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When Things Spin, Science Happens
By all appearances, the coming energy crisis will be solved by strapping boat oars to steel rings and spinning them around in the air.
"[...]and if science has taught me anything, it's that if something is spinning, it's important."
— Gordon Frohman
, Concerned: The Half-Life and Death of Gordon Frohman
We all know Everything's Better with Spinning
, but sometimes it is so much better that science happens.
In Real Life
rotation has many interesting and perplexing properties: precession, gyroscopic stabilization, and the generation of electric/magnetic fields just to name a few. Writers often use the intrinsic mystery of such phenomena to increase the plausibility of their devices functioning by making them rotate. This is especially true when the device involved needs to generate a field or zone of fictional type, being directly analogous to electric field generation.
In addition, rotation is a visually exciting way of informing the audience that the device is operating, and hopefully doing something sciency. Besides, rotation has the benefit of a closed path: if science just flew off in a straight line it'd be out of shot.
In Real Life
, technology is usually not visibly exciting to watch in action. For example, your computer (while it has fans and drives which spin) does not actively move while in operation. In many cases, the fact that the machine or technology is operating at all can be somewhat oblique to the naked eye. Witness the many people who call into Tech Support claiming that their computer
isn't working... because it isn't turned on
. When it comes to various visual media, movement equals operation
, which allows the audience to recognize that the machine is actually working or operational. Even if there is an obvious, prominent signifier of power (big green light, flashing red lights, etc) positioned on the machine, in the eyes of many - it's not actually on
until something starts moving.
This trope is a sub-trope of Applied Phlebotinum
. Probably related to Technicolor Science
. See also Centrifugal Farce
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Anime & Manga
- In Outlaw Star, the FTL-drives in wide use seems to work by spinning something that looks like a mix between a drill and a helicopter rotor. Two of them, in opposite directions.
- Spiral Power is the crux of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and the reason the Scary Dogmatic Aliens are trying to kill everybody.
- It's also the theme of a Fauxlosophic Narration delivered by Leeron.
- Although considering which Anime we're talking about perhaps it might be more like "When Things Spin Science Collapses."
- In Shinkon Gattai Godannar!! the titular robot's plasma drive does this whenever it powers up.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's has Momentum, a big spinning thing that provides power to all of Neo Domino City. It's not quite explained how it works, other than by harnessing the powers of momentum. Although if it explodes, then it can split the land in two.
- In Cowboy Bebop, ships have rotating sections which appear to be gravity generators. (Note that this is a concept that has been seriously proposed in Real Life; for example see the O'Neill Cylinder.)
- Most of Air Gear's fantastical pseudo-science runs on this. Rollerblading on air, bubbles with considerable tearing power, portable black holes, anything.
- The Flash deals with almost every situation involving science or technobabble by spinning or running in a circle at super-speed.
- Superman in the Silver Age could even stop tornadoes and Time Travel by doing so.
- In Batman Gotham Knight (Field Test) Batman employs a powerful EM field generator to stop bullet-fire, normally no practically sized device would be capable of this, but hey, it spins; it must work.
- The time machine in the 2002 remake of The Time Machine is a cool-looking clockwork Steam Punk mechanism with many spinning parts that projects a glowing spherical force field in which it travels through time.
- Which was partly inspired by the 1960 version, which had a huge disc on the back. Fun fact: it had 365 pegs around the edge. (So is the time machine off one day every four years?)
- The Doomsday device in Star Trek: Nemesis spun faster as it got closer to exploding.
- In Thunderbird 6, Brains's airship uses an antigravity generator that contains lots of metal hoops that rotate in opposing directions. Probably makes no sense scientifically, but provides lots of opportunities for ricochets during a climactic shootout.
- Another Gerry Anderson example is Joe 90's 'Rat Trap', a kind of spherical cage in which Joe sits while it spins rapidly around him, imprinting him with this week's brain pattern. I always wondered why it didn't make him dizzy.
- And the spinning top-style flying saucers from Anderson's UFO.
- Roberta Leigh's (associate of Anderson) puppet series Space Patrol (aka Planet Patrol) had doughnut-shaped spacecraft that were surrounded by spinning forcefields in flight. For a group of people who had to worry about things like strings getting caught, they sure did love this trope.
- In the movie The Lawnmower Man the insane protagonist strapped himself into one of those gyroscope contraptions with the hoops, and after much spinning, his mind was projected into virtual reality. Don't ask.
- The idea being to allow his body to move and reorient freely in all directions to match appearances inside the virtual space.
- The thing which was meant to allow Jodie Foster's character to meet the aliens in Contact had rings that spun around each other.
- Known in the novel as "Benzels", after the inventor of the merry-go-round.
- Doctor Octopus's machine in Spider-Man 2.
- Also, the particle accelerator in the third film.
- Magneto's mutant making machine in the first X-Men film is a very strong example. The spinning really seems to be an integral part of its operation. And it's designed to be operated by moving the wheels around with magnetic powers apparently. Sort of makes one wonder if Magneto could have skipped kidnapping Rogue if he'd just installed some kind of motor in the thing.
- Superman The Movie had a couple spinning rings to trap Zod and his minions. Since there was nothing else keeping them trapped there, it's assumed they're Making Science Happen.
- The machine to restore Agent K's memories in Men In Black II spun around.
- The Ragnarok Engine in the first Hellboy movie.
- C-3PO's skeletal form in Star Wars Episode I had a silver spinning thing inside his head.
- That would be his brain, according to the novels.
- In a weird version of the trope, the black hole making gravity drive on the Event Horizon spins slowly in standby but went activated its three rings stop together. Then something pseudo-sciency happens.
- Also, everything in the room was covered with spikes for no apparent reason. They were originally supposed to interact with the gravity drive, with the spikes acting as conducting points for excess energy, but they didn't have the budget to put those kind of special effects into the movie, so they left them in for Rule of Scary.
