Analysis

Five Baffling Tech Explanations in Spec Fic

Two jaegers dropped into the ocean in Pacific Rim

Mythcreants is about serious story analysis, drilling down to the core issues of plot and character. But not today. Today, it’s time to laugh at some extremely bad technobabble. And since our readers are no doubt connoisseurs of weird scifi tech, I knew that no ordinary tachyon polarization or deflector dish remodulation would suffice. That’s why I’ve searched far and wide to find the most ridiculous technical or scientific mumbo jumbo that spec fic has to offer. Because I care.

1. A Dark Matter Cloud: Another Life

Characters standing in front of a space window from Another Life.

I’ve written before about how contrived Another Life’s character conflict is, but that didn’t give me time to explore its ridiculous technobabble. First, there’s the way it completely misunderstands gravity assists, or gravity “slingshots” as they’re always known in scifi. In real life, gravity assists are a kind of maneuver where a spacecraft uses the gravity of a planet or another massive object to speed up or slow down, which is really important since modern spacecraft have very limited fuel capacity. Every bit of speed they can steal from Jupiter is less fuel to cram on board.

When Another Life’s heroes – for lack of a better term – are behind schedule, they decide to use a gravity assist to get back on track. The problem is that their ship already travels faster than the speed of light. However the physics of that work, by the time a ship is moving that fast, gravity assists are meaningless. For reference, the New Horizons probe picked up about 9,000 mph from its Jupiter gravity assist. The ship in Another Life is traveling at least 670,616,629 mph,* and probably much faster. It’s like trying to speed up your car by leaning out the back and blowing raspberries. Also, for some reason they think a gravity assist requires getting really close to the massive object in question, which is the last thing you actually want.

While this is all very silly, it’s also run of the mill for space opera. What really gets me is the way Another Life portrays dark matter. You see, the reason they want to increase speed in the first place is that something was blocking their original course, forcing a detour. Can you guess what that something is?

It’s a cloud of dark matter. You know, just hanging out in a cloud, like dark matter does. And the reason they can’t just fly through the dark matter? They wouldn’t be able to see where they’re going. Because it’s dark! I guess in the show’s imagination, dark matter is the smoke monster from Lost.

You might think they could just fly through it in a straight line, darkness be damned, but the captain is a step ahead of you. She says they can’t do that because they might hit a planet. You know, in space. The thing that is famous for being mostly empty. And if they’re worried about hitting something, wouldn’t it at least be a star or dust cloud, both of which are much bigger than planets?

I’ve seen and read all kinds of strange dark matter depictions before, but most writers at least understand that dark matter is really weird and doesn’t interact with baryonic matter, the stuff we and everything we see is made of. But in Another Life, dark matter is apparently a space cloud crammed full of planets.

2. Analog Nuclear Power: Pacific Rim

Holographic displays from Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters, so really the whole thing is baffling from a scientific or technical perspective. I have so many questions about how the square-cube law works in this setting. But once we accept the basic conceits, there are still a number of major headscratchers like why the F-22s in the beginning fly down to spitting distance so the kaiju can swat them, or the reveal that maybe the dinosaurs were kaiju all along. But my absolute favorite begins, as most good things do, with an electromagnetic pulse.

You may remember that some ways into the movie, the two most interesting jaegers are killed off so we can focus on Gdanger* and Striker Eureka, which look like photocopies of every other giant robot you’ve ever seen. Before our heroes can recover from this tragic loss, one of the kaiju unleashes a powerful electromagnetic pulse that fries all nearby electronics, and that’s when things get weird.

Gdanger is safely out of range back at base, but Striker Eureka immediately shuts down, and we’re told that’s because it’s “digital.” Seems like they can’t risk sending in another jaeger if it’ll get easily knocked out like that. But then we’re told that Gdanger won’t succumb to the EMP because it’s “analog, nuclear.” Huh? First of all, what does the jaeger’s nuclear power plant have to do with it being analog or digital? Maybe they mean that it doesn’t use batteries like the other jaegers presumably do?

