brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


Michael Bay and Basic Astronomy

I've seen lots of bashing of Michael Bay and his movies this weekend. Amongst the blogging world, there seems to be almost universal contempt the flashy, soul-less combination of flashy cars and collagen injected supermodels. And yet his latest release Transformers: Dark of the Moon just claimed the all time Independence Day record, amassing 156 million dollars in its first five day weekend, including (yes) $25 or so for me and my wife.

I'm not going to argue that Michael Bay deserves more respect (while his movies are popular, they do pander to teen-boy sensibilities) or less respect (that being said, his movies are enormously popular, and do have a visual style which I can appreciate). Instead, I'm merely going to nit-pick a single annoying set of mistakes that he perpetuates in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

There is no "dark side of the moon", any more than there is a dark side of the Earth.

(I might reveal minor plot points in the following discussion. You've been warned.)

Part of the premise of TDOTM is that the Apollo 11 landing was merely done to retrieve a crashed Autobot ship. Repeated reference is made to landing on the "dark side" of the moon, or loosing radio contact because Apollo 11 is now on the "dark side".


I'm going to blame Pink Floyd for this, although perhaps our own penchant for viewing things like the moon without really attempting to understand what we see is at least as likely to blame.

The moon revolves around the earth in about 27.3 days (a sidereal month). The moon's rotation is synchronized to its orbital period, so that it presents the same side toward the earth (mostly, more below). Hence, we see the same side of the moon from our vantage point on earth all the time. Hence, it makes sense to speak of the "lunar near side" (the side we can see) and the "lunar far side", the side we cannot. The first pictures of the lunar far side were taken by the Soviet Luna 3 probe back in 1959: prior to that, we knew essentially nothing about this far side.

But note: the far side isn't "dark", anymore than the near side is.

If you watch the face of the moon throughout a sidereal month, you can see the phases change. During a full moon, the visible, near side of the moon is fully illuminated, and the invisible, far side is fully dark. But one half a sidereal month later, we have a so-called "new moon". Here, the near side is in shadow, and the far side is fully illuminated. And halfway between these two times, the near and far sides are both half lit and half in shadow.

During the Apollo missions, the Command Module would periodically go into "radio darkness" as it was hidden behind the moon, but this was merely because the moon would block radio signals aimed at the craft in lunar orbit. But this had nothing to do with whether the Command Module was in sunlight or not.

Of course, someone more illustrious than me has been through all this before.

It's a minor nit to pick. And Michael Bay has done much, much worse. But this kind of basic illiteracy annoys me just as much as the obvious car and electronic product placements we see scattered throughout the film.

And yes, I can accept talking robots from outer space, the existence of something called Energon, and that hot chicks would like Shia Labeouf, but choose instead to pick this one nit. Sue me.

Addendum: We don't see precisely the same side all the time. The moon's orbit is elliptical, which means that it varies in distance between us. Because its angular velocity changes, but it's rotational velocity does not, the moon is only on average in synchronous rotation. We can see about 9% more of the moon's surface than we would if it was perfectly synchronous.

Addendum2: If you really want to nit pick, consider the effect of the Roche Limit and what it means when Cybertron is brought into earth orbit.

Addendum3: Also, for being the "Einstein of the Autobots", Sentinel Prime was really, really stupid.

Addendum4: Yes, I get all the jokes on Big Bang Theory.

Filed under: Astronomy, Movies 2 Comments