Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is often regarded as one of the most scientifically sound science-fiction movies out there. Working closely with author Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick met with plenty of scientific experts to ensure the film would be as authentic as possible, regardless of the inevitable filming complications. This meant they'd have to create their own, realistic form of gravity, ship design, evolutionary history and, of course, the artificial intelligence HAL. With 2001 playing this Wednesday night as part of the the Sci-Fi Film Series at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax, we decided to catch up with the film's host, Denver Museum of Nature & Science's Curator of Astrobiology, Dr. David Grinspoon.
Westword: 2001 is often cited as one of the more accurate sci-fi films out there, but is there anything in the film that might be incorrectly portrayed or annoying to you as a scientist?
Dr. David Grinspoon: Kubrick and Clarke really tried to get it right, and there really isn't anything to complain about from a scientific perspective. I could give you a short list of nit-picky "errors," but compared to really any other film I can think of, the science in 2001 is first-rate and has stood up remarkably well over the years.
Between the rotating sections and the Velcro rooms, which do you think would be more likely to be used in actual space travel as a form of artificial gravity?
Rotation can give you real artificial gravity, and I have no doubt that it will be used once we have spacecraft or habitats that are large enough to make it practical and long-lived enough to make it necessary. Velcro doesn't actually give you artificial gravity, it just makes you stick. I could see it being used in a situation like that in the film, where a small craft is making a short trip. I don't think it would necessarily help with locomotion, but it might help maintain the illusion of a preferred frame of reference, which might make it easier to avoid disorientation for people, like the stewardesses in the film, who have a job to do.
Would a system like HAL really be necessary in long distance space travel?
Powerful computers obviously have a role. Artificial intelligence would also have its uses. But a paranoid schizophrenic machine that tries to kill off its crew would be a liability.
Were there any predictions in 2001 you found especially interesting?
When the movie came out, it was a very believable and hopeful future for a young space geek like me. It was a very reasonable set of conjectures based on the pace of space exploration at the time. But things went awry. There is nothing at all wrong with any of the predictions in the film. It's the future itself that went astray.
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Kubrick and Clarke were noted to have done considerable research and fact-checking on 2001. Do you think plausibility matters to an average film-goer?
Not really. And scientific plausibility doesn't matter to me that much either for some types of films. For a space opera like Star Wars, I don't really care if the science is silly. But Kubrick and Clarke were not primarily trying to sell tickets or please a Hollywood studio. They were trying to make a masterpiece of science-fiction film, and they succeeded better than anyone else ever has. The fact they were so careful about getting the science right (and I'm not just talking about space travel here -- they were also rigorous with, for example, the known history of human evolution) makes it all the more mind-blowing when a transcendent encounter with an advanced alien intelligence blows the hinges off our logic and doors of perception.