More importantly, it doesn’t matter whether Gdanger is analog or digital. What matters is whether its critical systems are electric or mechanical. An EMP this powerful would fry any electrical hardware, which is why your old VCR isn’t safe. And Gdanger’s nuclear reactor still generates electricity, right? I assumed that’s what the big turbine in its chest was for. Okay, I can’t say for certain that Gdanger isn’t powered entirely by mechanical action. Maybe the internals are axles and driveshafts all the way down. But that’s not what it looks like, and I really doubt those plasma cannons use a manual gearbox.

Adding insult to injury, Gdanger is absolutely digital. At least, its holographic displays are digital. I’m pretty sure that holo-displays don’t come in a vinyl format. It’s okay though, as once Gdanger arrives from jaeger HQ, the kaiju doesn’t use its EMP weapon again. I guess it somehow had intimate knowledge of jaeger systems. Either that or it could only use the pulse once and the whole hubbub was unnecessary. 

3. Pure Uncut Virus: Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Willow helping a sick Buffy to walk.

In the season two episode Killed by Death, Buffy lands in the hospital with a really bad flu. While there, she thinks she sees a monster. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those episodes where everyone inexplicably decides that Buffy’s judgment can’t be trusted. Instead, they get right to sleuthing, which leads to some extremely questionable virology discoveries.

First, we find out that a doctor at the hospital is trying to treat sick kids by giving them doses of the virus they already have in the hopes that it will induce a higher fever. I tried to look up how credible this is, but it’s one of those ideas that’s so out there, no one seems to have done any research on it. The only thing I can say for sure is that while fevers have certain benefits in fighting disease, they can also be dangerous in their own right. Giving kids higher fevers on purpose seems very risky. Nor am I sure how giving the kids more doses of a virus they already have would help, but again, it sounds pretty dangerous.

That’s all preamble though; the real weirdness starts when Buffy realizes that you need to be sick to see the monster. That’s a problem because Buffy has already recovered, rendering her immune or at least highly resistant to this strain of the virus. No worries, Buffy quickly finds a beaker of virus-laden solution in a nearby fridge and figures she’ll drink it to get sick again.

As before, I wasn’t able to find any answers by searching “what happens if you chug a flu virus solution,” so we have to do some guessing. The first flaw I’m seeing with this plan is that influenza is a respiratory disease. People get it by inhaling virus-laden aerosols,* or by getting the virus on their hands and then touching the mucus membranes in their nose or eyes. The digestive tract is a pretty hostile place for microbes that aren’t adapted to it, so I doubt this would be a good way of getting the virus into Buffy’s system. I guess she might inhale some of the virus as a side effect of having it in her mouth, but actually drinking it seems unlikely to accomplish anything.

Then there’s Buffy’s acquired resistance to this strain of influenza. Maybe a high enough viral load in the solution could overcome that resistance, assuming any of it survives the stomach acid, but that’s highly questionable. It really seems like Buffy should be looking for another way to fight this invisible demon. Maybe a spell to reveal invisible creatures, or just find a different strain of influenza to catch.

The final bit of weirdness comes when Willow stops Buffy from taking a drink of virus, saying that it’s too dangerous because it’s “100% pure.” 100% pure what, exactly? Pure virus? That’s clearly not true, as the solution is mostly water or some other transparent liquid. Then Willow cuts the solution with water and says it’s safe for Buffy to drink. Well, I’m sure glad that Willow can eyeball exactly how much virus is needed to get Buffy sick but not too sick. If the witch thing doesn’t work out, maybe she should look into microbiology?

4. Nebula Music: Star Trek: Discovery

Stamets standing next to a holographic display from Discovery.

Discovery’s third season introduces a mystery. Okay, it introduces several mysteries, but we’re only looking at one today: What’s up with this weird music? It seems to be everywhere once our heroes arrive in the future. They hear a recording of it in a damaged seed ship, and later we learn that Adira’s dead boyfriend* used to play it on his cello. No one knows where this music comes from, making it all the more mysterious.

Flash forward a few episodes to The Sanctuary, and it looks like we’ll finally get an answer. The crew discovers a weird signal coming from a distant nebula, and when they play it, it sounds like that mysterious music. Wow, so why did it keep showing up in holorecordings and cello lessons? Is it a psychic nebula? Did a popular musician rip the nebula off to sell a hit single? No one knows because the episode moves on without explaining it. An odd choice considering how it was built up as a mystery.

