Let’s just put this on record right now; I am a HUGE fan of science fiction. It’s the best genre ever invented, it allows geniuses to tell stories in a way that couldn’t be told otherwise, and it’s responsible for making a star out of Jeri Ryan.
But science fiction has a problem; it’s written by humans, for humans, and humans suck. By that, I mean that ordinary people write stories about far-off worlds and exotic technology without necessarily knowing anything about science, so the work they do is riddled with inaccuracies and, frankly, magic.
Readers and viewers consume the genre without protest, in part because they might not know any better than the writers and directors, but also because certain inaccuracies just work better. A movie about space cowboys, or whatever, just wouldn’t feel right if the spaceships didn’t make a screaming noise while they bank through space-dogfights. Invisible superweapons are cool to own, but not video-friendly. Genuine aliens are probably as compelling to watch, with just as much human drama, as bacteria on an agar plate.
In Space, Everyone Can Hear You
You’ve heard it before. It’s the high scream of TIE fighters as they swoop onto their prey. It’s the throbbing hum of a star destroyer’s engines as it prowls through space. It’s even the heavy, industrial-style clanking as the space station opens its docking bay doors or the blasts and pops as a crippled spaceship comes apart in orbit. It’s sound in space, it’s wrong, and we all know it.
In case you spent third-period science getting high, here’s the problem: sound doesn’t travel in space. Not at all. As in, you could totally fire off a thousand rounds from a chain gun right next to your head in space, and you wouldn’t hear a thing.
See, sound has this quality of propagating through a medium. Other things being equal, the denser the medium, the better for sound. That’s why you feel an earthquake before you hear it—the shockwaves travel through both air and rock, but faster in the rock because it’s denser. Water is intermediate between rock and air in how well it transmits sound. In space, there is no air, water, or conveniently situated rock you can fly through, so there isn’t going to be any sound. Period.
This one isn’t going away, though. Human eyes, ears, and brains are all the product of terrestrial evolution, and we don’t have any experience with how things work in space. We’re so used to diving, arcing, exploding things making noise that it just feels wrong to watch the Executor crash into the Death Star without at least a little noise to let us know what just happened. Ironically, a silent action sequence in space would take the audience out of the action and—with supreme irony—remind us that we’re watching a movie. So noisy spaceships are probably here to stay.