Avatar: What’s Real, What’s Not, and What does that mean for us?

William Zhang | william.zhang@yale.edu September 1, 2010

Avatar: What’s Real, What’s Not, and What does that mean for us?

Since its release in December 2009, Avatar has pushed the limits of cinematic ingenuity with its groundbreaking CGI graphic technology. Director James Cameron put everything he could muster into the 15-year project, producing the dazzling, futuristic alien world of Pandora. The resulting spectacle, completely rendered in 3-D, has captivated audiences with its flying dragons, enchanting flora, and stunning detail of the blue-skinned Na’vi. But is the Avatar concept any more than an imaginative fantasy on the big screen?

The feasibility of the technological advancements and extraterrestrial life forms in Avatar has been a major point of contention among critics, stirring much controversy in the scientific community. The movie is set in 2154 on an alien moon, Pandora, in the Alpha Centauri solar system. This first and crucial premise—moons inhabited by alien creatures—seems to be a farfetched notion, but research has shown that since there are over ten times as many moons as planets, distant moons are the most likely places to find other life forms in the Milky Way.

Astronomers and astrophysicists have confirmed that it is possible for such a moon to exist, especially due to its proximity to Alpha Centauri A, a bright star similar to our sun. In fact, scientists are optimistic about our potential to discover these moons in the near future. NASA’s newest advancement, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to launch in 2014, will be able to examine the atmospheres and gas content of moons in different galaxies and determine if they are inhabitable.

Beyond the explanation for the existence of Pandora, much attention has been placed on planning the physiology, botany, and biochemistry of plant life native to the home of the Na’vi. The producers of Avatar recruited Jodie Halt, Chairman of the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside, to design biologically feasible plant life for Pandora. Halt explains that the plant communication depicted in the film is a result of the evolution of bioluminescence and signal transduction pathways. The weaker gravitational force and high concentrations of carbon dioxide explain the enormous proportions of vegetation on Pandora.

Geologists concur that the floating mountains of Pandora are an implausible element of the movie. Some argue that Pandora’s lack of gravity and magnetic forces support these structures, and the luminous aurora in the movie shield the Na’vi from the intense magnetic radiation. But such magnetic forces could not sustain life and any exposure would wipe out not only the Na’vi but also any other living cells.

The very physiology of the Na’vi is also scientifically questionable. Though the 10-foot tall creatures demonstrate a slightly divergent evolutionary pathway, it is highly improbable that Pandora would contain creatures with such humanoid characteristics. The Na’vi are tetrapods, stand upright, possess comparable human intelligence, and appear to be placental mammals. With an infinite number of possible evolutionary pathways and distinct environments, creatures on Pandora would most likely not evolve into organisms with such homology to humans.

It is fairly evident that we don’t currently possess the technology to jump into a pod and use our brains to manipulate and control another being. Experts agree that it may take centuries to achieve this transferring of human consciousness, but we actually have a better grasp of the intricate mind-controlled Avatar than many may think. In fact, the basic scientific building blocks behind the complex technology are already being utilized in current medical application. For example, Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, has successfully allowed a monkey in the United States to control the movement of a robot as far away as Japan. By further working with the motor and sensory cortex, scientists hope to use this technology to help handicapped patients move prosthetic limbs.

Avatar technology requires the transfer of massive amounts of information in a short period of time. Though this isn’t currently feasible, scientists at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center have used electrodes that transfer electrical impulses to get people to mentally write out their thoughts. Scientists hope to use this study as an eventual means of communication for those who are paralyzed. Today, it is possible to stimulate certain regions of the brain to induce feelings of temperature, pressure, or pain, but scientists have not yet figured out a way to induce either emotion or the transferring of emotion.

Though Avatar appears to be a dazzling dream and fairy tale, the producers actually put in a substantial effort to make the science as realistic as possible. True, there are some scientific smudges, but let’s not forget the artistry of the movie. What fun would it be to watch a romance between Jack Sully and a blue glob in New York City?