serious efforts to reach those distant places in the galaxy, first to study them and then to send humans there in person to colonize. Just as other influential films have actually played a role in inspiring or deterring people from grand efforts, Avatar will probably be cited as either one of the catalysts for launching humanity to the stars or holding us back out of fear from alien unknowns or what we might do to others unlike us.

Cameron’s Work in Context

Let me first get some of the standard comments about Avatar out of the way: Yes, it is an impressive experience in terms of the 3-D effects making you feel like you are part of the film rather than the usual gimmick of objects flying at your face because they can. The effects do help to enhance the feel of being there in an alien place and in that respect Avatar is a cinematic landmark – assuming others have the means and the interest to follow in Cameron’s technological footsteps.

Many have compared the plot in Avatar to the great 1991 film Dances With Wolves and the 1995 Disney animated film Pocahontas. I would say that Avatar even more closely resembles a 1992 Australian animated film titled FernGully: The Last Rainforest, which has a plot about a human who is part of a major deforestation effort brought into the world of fairies who live in the forest and fear the destruction of their home. The deforestation is being conducted by giant yellow tree-cutting machines reminiscent of the ones tearing down the flora in Avatar. Personally I am ultimately more interested in the themes behind Avatar and its predecessors rather than who copied from whom, more of which will be discussed later.

The realm of Avatar is the moon Pandora, which circles a gas giant world named Polyphemus that in turn orbits the star Alpha Centauri A, among the closest of suns to Earth at just 4.3 light years, or about 25 trillion miles. Though in reality Jupiter-type exoplanets have not been detected in the Alpha Centauri system, which implies that such bodies may not exist, Avatar does help to make its audiences aware of the concept of moons as places for life to form and evolve, since most of the exoplanets found so far are giant worlds, many of them larger than Jupiter.

Thoughts on the Setting

As we have seen with our own Jovian planets since the days of the twin Voyager space probes, gas giant worlds do have retinues of large and dynamic moons, some of which may be homes for simple organisms. There is no reason not to think that alien gas giants might have exotic companions as well, though whether they would be like the residents of Pandora is much too early to say.

On the subject of living on the moon of a gas giant planet: Note how huge Polyphemus looms in the skies of Pandora as we are witness to throughout the film. It is certainly a very awe-inspiring and aesthetically pleasing image, enhancing the alienness of the moon and its inhabitants. However, I would think that being so close to a gas giant would cause all sorts of geological turmoil, which in turn would greatly upset the balance of life on Pandora, perhaps even to keep it from becoming complex.

To use a real-world example, note how the closest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, Io, is constantly pulled and churned about by the great mass of Jupiter and its fellow Galileans to the point where the moon is constantly spewing colorful sulfur across its uncratered surface. Despite the intense nature of Io’s environment, some scientists have speculated that the very geological processes that make Io such a violent place could bring about and support some kind of life, though probably nothing as complex as the creatures on Cameron’s alien moon.

An Exomoon’s Culture

Putting aside whether or not a tropical rainforest type ecology could evolve on a moon being so close to a gas giant planet, I had to wonder why the alien intelligence on Pandora, the Na’vi, did not seem to focus much attention on such an incredible sight as the planet Polyphemus, which seems to take up most of the sky over Pandora. Now granted I know the Na’vi are aliens, but since they also bear more than a slight resemblance to aboriginal peoples on our planet, I am surprised they didn’t focus at least some of their culture on the great world hanging over their heads.

Perhaps they did and the film chose not to explore that aspect of Na’vi society, but I found it strange that something like that would be ignored or treated casually. Certainly many human societies on Earth going back to prehistoric times paid a great deal of attention to the objects and events in the sky, as they were often crucial to the survival of those societies. Again, maybe the Na’vi did and Cameron chose not to focus on it, or their very close ties to the ecology of Pandora kept them looking downwards.

Larry’s review continues tomorrow with a look at the broader issues raised by the film and what it may say about our own aspirations in space.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Didac December 23, 2009, 13:32

    Well, obviously enough, the main topics of Avatar is “we-they” and “sustainable development”.

    The we-they debate, i.e. the debate of “We, The Humankind” and our limits, reflect about our potential relationship to other “intelligent” species in our galaxy.

    Our evolutionary understanding of biology assures us that “humankind” is unique to the Earth. Obviously enough, other “intelligent” species must exist in the universe (according to a “Copernican” conception). But no human extraterrestrial species can exist. If there are, for example, millions of “intelligent” species in the Milky Way, some can be very resembled to us (convergence evolution).

    Na’vi are too much anthropomorfic to be believed. Of course, we have no absolutely idea about how some common patterns of evolution may drive to common morphologies in independently evolved “intelligent” species.

