Monday, June 27, 2011

Review of "October Sky" and the Physics Involved

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The Universal Pictures film “October Sky”, directed by Joe Johnston and produced by Larry Franco and Charles Gordon, is based on a true story about four boys in the small, coal-mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. The boys become intrested in rockets after viewing the Soviet satellite Sputnik soar through the sky one night. After many obstacles and opposition from others in their town, the boys were able to resist the usual future of mining.

Rated PG for thematic elements, alcohol use, and language, “October Sky” is basically a feel-good, happy-ending story. The main premises are to never stop working and to never give up even though you may fail or may be discouraged.

As a physicist, I am pleased that a movie like “October Sky” has been made so that more young people may become interested in rocketery and the physics and trig behind it. The boys used their intiative to learn how to build and fly rockets, and also learning a great deal of science and math that would later help them win the science fair and receive scholarships to college. When needing to prove that their rocket did not cause the forest fire, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) worked really hard to develop a physics position formula to determine where the rocket would have landed.

However while the movie had many opportunities to incorporate physics into many other areas of the plot the director seemed to avoid it. The main time that physics was pointed out was during the boring scene when Homer was explaining to his teacher and classmates about the flight of a rocket and how to determine where it would land, and to an ordinary person this might have been difficult to understand because Homer was speaking very quickly due to his excitement.

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Another thing that was discussed extensively was the basic anatomy of a rocket. The various parts and functions of rockets were described good. The motion of a propellant gas through the nozzle of a rocket was also explained. These things were necessary, yet sometimes seemed as if they could be a bit too much for the common audience.

Rocketery involves much more physics than was shown in the movie. Also, the idea that four high school boys were able to teach these things to themselves just by reading books is difficult to believe. The movie could have discussed the aerodynamic forces acting upon the rockets, or explained the flight of the rockets, in ways that could teach the audience something they might not have known. Perhaps the reasons why several of their rockets failed could have been better explained throughout the film, or how their technolgy developed over time as the boys learned knew things.

This movie had the potential to be an important learning tool in physics classrooms around the world. However, the topics that could have been discussed extensively, such as the physics of motion and forces, were avoided. The movie itself was good, but important realistic information was left out.

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