Oh well, it’s probably because they needed more time to explain why a random nebula signal sounds like music… except they don’t explain that either. I guess that’s just what nebulas sound like. Tilly does say, “That’s weird. Scientifically speaking,” which I’m sure is completely satisfying as an explanation.

Until this point, I assumed they were talking about a subspace signal, which is Star Trek’s term for transmissions that travel faster than light. With the nebula so far away, any conventional signals would take centuries to reach Discovery. But then Saru tells them to filter the nebula’s other radio signals, which are limited by the speed of light. By doing this, they somehow end up with a Federation distress signal. I guess the Federation transmits distress signals via radio wave? Doesn’t seem very useful if a ship is in deep space, since a radio signal would take years to reach even a neighboring star system. Then again, this would hardly be the first time Starfleet has made questionable design decisions. Anyone else remember the Enterprise elevator that severs your fingers for using the handrail?

At least we finally have the distress signal, so we can learn what’s going on. Actually, no. It turns out the distress signal is encrypted and they need to break the encryption first. Hang on, my eyes just rolled out of my head and I need to go find them. There we go.

I have so many questions: but the only one that matters is, why would anyone encrypt a distress call? The whole point of a distress call is to tell as many people as possible that you’re in trouble.

Don’t worry, it turns out that this distress call is a century old, so Discovery can take its time investigating. Good thing too, as it would have been super awkward to get there and discover that everyone died while Adira was running their code cracking software.

5. Ghost Goggles: Nancy Drew

Nancy with a flashlight from CW's Nancy Drew.

Despite never reading or watching any Nancy Drew-related media before, I’m rather fond of The CW’s latest adaptation. It’s got well-developed characters, complex mystery, and reasonably good supernatural monsters. The diversity helps too. But there’s one other thing the show has: weird technobabble. Most of this is related to hacking, as you’d expect from a story set in the modern day. At one point, a side character sends Nancy an encrypted email about where to meet for selling an important artifact. Naturally, Nancy misses the meeting because she can’t read the encrypted email!

But the crown jewel of tech weirdness* comes midway through season two, as our heroes are gearing up to investigate a haunted basement. Nancy’s good friend Nick has made her a pair of ghost detecting goggles, as a treat. When Nancy asks how they work, Nick explains that they pick up infrasound, a type of low frequency sound that falls below the human hearing range.

I really like this premise, as it’s nice to get away from the green-tinted night vision that most of TV’s ghost detectors use. It could also explain the trope of animals detecting the supernatural when humans can’t, as it’s believed that some animals like elephants and pigeons can hear in the infrasound range. Granted, ultrasound would have worked better for this, as a lot more animals can hear above the human range than below it. Still, it’s a neat idea.

The first hiccup comes in the display. In real life, commercial infrasound detectors have a simple readout telling you how loud the infrasound is, but Nick has somehow translated his detectors onto a screen so Nancy can see where the ghosts are. That sounds like something out of a James Bond or MCU movie, and it doesn’t fit well with the show’s more grounded atmosphere. Nick is a skilled mechanic, not Tony Stark.

And then Nancy presses a little more on how the goggles work, which gives us this amazing line:

Animals give off infrasound, weapons, too, and according to AJ’s research, so do ghosts.

Sure, ghosts can give off infrasound, no big deal. But there is so much to unpack in the rest of that sentence. Let’s start with the part about animals. I think this is a reference to the theory that some animals, like those elephants I mentioned earlier, use infrasound for communication. The research there is still ongoing, but it’s certainly plausible.

Unfortunately, the way it’s phrased sounds like animals just emit infrasound at all times, no matter what they’re doing. I thought my kitties were asleep in their cat tree, but they were really dropping infrasound beats. I knew they were up to something, just look at them!

Two kitties sleeping in a cat bed. They’re also dropping a lot of shed hair but that’s another issue.

And how about that second clause: weapons give off infrasound? How? What kind of weapon? Does it have to be designed as a weapon, or do improvised weapons count? Can infrasound detect intent? I would love to test this. For example, baseball bats are not designed as weapons, but can easily be used that way. So by default a baseball bat emits no infrasound, but it would start doing so once you use it to smash a zombie’s head in.