  • Athena Andreadis December 23, 2009, 14:29

    As everyone here knows, I couldn’t agree more that science fiction in all its guises can be very effective in presenting the wonders of exploration, space in particular. However, Avatar is the wrong vehicle not because it’s derivative, not even because all its science from astrophysics to biology is internally inconsistent (“wrong” is beside the point in SF films) — but because it conveys the wrong mindset. Several wrong mindsets.

    My prediction is that Avatar will advance enthusiasm for space science as much as Star Wars or the Alien series. At the same time, I applaud Larry’s constructive approach. As Donald Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want — a remark particularly fitting for Avatar.

    Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

    SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

    The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction

  • Enzo December 23, 2009, 15:51

    I have not watched Avatar yet, but I have seen the trailers and I have a couple of comments.

    The plot of Avatar is very similar to the 2007 animation Battle for Terra :

    The unobtanium is a really unscientific pretext for a war between humans and the aliens. In reality there is not much on Alpha Centauri that could not be found in the solar system. With no unobtainium though, there would be no reason to fight (except, maybe, the whole habitable planet).

    Floating islands in the sky remind me of the French animation Skyland :

    I suspect (and this is probably rather unscientific given the few examples) that the larger the giant planet, the larger the total mass of its moons seems to be.
    This is true in the solar system for all the giant planets except Neptune whose system has been disrupted by the capture of Triton.
    Earth and Pluto double planets where formed differently.
    If this is true, then Earth size moons are more likely around more massive giant planets. These could be even more hostile to life, with stronger magnetic fields and radiation belts.

  • Adam December 23, 2009, 16:54

    Considering our rather limited understanding of phylogenesis/morphogenesis I don’t know how we can say there can’t be cat-people around Alpha Centauri.

  • Administrator December 23, 2009, 17:11

    In any case, an explanation for the similarity in physiognomy is apparently going to be given in Avatar 2 (or whatever Cameron decides to call it).

  • JDE December 23, 2009, 17:14

    Avatar is eye candy. Nothing more and in fact it’s something less since Cameron once again uses a film to espouse some vague social agenda. Anyone attempting to find some deep commentary on human space exploration from this film should reappraise their time usage.

    Cameron, as a director, is a legend within his own mind. I normally don’t concern myself with this individual except I’ve heard he’s trying to get his hands onto “Forbidden Planet.” This old 50’s movie was actually entertaining and I shudder to think of what sort of hack job Cameron would perform on it.

  • Carl December 23, 2009, 17:52

    Larry, I enjoyed your critique. I watched the Apollo flights with the certainty they were leading to the larger architectures portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In retrospect, it seems a Soviet first landing might have brought on a ‘Lunar Base Gap’…

    The potential worlds out there may be innumerable. Look at yesterday’s APOD http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap091222.html …what a vista!

    One thing about the proximity of a jovian world: a theory I’d read about two decades back suggested that evolution onto land was aided by tides. If this was part of our planetary development, especially since the moon was closer in that antique period, with its stronger influence, I submit tides as a beneficial aspect of having a large world in the neighborhood. Not as close as Io; more like Ganymede or Callisto in a star’s life zone.

    Regarding fiction, I drew inspiration about ourselves and our futures from Doctors Clarke and Asimov, and not a little bit from Blish, Anderson, Silverberg, Heinlein… I stop, but not end there…

  • Athena Andreadis December 23, 2009, 17:55

    First a few quick points about scientific coherence: there are other geological issues with Pandora besides radiation and seismic activity from its explicitly shown close proximity to a gas giant: it would be tidally locked (which means no day/night cycle) and constantly swept by hurricane winds.

    Biologically, even if we accept the premise of convergent evolution, all Pandoran fauna are hexapodal and tetraocular. The Na’vi should also be six-limbed and four-eyed, since they evolved along with the rest. If you accept the nonsense of neural linkage as shown, this means that they wouldn’t need to hunt (or, conversely, killing an animal would have concrete physiological repercussions). Also, the Na’vi are shown to be the “neocortex” of a sentient planet — yet they have conventional genders, nuclear families and hereditary chiefs.

    But on to the more important point raised by several of my friends — that Avatar inspired their kids and we should be thankful for that.

    My question is, inspired them to do what? Become scientists like Grace Augustine? Protect the Amazonian and Indonesian rainforest against loggers? Help the Lakota in Pine Ridge reservation? Buy fewer hydrocarbon-based toys?

    There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Disney-level spectacle, as long as you don’t make it your moral, intellectual or even esthetic measuring stick. If you want a tale of lost innocence that is not preachy, hypocritical or facile but truly wonder-inspiring and profound, watch Malick’s The New World or Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime — again, and again, until the layers sink in.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) December 23, 2009, 19:58

    Regarding the biosphere of Pandora – perhaps you’re missing the obvious. Maybe it never evolved; rather, it was designed by a Forerunner race. That would explain the neural linkups and variety of species found on Pandora.

