5.24.2004

Paycheck Science

I was at the video store Saturday and couldn't find anything good so I ended up with Paycheck starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. By reading the back of the box, I doubted I would be impressed, but I figured it's a big budget action film with two well known stars so maybe it's worth three bucks.

I was wrong. This movie had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The action sucked, the actors sucked, but the worst sucker of all was the story and the science behind it.

The premise is this: Affleck is a whiz kid computer reverse engineer who works on projects that are either secret or illegal enough that the companies he works for erase his memories after he's finished. If he starts a project in August and works until October, they put him in a machine that erases his memories of those two months. He takes on a big job that should pay 92 million dollars but requires him to stay on the job for three years, which is a record amount of time. After he is done and the memories of those three years are erased he finds that the money was paid in stock options and that he had forfeited all of it a couple of weeks earlier. The only thing he is left with is an envelope with 20 everyday items that he mailed himself.

Long story short, he keeps getting in situations where these items save his life. A pair of glasses that see through smoke help him escape from the FBI, a key to a subway maintainence door helps him escape from hired gunmen, a key to a motorcycle helps him escape from even more killers. He eventually figures out that the project that he was working on for those three years must have been a machine that could see into the future and he must have used it to place these items to save his life.

Now let me share the science behind this machine by quoting a dialogue between two characters. It is based on a "laser-enhanced lens" which "is powerful enough to see around the curvature of the universe." Because "if you could see around a curve that went on forever, (the charcter traces his hand all the way around an apple as he speaks) you would end up back where you started, looking at yourself" "except not looking back at yourself now, in the present.." "No.. you're looking at the future."

(A little explanation for the Einstein impaired. I won't get into the science, and I'm no scientist to begin with, but just trust me when I say one popular theory is that the universe is shaped like a sphere. Or like the earth. On the earth, tf you start at the north pole and go south you will eventually end back at the north pole again due to the curvature of the earth. For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume that's true for the universe too. If you start at earth and go in any direction you may go all the way around the universe and end back at earth even though you are going straight the entire time.)

Now, a machine that can see all the way around the curvature of space is just silly. This would be a distance of several billions of light years. Basically, this lens could see everything in the universe, and not just stars. It sees everything in the universe well enough to see people too.

Even if a lens could do that, you would see the past, not the future. You look up at the sky and see the sun, but you aren't really seeing the sun as it is right now, you see it as it was eight minutes ago because light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach the earth. If my memory is correct, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is over one light year away so it takes light from there a whole year to reach us. If aliens went to Alpha Centauri and blew it up today, we would not see it happen for another year. Other galaxies that we can see in the universe may be 5 or 10 billion light years away so we're seeing them as they were 5 or 10 billion years ago.

So how big is the universe? I don't know and haven't been reading much astronomical news lately so let's pick a number out of thin air. Let's say that if humans can look in one direction and see galaxies that are 10 billion light years away and can look in the opposite direction and see completely different galaxies that are 10 billion light years away. Imagine the universe is a sphere like the earth and imagine us at the equator. That's 10 billion light years on both sides that we can see, so from the "north pole" of the universe to the "south pole" has to be at least 20 billion light years. Consequently, if you could see all the way around the universe and back again you would be seeing at least 40 billion light years away.

So anything you saw with this "future seeing" machine would actually be 40 billion years old. You wouldn't be able to look into the machine and see yourself, you couldn't even see the earth or the sun because neither of them were here 40 billion years ago!

There are plenty of movies that have scientific problems, but this gem is rotten enough to get it entirely backwards. You can overlook this premise and just watch the movie, but the movie itself isn't very good either.



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