My Opinion on the Science behind Avatar

Written by: Captain Skellett // January 4th, 2010 // Science in the Movies

Avatar Movie Still

Have you seen it yet? It’s the best movie of the decade, and it just became the fastest movie to make $1bn in ticket sales. This post contains spoilers, so if you’re lagging behind the majority then run along now, come back later. I’ve held back from this post to give people a chance to see it, but I’m gonna explode like cannon fire if I don’t do it now. Note: This post be me opinions, and make no mistake, I want to believe.

What struck me most about the movie is how REAL it was, after seeing it I had this overwhelming urge to go there, to see it for myself, even if just in a dream. To feel authentic, an animated world needs to pay extreme attention to detail to how the real world works. Director James Cameron brought in Jodie Holt, chairwoman of the department of botany and plant sciences at UC Riverside, as an expert. She helped suss out the plant-communication thing and how a botanist would study plants on another planet. After that she helped put together a massive tome called Pandorapedia, with Latin names (yay!), taxonomy and descriptions of the plants.

According to this interview, Jodie Holt had one major problem with the movie – Grace smokes in the lab. A big no-no, not only for OH&S but also because of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus which dwells in tobaccy and can be unleashed on unwitting plants causing mass destruction. I counter with this – why would a virus that evolved on Earth have any effect on plants that evolved on Pandora? Viruses and the cells they infect usually evolve together. Sure, some viruses can jump species (like HIV) but not, you know, species from another planet. Plus in the future we might have wiped out the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, indeed, she might be smoking some non-cancer-inducing super-tasty tobaccy from the future.

These communicating plants though – that’s something else. Very cool. It actually reminded me of an Animorphs book (the Andalite Tales, anyone?) I think talking trees is definitely possible – Strawberries can communicate a caterpillar attack to other bushes in the network (albeit connected together by runners) so the other bushes can protect themselves. Given the right environment, I think it’s entirely possible that a whole ecosystem could evolve to communicate for mutual protection, and over time I think it could give rise to consciousness. Hell, that’s how we did it, right?

Actually, a lot of the plants and animals look mighty similar to Earth counterparts… I always thought if we met aliens they would be completely and utterly different to us. My sciencey explanation for this is that a meteor containing biological building blocks started life on Earth (the “a rock did it” theory), and one of those same meteors hit Pandora. With the same start and similar environments, it’s not altogether impossible that similar life would start on both, is it?

Finally, the Avatars themselves. How can you get your mind to control another body? Was the Avatar brain computerized to respond to the movement sensors in that sensor-bed? The human-alien hybrid concept is pretty out-there, and the idea of DNA being important to a mind-body link is something totally new, but think of this. As shown in the making of – Avatar was made mostly by motion capture. The actors performed in front of a screen and then a 3D image of the alien was mapped over them. Isn’t that exactly like being an Avatar?

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

One Response to “My Opinion on the Science behind Avatar”

  1. James says:

    Hi there Captain Skellett!
    Long time reader first time commentor.
    I was thinking about what you said about the similarities between the Pandorian flora/fauna and Earthen counterparts and it reminded me of a paper I read ages ago.
    Essentially the authors proposed that evolution anywhere would follow the same rules but those rules would suit the environment. Not only that but what they called ‘General Problems’ could have ‘Common Solutions’ so its possible that although we have different starting points we can address a problem (living in the air, for example) with a common solution (by evolving wings and flight, as birds, bats, insects and some fish have all done independantly on Earth). So I guess my opinion as to whether
    “it’s not altogether impossible that similar life would start on both”
    would be that whilst its unlikely we would look so similar we could have addressed general problems (such as sight, bipedal movement etc) with common solutions that would generate a degree of similarity.






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