    Nothing I saw in the film is scientifically impossible – except perhaps the flying mountains and ‘unobtanium’, used as plot devices. What it is is very, very, implausible, and definately needs the hand of God in there to construct.

    I must say, I want to see a film where humans find an Alien planet that has a primitive civilisation practising Sutee, Slavery, Child sacrifice etc… and puts a stop to it.

  • philw1776 December 23, 2009, 21:19

    Adam writes, “I don’t know how we can say there can’t be cat-people around Alpha Centauri.”
    Fool. Everyone knows the meowserfolk live in the Tau Ceti system not in the Centauri system. Technical accuracy please!

    Great comments Athena. The cat people physiology runs obliviously counter to the hexapod physiology on the exomoon. I don’t see this hackneyed PC Hollywood all too predictable fantasy of evil corporations and bad, bad military types geting their due as inspiring a generation of impressionable kids to space science. Quite the contrary.

    And how could Cameron, were he to express just one original thought, not have explored the sociobiological impact of the primary on the people and their culture? Dances with smurfs is an appropriate title. If this hack ever gets his hands on my all time fav “Forbidden Planet” it will be a worse abomination than Verhoven’s totally perverted “Starship Troopers”. OK, OK, I’ll concede I did like the shower scene…

  • Zen Blade December 23, 2009, 21:19

    I like Avatar. Just gonna put that out there.

    I thought the science was a HUGE leap forward for the general public, period. I went with some non-science friend, and we ended up talking about the movie and some science for about 45 minutes afterward.

    The MOST upsetting thing to me in the movie was the problem with the number of limbs the various animals had, or rather the lack of consistency given the apparent relation of the different species (as previously mentioned). The distribution is just tooooo remote of a potential to have ever happened. If anyone wants the details, I or someone else can more fully explain. I had not noticed that all of the other organisms had had four eyes.

    That being said, I appreciated the apparent simplicity of technology in the movie. Essentially, glossing over the details to focus on real questions while also trying to be realistic where possible. The alien atmosphere for example. The vehicles/mechs were (in my completely uninformed opinion) more realistic from than what you see in most media.

    The ability for animals/beings to interact with each other through the “connections” was perhaps utterly unrealistic, but you could argue that no more so than whatever connection allowed the humans to inhabit an Avatar… so, again, I don’t mind the details… it is essentially mental telepathy, next question…

    Overall, I think it is a big net positive for a lot of science. People will ask if the bio luminescence is possible, they will ask about the size and nature of the Na’vi, they will think about other worlds, etc… TOTAL NET POSITIVE.
    MUCH MUCH better than most “sci-fi”, which is utterly unrealistic.

    -Zen Blade

  • Carl December 23, 2009, 21:54

    Hello, Athena,

    You wrote: “close proximity to a gas giant… would be tidally locked (which means no day/night cycle) and constantly swept by hurricane winds.”

    The moon would only have a contra-planet side, not a contra-star side. Here’s a quote from Centauri Dreams a couple of days ago: “(and tidal lock may not be a show-stopper for life on such worlds), an exomoon around a gas giant in this scenario, says Kaltenegger, would be tidally locked not to the star but to the planet, and would therefore have regular night-day cycles, just like Earth.” https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=10723#comments

  • Administrator December 23, 2009, 22:42

    Have to agree with Carl on this. Lisa Kaltenegger made quite a point of this in the paper discussed a couple of posts back — tidal lock is to the planet, not the star, so you do get a day/night cycle.

  • Athena Andreadis December 23, 2009, 22:46

    Tobias, if a Forerunner race had such capabilities, you might as well call them Yahweh, agree with the biblical 6-day or 6,000-year scenario and be done.

    Zen Blade, as I said in an earlier comment, the film suffers from a slew of problems that have nothing to do with its science and much to do with its mindset. I go through these in my review of Avatar which I won’t expound on here, since this is Larry’s show.

  • sfjcody December 23, 2009, 23:05

    1) Being tidally locked to a gas giant would not mean no day/night cycle.

    2)This creaturehad four limbs. Possible relative of the Na’vi? Admittedly the merging of limbs in this manner seems improbable.

    3)Why would the Na’vi be the neocortex? Here is a interesting quote from a poster on another internet forum:

    “…the N’avi all can link in, so Eywa doesn’t just have access to the forest connections, but all of the higher animals on the world and their neural connections. Nothing says that the trees alone have to run the entire system, rather they can probably delegate action to or use spare processing power on the animals and the Na’vi. Now, neural connections aren’t everything, as the entire system also has a whole host of sensory data, from each animal, Na’vi, and plant linked into the system; it is already hinted that this ecosystem has achieved homeostasis via the link and can be regarded as one organism. The Na’vi are basically autonomous leukocytes/portable Eywa re-install disks in my opinion. Taking all this together, I think that Eywa is some super god being, albeit with physical limitations, slow processing time (imagine the fucking latency!), mountains of info to sort through, and if it even has a directed consciousness, it is used to thinking on a planetary timescale, not a human one.”

