Science Fiction and Science Fact

Later this month, a certain science fiction blockbuster movie franchise will release its next installment of a long running story.  Science fiction movies such as this have long inspired children and adults alike to look toward the stars and wonder what’s out there. 

However, most science fiction stories rely heavily on the “fiction” part when telling their stories.  For example, often, when a giant spaceship explodes, the audience hears a resounding “BOOM!”  In reality, a large explosion in space would sound like, well... nothing.  Sound cannot travel through the vacuum of space! Sound travels on Earth by making molecules vibrate against each other.  Those molecules could be air, or even liquid or solid.  But sound needs something to travel though, and in the vacuum of space, there is nothing!

Another problem with a giant space explosion is, in fact, the explosion itself.  Fire needs oxygen to burn and exist, and in the vacuum of space, there is no oxygen.  The giant explosions with huge burning fireballs simply aren’t possible.  Which isn’t to say that they’re couldn’t be a small explosion if a spaceship had some oxygen inside of it, however, that explosion would look more like the flash of a camera than a floating fireball.

In fact, there a few too many problems with the science in science-fiction movies to get into all of them in our blog.  So, instead, here is a simple, non-fictional guide to finding your way when looking up at the stars.

Finding the North Star

Materials: None

Location: Anywhere at night that has a clear view of the northern sky.

Photo Copyright: NASA, ESA, N Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and H. Bond (STScl).

Photo Copyright: NASA, ESA, N Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and H. Bond (STScl).


1.     Using this picture as a guide, locate the “big dipper,” or Ursa Major.  Dependent on the time of year, the big dipper may be right-side-up, sideways, or even upside down.  In the evening in the Northeastern United States in late fall, the big dipper will be tilted strait up and down, with the “ladle” opening to the right.  It will be the in the north-northwestern part of the sky.

2.     Find the two stars that make up the end of the ladle.  Draw an imaginary line from the bottom star to the top.  Follow that line to the next bright star.  That is Polaris, or the North Star.

Interesting Facts:

  • Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky, as some people think.  Far from it, in fact.  The brightest star in the night sky is called Sirius.  Polaris is the 47th brightest star in the night sky, and that doesn’t include the planets and many satellites that are brighter.
  • Based on the way that the Earth rotates, the position of Polaris in the night sky never appears to change.  This is why ancient travelers used the North Star as a guide: at night, they could always find north.
  • Polaris makes up the end of the handle of the little dipper, or Ursa Minor, constellation.