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It's good to seek justice, but sometimes the powerful play by their own rules as two servants of the king learn that choices always come with consequences. (Link coming soon!)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Realistic Physics: John's Pet Peeves Number 3

I saw an article in the newspaper this past week about a school bus which went off the edge of an overpass. It was a horrible tragedy where people died. Things like that happen in the real world. Physics is not on your side when you disagree with reality.

I'm all for the thrilling chase in fiction, don't get me wrong. I just believe there should be some justification when someone drops thirty feet onto concrete and doesn't end up in a hospital, or jumps a car over a river without busting all axles when it lands. At least in the James Bond movies, the boats they use for special effects use jets instead of props, so there's nothing to scrape off as the boat scoots along the ground.

When writing fiction with significant action scenes where physics plays a role, I'd recommend consulting an actual fan or student of physics. Consultants are great in lots of areas, and physics is one that can make or break a scene.

There's a lot of middle ground between having a car made of indestructible super-stuff that never scratches, and having it made of explodium. Mind you, parody is great. I've seen a Chevy Nova turn into a giant fireball when something touched its bumper, and it was great! But if your goal is realism and not yoinking your reader out of the story, you need to pay attention to the little things. Odds are pretty good that you'll have a reader that remembers high school physics, and will complain if you do it wrong.

You may need to know, for instance, which way precession will turn a space station if you turn on rockets to change it's spin axis before stopping the spin. If you don't know anyone to ask, get out a bicycle tire and give it a try. Interestingly enough, the rotation axis can align with the thrust vector of the rocket. If that doesn't make sense, that's why you need consultants and proof readers.

You might need to know how far a car really can drop before the engine mounts just won't take any more, or what can blow out shocks or tires. How do crumple zones work? I have no idea of the details, so I would have to ask someone who does bodywork on cars. What are the odds of needing to cut someone out of a car with the jaws of life if their car gets squished between to semis? What speed of collision would likely make the question moot? How does ablative shielding work on reentry for space vehicles, and how long does it last?

Here's an example from my short story Revolutionary. I needed to know how long it would take to reach the ground skydiving from 30,000 feet, so I looked up the terminal velocity of a human body and did the math. If math isn't your friend, find a consultant (preferably a good friend) who likes math. You can thank them in your dedication. Knowing terminal velocity gave me hard limits on the length of a fight scene where there were three people and two parachutes. At two thousand feet, how much longer did they have? What does it take to steer, and to change your rate of descent? If I'd got any of that wrong, anyone who knows skydiving would likely launch the book through the air rather than finish the story.

In summary, do what you can to write a fun story, then for all those details that you might not know off the top of your head, verify them. Your readers will thank you.


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