  • Athena Andreadis December 23, 2009, 23:35

    Carl, Paul, you’re right. However, the tides raised by the gas giant would be of tsunami proportions. This would not be the calm Eden portrayed in the film.

  • David Merchant December 23, 2009, 23:54

    I think one reason the Na’vi seemed not to look up is the unconscious “bias” by the director and writers of the movie – modern technological man is not outside much anymore, and if we are, we have forgotten to look up. Sometimes it is because we are too busy with our personal problems, or looking down too much at our iPhone as we send out yet another text or tweet, or sitting staring at our computer browsing the web or playing a game, or otherwise just not outside very much anymore. And when we are and happen to look up, light pollution steals much of the awesome stark beauty of the sky. Also, while modern science has give us new mysteries and wonders to ponder and be in awe of, the older, familiar sky objects illicit very little wonder. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / I know exactly what you are / I know your volume / I know your mass / You’re just a ball of helium gas …”

    And so, our intrepid director, producers, and writers can be forgiven if they didn’t realize how much the site of a gas giant filling most of their sky should deeply affect and move the sentient beings on the planet. But maybe the aliens have their own version of modern man distractions keeping them from paying much attention to the old, familiar, planet in the sky. Though I have a hard time buying that – to have something that looks that close, with its dynamic swirling clouds and storms (some of which would put on light displays), meteor impacts into its atmosphere, and changing phases – it would be hard to argue that the natives would look up and shrug and say “oh, that old thing? It’s nothing.”

  • Mike December 24, 2009, 0:39

    About the exomoon’s day/night cycle I would think it would be the same length of time as it’s orbital period around it’s host planet if it is tidally locked.
    The same as our tidally locked moon.
    That could make for some uncomfortably long days and nights.
    Not sure if Athena meant something like that but I expect that the effect of these long day/night cycles could make for very extreme conditions.

  • D.Rose December 24, 2009, 3:32

    Having seen the movie yesterday, a few thoughts trying to keep within the realm of the Avatar universe:
    (And be warned, there are spoilers here)

    1) Glad to know I wasn’t the only who noticed the missing limbs and eyes in Na’vi physiology. Bah, that was just Cameron either realizing his Human audience might not have warmed to 6-limbed, 4-eyed main characters or he decided that the motion capture technique he was using coupled with animating in the extra elements was too much to do for this movie. Also, did the Na’vi only have 4 fingers (3 plus a thumb, if you’re so inclined)? I didn’t notice until towards the end of the film, so I’m not sure if I really saw that or not.

    2) I choose to look at the “neural interface” thusly: Perhaps Pandora has been effectively protected from mass extinctions over the course of its history and as such, evolution has been uninterrupted. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a sessile material (imagine it as a fungus) that has, over the eons, become symbiotically intertwined (re:mitochondria) with pretty much all multicellular life on the moon. It isn’t sentient on its own but rather acts like a very rudimentary extension of the nervous systems of the individual organisms that are connected to it. The final battle scene (when the non-Na’vi lifeforms attack) could be viewed as the moon having an immune response of its own to a contagion threatening a major component of the network. Instead of sentience of its own, Ewya is rather more like an informal group subconsciousness of the Na’vi and all other connected lifeforms. It’s reaction in bringing forth the hammerhead rhinos, dog-tigers and reptilian birds-of-prey without Na’vi masters riding them came about through the collective subconscious because the Na’vi warriors themselves were so utterly beaten and handed their asses it the first half of the battle, and as such the animals were subconsciously compelled by these feelings to act in defense against the Humans.

    3) Telepathy? I can’t remember if it was something specifically mentioned within the movie’s dialog, or if it was simply something I read elsewhere about the movie. Anyone recall hearing the word “telepathy” or “telepahic” specifically being mentioned in the dialog of the film?

    4) Floating mountains? And those curly fry formations? Uh, perhaps a strong magnetic field from within the moon (which would also serve to protect it from the intense radiation bombarding the world from the gas giant it orbits) coupled with mineral deposits in the area create such a unique geologic (panologic?) region on Pandora.