I have stared at this line for hours trying to understand what it means, and I’ve still got nothing. I kept expecting Nancy to detect a weapon with her goggles, making this a contender for clumsiest foreshadowing ever, but that doesn’t happen either.

Speaking of which, when Nancy finally puts the goggles on, can you guess what she sees? The standard green-tinted night vision that every other urban fantasy TV show uses for its ghost detectors. Sigh. All that technobabble and they could have just said it was a camera with its low light setting on. Or at least they could have had someone attack Nancy with an infrasonic weapon.


It’s really difficult to be 100% realistic when it comes to tech in storytelling. For some stories, it’s simply impossible. The trick is knowing which rules you can break without making the story sound sillier than you want it to. FTL drives and structurally unfeasible giant robots? Go for it. Analog nuclear reactors and nebula music that you never explain? It’s time for a trip back to the drawing board.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    This makes me appreciate even more the extent to which they try to explain things in the French sci-fi show “Transferts”. Husband and I are four eps in and really like it so far (there’s only one season, though).

    It’s set in the near future. They have some run-of-the-mill near-future sci-fi tech, like holographic displays and keyboards that are conjured up from table tops instead of being a separate computer. Not too fancy, you immediately accept it.

    The big deal is that science has discovered the existence of souls. Someone’s soul sits inside the brain and is the size of a single molecule – ok, explains why souls went undiscovered for so long. It’s possible, and was legal for a while with registered organ donors, to transplant the soul of a dying person to the brain of someone braindead but otherwise intact. We’re not given any details, but it’s done with some kind of machine that is decidedly non-magical. We learn that it’s being done illegally now, because the blueprints have been leaked and can be found on the darkweb etc, and although it requires some money, know-how and resources, it’s possible for anyone who’s got these things to construct a soul-transfer machine.
    We get SOME details on what happens after a new soul is put in a body: the brain doesn’t just function again, you can also detect various neurological changes afterwards – the new soul basically rewires the brain and also induces various secondary changes throughout the body, ensuring that the old person is replaced by the new one. Then it turns out that doctors might have this slightly wrong, that maybe the “rewiring” isn’t as complete as previously believed, and some aspects of the old person might remain after all.

    And it’s JUST the right level of explanation. I totally accept that they’ve got this machine for transferring souls. I don’t need to have it “explained” via extensive technobabble.

  2. Dave L

    >I have so many questions: but the only one that matters is, why would anyone encrypt a distress call? The whole point of a distress call is to tell as many people as possible that you’re in trouble.

    That was my first thought. But if the ship is in or near hostile territory, they might want only friendly forces to know they’re in distress (assuming hostiles can’t pinpoint and track the signal even if they don’t understand it)

    In Babylon 5, the Minbari would attack and destroy Earthforce ships in distress. Sheridan used this; he sent a false distress signal and destroyed the Minbari vessel that came to destroy his ship

  3. Cay Reet

    About infrasound: We all emit infrasound at all times – our movements do, in fact, but the sound is too low for us to hear. There’s been a lot of hullaballoo in Germany after someone came up with a high amount of infrasound possibly being emitted by windmills (which led to the ’10H rule’ for them in Bavaria, making it next to impossible to build more), but recently, the study has been disproven – someone made huge mistakes with the calculations and windmills do not emit that much infrasound, so they’re safe close to civilisation.

    Infrasound is all around us and there is a theory that people think there’s someone (such as a ghost) close to them when they’re close to a source of infrasound. Experiments have shown that people have that feeling of someone standing behind them when they are near certain frequencies and strengths of infrasound. On this, such a tool could work, but how to distinguish between ‘infrasound from a ghost’ and ‘someone just nodded over there?’

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Ghost infrasound is way spooky I guess.

      • Cay Reet

        It probably goes ‘boooo’ when you look through those goggles.

    • Sarah West

      I’ve heard that low vibrations can cause a sense of dread in people, too. That may be part of the inspiration?

      • Cay Reet

        Yeah, those low vibrations are infrasound.

