In 2008, Pixar Animation Studios released the sci-fi parable WALL-E, considered by many genre connoisseurs to be among the very best computer-animated films ever made. Besides being funny and visually dazzling, WALL-E does what good science fiction is supposed to do — it takes present-day issues and extrapolates them out to the event horizon.
In the case of WALL-E, the central issue is America's unsustainable obsession with material consumption and what that means for the future of our planet and our species. In the future, humans have abandoned Earth due to radical pollution problems. The planet's surface is piled high with trash, the atmosphere is choked with smog, and a cloud of orbiting space garbage blots out the stars. In search of a new home planet, a delegation from humanity sets out in a generation starship on a trip that lasts 700 years.
In this week's installment of Bad Science, Seeker's podcast on science versus fiction at the movies, host Ethan Edenburg is joined by James Hicks, one of the original science advisers on WALL-E and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine. Also on hand to think out loud and crack wise is comedian Ian Abramson.
As Hicks explains in this week's episode, part of his work on the film was to speculate on what human beings might look like after spending 700 years in space. Fans of the film will recall that the story's human characters are terminally obese and very nearly immobile.
“[The script] evolved to the idea that they would be fat, based on some of the physiological changes that take place when you're in a microgravity environment,” Hicks says “When you're in space, you lose muscle mass and you lose bone density.”