    5) I read some analysis a few days ago that talked about both the 6-year (one way) trip and the quarterly reports sent back to Earth. With those quarterly reports, the author seems to think they were instantly transmitted back to Earth. Er, no, they were just transmitted quarterly. They’d still take a little over 4 years (light speed radio transmission) to reach Earth. The author also took issue with the travel time, pointing out that on-board, only about a year-and-a-half will have passed for the crew in that 6-year travel time from Earth. Seeing as most if not all the crew was kept in what amounts to a medically-induced coma from the duration of the trip, the perceived and real travel time is pretty moot seeing as no one was really awake for any meaningful length of time (maintenance crews awoken in shifts probably) to notice or care. So really, even LESS perceived time passed for them; maybe only a couple of weeks or months after all of an individual worker’s shift time is added together.

    6) From that same entry, the author (or one of the commentors) also took issue with the time frame of having mining operations on this world. The movie was set in 2154, not 2054 or even 2014. It’s set 145 years in the future. It’s not terribly implausible to think that we’ll make advances in the next century-and-a-half. It could be viewed that, in the next few years we’ll find strong evidence of Earth-sized worlds within a few light-years. In the Avatar universe, Humans can only manage about 75% of c after 145 years of research from our present and in the real world there are a few serious technological contenders that could be the precursors of such propulsion. It could be that Humans have been on Pandora for a decade or two, but the discovery of Pandora and the fact it had life came about closer to our time, 145 years before the movie. That would be a strong motivation to get there. Given that the Humans of the movie come from a horribly damaged Earth, it’s reasonable to assume great effort would be made to get more than some dinky little probe there and declare “Mission Accomplished.” The discovery of Pandora being (almost) habitable to Humans and whats more, INHABITED by an indiginous civilization, would probably motivate an even stronger push to have a manned presense there. Also, we can’t assume that Cent A is the only star Humans and/or their probes have visited in 145 years. In the murmers about Avatar 2, Cameron may take us to other worlds that he has envisioned but didn’t touch on in this movie.

    7) Unobtainium *face palm*
    For a director who has come up with so many fantastical worlds through his films … Unobtainium? You couldn’t come up with some better non-punny name in all the years of working on this movie? REALLY? *sigh* That was weak and really detracted from my enjoyment. Fortunately, not much dialog was devoted to its mentioning, so it became more of a pink plaid elephant in the room that everyone ignored because it was so damned cheesy and tacky.

    8) A comment about the day-night cycle: As already mentioned, the moon would be tidally-locked to the gas giant and thus would have a d/n cycle with the sun. However, wouldn’t it be a 50% night followed by a 3-part “day” split in the middle by a sizable midday “night” caused by the moon falling into the shadow of the gas giant? As we already know, Jupiter and Saturn-sized gas giants have been ruled out for Cent A and B, so would it even be possible for an almost-Earth-sized moon to form in orbit of a Neptune or Uranus-sized gas giant? From the movie, Pandora looked to orbit fairly closely to Polywhateverwhocares (again, a really stupid name that like the mineral isn’t dwelled upon) and if its size in the sky was any indication, I imagine the shadow it cast on the moon would also be pretty effective at bringing about a totally dark midday night. Well, not TOTALLY dark seeing as everything on the moon seems to bioluminesce, which was pretty cool.

  • Enzo December 24, 2009, 7:30

    There’s another potential problem with habitable moons of giant gas planets. The giants are believed to have formed in colder zones of the solar system and then migrated (although this might not be the only mechanism).
    In this case the moon would probably have a huge amount of water (compared to Earth) and result in a waterworld with extremely deep oceans. Not completely hostile to life, but it is unclear what type of life could be there and definitely no Pandora.

  • andy December 24, 2009, 8:23

    The misconception that because a moon is tidally-locked it would have no day-night cycle is a surprisingly common one. I’ve seen it come up in several articles on habitable moons in the past: apparently people don’t think the situation through and just rush into “tidal lock = tidal lock to the star = no day-night cycle”. Maybe it is the fault of having phrases like “the dark side of the moon” well-known in the language?

    A similar thing goes for seismic activity: we get too fixated on Io here. Sure Io is volcanically hyperactive, but the key thing with Io is that it is in a 1:2:4 resonance with Europa and Ganymede that cause significant perturbations to its orbit and preventing complete circularisation. There is no Io-analogue orbiting Saturn: if simply putting the moon close to a gas giant caused geological activity, we’d expect Mimas to be a much more active moon than Enceladus, which is not the case. The level of seismic activity would surely depend on the configuration of the moon system as a whole (and to some extent the influence of the primary star’s gravity).

    Also, surprising how much hate is directed at James Cameron in this thread… sure a lot of his stuff isn’t particularly good (then again there are few people whose work is consistently spectacular), but let’s not forget Terminator 2 and Aliens, which are very well done movies which are among the few well-known and successful science fiction films that have female characters whose purpose in the script is not being eye candy for teenage boys.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) December 24, 2009, 8:47

    Your comments on the inconsistency of the biosphere seem to be assuming evolution. Sure, it would be highly unlikely to ever evolve, but nothing in the film said it did…

    Regarding the societal effects of the primary on Pandora – maybe they weren’t that interested. They spent most of their time hooked up to another living creature, they probably never bothered to look up. They had a much more tangible God/ess; they didn’t need to deify Polyphemus.