        • Jarosch

          Also, back to the cats: A cat purr? Yeah, humans can only actually hear the upper portion of it. Part of it is in fact in infra sound territory. Allegedly (and I stress allegedly here) infra sound can help wounds heal, and that is part of why cats purr or growl- which, despite how the sound, are actually in the same frequency band.

    • Adam Reynolds

      The other problem I see with this depiction is that from what I’ve seen, infrasound is associated with people debunking the supernatural rather than trying to detect it. Ghost hunters don’t go looking for infrasound, skeptics go looking for it as a more rational explanation for the same phenomenon of ghost sightings.

      Among other creepy things, it can also potentially cause vibrations in the fluid of the eye, which can leads to phantom visions of things that aren’t present(hence ghosts).

      • Cay Reet

        Yeah, it’s strange to use the infrasound idea in a series which runs with the existence of the supernatural.

      • Kenneth Mackay

        I remember hearing of a new model of car that had to have it’s bodywork redesigned due to that; at certain speeds the air passing over it set up a vibration that made the driver’s vision blur…!

  4. Zhireve

    Your cats look adorable.

  5. Dave L

    >In real life, commercial infrasound detectors have a simple readout telling you how loud the infrasound is

    Actually, an infrasound detector beeping louder and louder and the readout indicating that the ghost is getting closer and closer could be kind of cool

    You KNOW the ghost is here. You KNOW the ghost is getting closer. But you can’t! Freaking! See it!

    Remember the motion tracker scene in Aliens? Yeah. Kinda like that

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Aw now I wish they’d done that instead!

    • Cay Reet

      That would be a cool way of doing it, actually. Good for raising the tension and also needs less special effects, which makes it cheaper. Playing a beeping noise that gets louder and more insistent isn’t expensive.

  6. Camille

    As a virologist, I want to say that the Buffy flu episode isn’t that scientifically unsound.
    1. For this one, you’re right: giving sick kids MORE virus is a terrible idea. Their immune system is already giving it their all, overloading it will only overwhelm it, not somehow make it stronger.
    2. Drinking the virus solution would actually work: the mouth is directly connected to the oropharynx, which can be infected by the influenza virus, from which it could then spread to the nose and the lungs. It would be better to deposit liquid drops directly in the nose, but still, it’s okay.
    3. Buffy’s resistance due to having just recovered from the flu will make her immune system more efficient, so she will fight the infection better, but she may still contract a fever while she fights the infection, especially if she takes a high enough dose of virus.
    4. Viruses used in research are stored in liquid solutions at very high concentrations (several hundred to several million times more concentrated than normal infectious doses). While calling it “pure” is completely incorrect, Willow is absolutely right that drinking it as is is an incredibly bad idea. The virus concentration is always written on the vial label, so Willow could easily calculate how much she needs to dilute it, provided she knows the average infectious dose. Maybe she reads virology articles in her spare time.
    Just my two cents on the subject.^^ I don’t think they invited a virologist to write this episode, but they’re not too far from the mark, incorrect vocabulary aside.

  7. Dave L

    Maybe they meant Infrasonic weapons

    Infrasonic weapons like the long range acoustic device (LRAD) rely on loud, low frequency sounds (infrasound). These bulky units have been used for crowd control and repelling pirates. When on high power, the effects are like a “punch in the guts”, ranging from nausea to involuntary evacuation of the bowels

    https://theconversation.com/sonic-attacks-in-china-and-cuba-how-sound-can-be-a-weapon-97380

    • Cay Reet

      Ah, the brown noise. I knew the idea of infrasound weapons reminded me of something…

  8. stephen

    How do you know ghosts don’t emit infrasound? Maybe that’s how they communicate. What if aliens emit infrasound?

  9. Goldhawk

    Midi-chlorians!

  10. Sedivak

    As to the gravity assists – in reality you really want to be as close to the heavy object as possible without actually touching the planets atmosphere or being damaged by solar radiation. The deeper you go into the gravity well, the more energy can be gained by the oberth maneuver (a kind of gravity assist). I did not watch/read the source material which you refference, but the phrasing of your argument is confusing.

  11. mourningcrow

    bombs emit infrasound. infrasonic waves are used to detect nuclear detonations

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