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The science of the film “Avatar”

You knew this was coming, right? The blockbuster film of the weekend wasn’t going to sneak by without a little bit of geeky inspection. Not only is it a science-fiction film, the film itself was created using lots of cool artistic technologies and techniques that were themselves science fiction only a couple of years ago. From MSNBC and

A member of the Na'vi humanoid race in 'Avatar'

The science fiction blockbuster “Avatar” is set on a mysterious alien moon with out-of-this-world technologies. Its star director, James Cameron, has not only directed other science fiction epics like “Aliens, The Abyss” and the first two “Terminator” films, but was apparently the president of his high school science club, a physics major in college and has an engineer brother who has designed underwater robots.

So how much science is there in “Avatar”?

CAUTION: Possible spoilers ahead.

The movie is set on the fictional Pandora, one of the many moons of a fictional Saturn-sized gas giant, Polyphemus, which is located in the real Alpha Centauri system, which at nearly 4.4 light-years away is the closest star system to Earth.

While astronomers have yet to discover moons beyond our solar system, they expect to. And the Alpha Centauri system could be a place worth looking. The larger of the two real, sunlike stars that make up this alien system, Alpha Centauri A, is the fictional Pandora’s sun. In reality, scientists might soon be able to detect habitable moons with the James Webb Space Telescope and also study their atmospheres for key life-related gases such as oxygen, and water vapor.

Tropical rainforests cover most of Pandora’s continents, which suggests its mother planet must be fairly close to its sun to take advantage of its light. A few years ago, this might have seemed implausible, but most of the alien planets scientists have discovered so far are in fact gas giants that are exceedingly close to their stars.

However, life on a gas giant’s moon might present a host of challenges. Jupiter’s moons exist within an intense radiation belt of electrons and ions trapped in the planet’s magnetic field, and Saturn’s gravitational pull leads to extraordinary tidal effects that may have once ripped apart nascent moons to produce its rings, and today can drive winds and volcanic eruptions on its moon Titan.

The draw that Pandora has for humans is a naturally occurring ore dubbed “unobtanium,” an old in-joke in science fiction for materials with physically impossible qualities. (Technically, since it’s a mineral, it might better be called “unobtainite,” but that’s a pretty nerdy quibble.) Unobtanium is the best superconductor known, and apparently works at room temperature. Just as real-world superconductors can float in the presence of a magnetic field, mountains on Pandora apparently loaded with unobtanium can float in the powerful magnetic pockets that dot the moon’s surface. The films show these magnetic fields can interfere with technology, just as they would in real life — although, apparently, not whatever wireless links which allow the main characters to link with their “avatars.”

High technology

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Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

4 thoughts on “The science of the film “Avatar”

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  2. Hrmm that was weird, my comment got eaten. Anyway I wanted to say that it’s nice to know that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the same info elsewhere. This was the first place that told me the answer. Thanks.

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