    Like I said, it’s probably some Forerunners PhD project.

  • D.Rose December 24, 2009, 8:57

    I just noticed this: Following the link to Exoplanetology in the blogroll to the right, December 22nd’s entry titled “A Closer Look at Pandora” mentions a book, “Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide” that answers some questions. Polyblahblahblah is a little smaller than Saturn and Pandora has a much stronger magnetic field than Earth does, affording it a greater degree of protection. Unobtainium is a superconducting material that, in combination with this magnetic field, creates the “floating mountains.”

  • Tibor December 24, 2009, 9:24

    I still have to go to the cinema to see Avatar, so I cannot judge it really, having seen only trailers and discussions about it. But even if it is not solid scientifically in many things. I think it can really help to create awareness and questions like Zen Blade mentions and inspire kids, as Athena points out.

    Check your environment: How many kids (and adults) do know that the Centauri System with three stars is our stellar neighbour at a distance of about 4.4 ly? Compare the results before and after Avatar.

  • Athena Andreadis December 24, 2009, 9:44

    I won’t go into more discussion of Avatar’s shoddy worldbuilding, but I will address a point brought up by Andy. Yes, Cameron did Aliens and Terminator 1 and 2 — landmark films in their way and high in my favorites list. Which is why it’s incredibly disappointing to see him use his credibility and clout to create a film that mixes soft-focus imperialism with new age fuzziness and no-cost sentimentality about noble savages. Like the Star War prequels and Jackson’s King Kong, it’s essentially a vanity project by someone driven by his inner 15-year-old and so convinced of his infallibility that he treats his audience like children who will be content with recycled pap as long as the F/X are “awesome” enough.

  • andy December 24, 2009, 9:59

    However, the tides raised by the gas giant would be of tsunami proportions.

    This is only a problem if the moon is rotating relative to the gas giant, which if it is tidally-locked, it isn’t (and tidal locking timescales for satellites of gas giant planets tend to be very short: much less than a million years). You’d get some small variations due to libration if the moon’s orbit is not perfectly circular, or if its axis is not perfectly perpendicular to the orbital plane, but these variations would be relatively small. You wouldn’t get tsunami-style tides sloshing all over the place.

  • Athena Andreadis December 24, 2009, 10:29

    You would get tsunami-sized tides (and volcanoes) from the tectonic displacement caused by the gas giant’s gravitational pull — as you do on Io.

  • Athena Andreadis December 24, 2009, 10:41

    One other note following comments about Polywhateverwhocares and Polyblahblahblah: in that, at least, Cameron followed astronomical tradition of naming celestial objects from mythology. Polyphemus is the name of the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus and the planet in the film has a prominent storm “eye”. But it’s interesting to see the “Who cares?” comments — which is my point. The film is not meant to make you think.

  • Allan R. Schmitt December 24, 2009, 10:44

    D. Rose

    When watching Avatar, I too was shaking my head in disbelief by the term “unobtanium”. But thinking about it later, perhaps this was simply slang for a long techical name that no one (except scientists) would ever use. So the use of this term in the movie makes sense.

    BTW, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, weaknesses and all.

  • andy December 24, 2009, 11:02

    You would get tsunami-sized tides (and volcanoes) from the tectonic displacement caused by the gas giant’s gravitational pull — as you do on Io.

    Again, not necessarily. While it is the iconic example of tidally-induced volcanism, Io is also somewhat misleading. Io is not volcanic because it is close to a gas giant, it is volcanic because it is close to a gas giant and located in a 1:2:4 resonance with two other massive satellites (Europa and Ganymede). Without this resonance pumping up the eccentricity of Io, such massive tides would rapidly damp the orbital eccentricity to much lower values, causing much lower levels of tidal heating and smaller tidal effects.

    In a non-resonant system of moons, or better yet a system more like that of Saturn where there is only one very massive satellite, the conditions leading to Io-style volcanism would be damped out on short timescales compared to the system’s age.

  • Allan R. Schmitt December 24, 2009, 11:10


    According to the latest theories, not all exomoons may necessarily form with their parent planet. They may have originated in a different region of the star system and then were captured by the exoplanet at a later time. In that case, the exomoon may not be a water world.

  • Athena Andreadis December 24, 2009, 11:45

    Andy, I agree that the details of the solar system will determine the details of the planet, and the variations are semi-infinite within the constraints of physical law. However, there are some things that need to mesh for a complex ecosystem to develop. Example: if a moon has no tides because of tidal lock to its planet or irregular surges due to tectonic shifts from the gas giant’s pull, you cannot invoke the tideline as a place to accelerate bioform evolution.

    However, as I have said repeatedly here and elsewhere, strict accuracy doesn’t matter. What matters is coherence, quality of imagination and the mindset embedded in/conveyed by the story.

    On the heels of reprinting Science Fiction Goes McDonald’s, The Huffington Post just reposted Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas. I must take a leave from this forum while I don my asbestos spacesuit! *laughs*

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) December 24, 2009, 12:40

    Well, that would make sense. If Pandora was captured by a migrating Polyphemus… I still prefer to stick with the Forerunner theory, though.

    Sure, the plotline was shoddy, but if it gets people to think… as long as people don’t get confused about the science, it’s okay.

  • D.Rose December 24, 2009, 15:51

    Athena: What I would like to see is some respect shown to the other 99.8% of civilizations besides Greco-Roman who’ve made astronomical observations over the millennium. Most people in the audience aren’t going to know that Polyphemus is part of literature but recognize that it is vaguely Greco-Roman or possibly Latin. All they’ll see/hear is a word they can’t pronounce reliably that even the movie couldn’t be arsed to spend any time on. Cameron knew damn well this movie was a rightwinger’s perfect storm of liberal propaganda (and a few are going apeshit over it, tee hee). It’s got Cameron’s signature anti-Military-Industrial-Complex (already visited in The Abyss and The Terminator series), pro-environmentalism, and even a bit of New Age-y heathen deism. He should have gone whole hog and named at least the gas giant something Arabic or Persian (and sent rightwingers right over the edge clear to the other side of their Flat Earth). Then at least people in the audience would take notice of the name out of pure curiousity. As it stands, they’ll Google the name Polyphemus and realize “*ugh* I had to read that crap in high school/college” and quickly lose interest. Having a clearly non-Western name for the planet would have only added to the allure of the film. Ce la vie.

  • Enzo December 24, 2009, 16:49


    Good point. I remember reading that there was a chance that a migrating gas giant could capture existing terrestrial planets as it moved closer to the star. Someone had done simulations.
    However, to me, the most likely scenario seems to be a large Ganymede with all its water melted. And, if it’s large enough it can hold on its volatiles. I wonder what kind of atmosphere a melted Ganymede could have besides water vapor. Probably some oxygen from photolysis.

  • ljk December 24, 2009, 20:18

    For the record, a lot of stars visible in Earth’s skies have Arabic names
    thanks to the Middle Eastern astronomers who catalogued them during
    Europe’s so-called Dark Age.

    Betelguese, Rigel, Algol, Fomalhaut….

    If the US politicians who renamed French Fries to Freedom Fries ever
    knew this. :^)

  • Athena Andreadis December 24, 2009, 20:39

    D. Rose: In an earlier Centauri post, I made the same point about the naming of new planetary systems, which is more important than the naming conventions in a cheesy movie. So you’re not the first or only one to think of this. Also, if you think people know even the relatively “familiar” Greco-Roman mythology, you’should see it through the lenses of a Greek native. Nor is Avatar as liberal as you seem to think. It’s awash in condescension and cluelessness about “native” cultures. Don’t take my word for it. Ask a non-Anglosaxon.

  • Suzy December 25, 2009, 3:56

    @ 5) I read some analysis a few days ago that talked about both the 6-year (one way) trip and the quarterly reports sent back to Earth. With those quarterly reports, the author seems to think they were instantly transmitted back to Earth. Er, no, they were just transmitted quarterly. They’d still take a little over 4 years (light speed radio transmission) to reach Earth.

    According to the Activist Survival Guide, superluminal communications are instantaneous by means of quantum entanglement.

  • Kenneth Mark Hoover December 25, 2009, 14:08

    It’s a movie. That’s all.

    No. Seriously. It’s just a movie.

    Yeah. Sometimes it really is that simple.

  • ljk December 27, 2009, 2:22

    Mr. Hoover, you are missing the point. Yes, at its most basic level
    Avatar is “just” a film, but people can, have, and will think about and
    react to Avatar beyond its mere entertainment value and that is what

    Just as with Star Trek there will be fanboys and girls who may take
    Avatar to the level of becoming a lifestyle, but many others may be
    inspired by its messages just as science fiction in general has caused
    certain people to become real scientists and astronauts.

    My other concern is that the message in Avatar of technological
    beings = bad, natural natives = good could also cause harm to our
    progress in space. I will be discussing this in detail in a future
    article, for I do not underestimate the power of cinema and
    television to sway the public based on the slant of their messages.

  • D.Rose December 27, 2009, 8:10

    “Ooo, cornflakes! I think I’ll piss in them! Yay!” — Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Dude, Ken, stop pissing in our cornflakes. :-P

  • Philip Dembo December 27, 2009, 15:32

    Not sure of the educational benefits of Avatar.

    Watchers are as likely to come away believing in cryosleep and near lightspeed travel as be educated about planets around other stars. Indeed, did the words exoplanet or exomoon even get a mention?

    I asksed my wife if she’d learnt any science from the film. She’s not a scientist, but she’s a very smart business woman. She replied

    1. Maybe it would be possible to transfer our thoughts into another body
    2. Perhaps there is an energy network between trees and plants
    3. We maybe could connect our minds to animals some day

    Now that’s not to say that Avatar couldn’t be useful, educationally. It would be great for hanging exoplanetology lectures off of. And a “Science of Avatar” book or documentary would go down well with the public.

    And if anyone has a connection to Barak Obama, point out that this would be a great time to use the Terrestrial Planet Finder to promote interest in science.

    Oh, forgot to mention, wonderful looking film!

  • Bounty December 28, 2009, 16:14

    Regarding 6 limbs v.s. 4 see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platypus or humans for that matter. It’s not like bipedal mammals are the norm. In 200 years when all the other primates are extinct we will really look like a quirk of nature. Brain size, extreme dexterity, extreme agility (think gymnastics,) hair/fingernails that seem pretty unique etc. Maybe intelligence is the only thing that kept that branch of 4 limbed creatures alive on that planet.

    P.S. Our own moon didn’t form next to the Earth, so don’t worry about the size of the planet or the moon. Maybe it’s a captured moon with a strange orbit. Maybe the moon was the ejected material from an impact. Maybe the gas ‘giant’ is unusually light/less dense after the impact(s). (Multiple previous high speed/mass impacts ejecting heavy material?) [Preventing the necessary star wobble to detect the ‘giant’] We don’t know for a fact the mechanics of gas giant formation in multiple-star systems yet do we?

    I haven’t seen the movie. I already have some issues with the science of it, but at least try to focus on the stuff that matters.

    For those who would jump first to massive tsunami tides, then 180 into no tides = no life. (why no middle, for now at least, ground?) You’re trying a little to hard to not like the science of it. I’m sure there is some alien out there watching sci-fi about some planet named ‘Earth’ with an impossibly perfect environment complete with radiation shield, tides (but not too much), seasonal tilt (but not extreme), volcanos/thermal vents (but not too many), mild nearby star, water cycle, and a civilization that seems mostly disinterested in the bright sparkly objects above them.

  • Duncan Ivry December 28, 2009, 18:00

    ljk: “My other concern is that the message in Avatar of technologica beings = bad, natural natives = good could also cause harm to our progress in space.”

    That’s just what I think too.

    What has come to my mind — and, may be, it’s only me –, is, when I see the physiognomies of the Na’vi, I think, they are in the “uncanny valley”: very, very near, but not equal to humans, and just because of this unpleasant and disagreeable. May be, it’s only me, but I do NOT like them.

    Another point: Are those poor extra-terrestrians really missing letters so often? Hopefully there are not so much spiky apostrophes out there in space — like in Na’vi, Goa’uld, and so much more.

  • george scaglione December 30, 2009, 20:44

    hello all, i had an idea that maybe avatar might be a decent choice as a movie from which to get some ideas.well a friend of mine recently told me that he broke down and went to see it.we discussed it.decieded i could skip it.pretty much see also that everyone above seems to agree! lol seems that even so many years after 2001 a space odyssey we are still looking for that proverbial “good sf movie”! can’t remember the last time i saw a decent sf movie.especially one of recent vintage.thank you all as always i appreciate your time. george

  • george scaglione December 31, 2009, 12:14

    just had to say one more thing i sincerely want to wish every single person who participates on this site a very happy new year! with sincere hopes and wishes for great conversations in the new year and breakthroughs that will actually allow alot of the things we talk about to come to fruition! your friend george scaglione

  • Athena Andreadis December 31, 2009, 15:32

    Happy new year, George — may your hopes come true!

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) January 1, 2010, 17:21

    “Another point: Are those poor extra-terrestrians really missing letters so often? Hopefully there are not so much spiky apostrophes out there in space — like in Na’vi, Goa’uld, and so much more.”

    You’ve never heard of the H’man race?

  • Kinderling January 3, 2010, 22:58

    Avatar brought up good conversation with my 10 year old son who wondered why the Na’vi still had tails. I said they did not look very effective for counter balance so might eventually dies out by naural selection or (gender preference).
    As the horses and had lungs by the sides of their neck I said the Na’vi must have come from another continent, like our marsupials evolved separately. The four legs on the front of the horses I suggested were just a joke – forelegs.
    Pleasant yarn from the right side of the brain.