- Examples from the 2009 Star Trek film: Ambassador Spock's ship, with three separately-rotating... things which are obviously scientific and important because they have a glowy thing in the middle.
- The time-warping gizmo in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
- Aughra's gigantic orrery in The Dark Crystal.
- Justified, because spinning things around other things is what orreries do.
- The device used to arm the nanomite warheads in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra involved lots of spinning.
- Kenneth's machine in Safety Not Guaranteed has a fair number of rotating things on it.
- In "Inner Space" the miniaturization process at the government lab spins Tuck's minisub at absurdly high rates before breaking it down and shrinking it. The more advanced and streamlined lab the bad guys use skips the spinning and gets straight to the breaking down and shrinking.
- When the outer breastplate is closed during the Mark III suiting-up sequence in Iron Man 1 , the structures surrounding the arc reactor spin counter-clockwise ever so slightly.
- In Alastair Reynolds novel The Prefect they use "Search Turbines" - computers that are spun up to somehow use improve their computing capability. This turns into a significant plot point.
- In the Discworld series:
- In Thief of Time, master clockmaker Jeremy Clockson's perfect clock built to measure the universal tick used electricity and Magitek to spin light round and round... and made a hole in the universe. And stopped time.
- Going Postal has Bloody Stupid Johnson's spinning wheel on which pi equals exactly three was used to punch a different hole through the universe in order to sort letters. (It was actually made as part of an organ. It just turned out to work better for sorting letters.)
- Implied in James Blish's Spindizzy drive from his Cities in Flight series. Spindizzies are based on P. M. S. Blackett's work on planetary magnetism, correlating magnetism, gravity, and angular momentum. Some writers (like this one) say that "spin [it] dizzy" is what the device does to the subatomic particles: changing their angular momentum. However, because the device itself is never actually seen or described in canon, itís possible that it itself spins. (Blackett's work in this area was discredited to his own satisfaction in his lifetime.)
- The titular craft from the Rendezvous with Rama series generates gravity from spinning (see "centrifugal force") and odd effects arise from Coriolis forces that the characters use to their advantage.
- The Ringworld not only spins for gravity, its spin also allows it to act magnetically on its sun to produce solar-flare megalasers, fuel its stabilizing jets with ramscoops, and even turn the whole Ringworld system mobile.
- In Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, When Things Spin, Magic Happens... or rather, Anti-Magic, as the wizard-wheel burns up all the Mana in the area until it depletes the local Background Magic Field, leaving a dead zone.
Live Action TV
- In Firefly, how Serenity's engines function is never explained, other than it must spin to work.
- According to the director, the engine is a gravity drive, which still doesn't explain why it has to spin.
- From Stargate SG-1's self-parody episode 200:
"I'm the general and I want it to spin!"
- The Stargate itself is an aversion to this. Yes, the Earth gate spins, but this is a function of the backup interface which the Tau'ri use, and has no relation to the actual workings of the gate. Gates never spin under normal circumstances.
- Until Stargate Universe where the entire gate spins. Indeed, it seems that the older the technology for the gate, the more spinning is required.
- The TARDIS, from Doctor Who spins while it's in flight or travelling through the time vortex.
- Professor Lazarus' machine in "The Lazarus Experiment".
- Lampshaded in Planet of the Dead with one of the Doctor's little science-detecting gadgets.
The Doctor: "This little dish should go round. That little dish, there." (About thirty seconds pass.) "Oooh, the little dish is going round!"
This is my Time-y Wime-y
Detector. It goes "ding" when there's stuff.
- And the "jammer" concocted by the Doctor in The Time Monster, made of all sorts of household junk and a nice cup of tea.
- The Doctor uses a similar approach to create some sort of scanning device in "The Lodger" from bits and pieces of terrestrial 'technology.' Lampshaded when the Doctor has to pass it off as a 'commentary on modern society.' Craig doesn't buy it.
- The "tachyon accelerator" seen on Eureka was three spinning rings.
- The Xindi superweapon in Star Trek: Enterprise.
- And in Star Trek: The Original Series, a duplicate robot Kirk was made by a spinning alien doohickey. Lampshaded by Doctor Ira Graves when he encounters it in the spinoff novel Immortal Coil: "Why in the world would the platform need to spin? It doesn't make any sense. It's almost like...a lot of hand waving. Idle motion."
- Heck, the TOS nacelles themselves had something spinning in the red bussard collectors. In Star Trek: The Animated Series it seemed to be linked to the direction of flight, spinning backwards when the ship went into reverse and slowing to a stop when it came to a halt.
- We don't actually get to see them doing their thing until very near the end of the series, but jump drives in Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined) must "spin up" before being activated.
- As an inversion, the spinning sections of Earth Alliance, Drazi and Vree ships in Babylon 5 show that they are less advanced than the other races, who use artificial gravity instead of centrifugal forces.
- In just about every CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, centrifuges are some of the most visually impressive pieces of equipment in many laboratories, especially biological ones, but they don't really give you all the answers.
- In the episode "The Asset" of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there's Dr. Franklin Hall's giant graviton machine.
- The most literal example on this page comes from Earth 2160. The UCS faction's research center has a big sphere with rings around it (called a GENIUS-class processor). The rings start spinning while research is in progress, so, quite literally, when those things spin, science happens.
- The Mass Relays on Mass Effect are giant glowing gyroscopes In Space.
- The Tantalus Drive-Core of the original Normandy SR-1.
- Large spinning external reel-to-reel tape drives are how you know computers are working. Shown as recently as Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal.
- The Tau Cannon (aka Gauss Gun) from Half-Life has a set of rotors that spin up to speed as the secondary fire mode is charged. Partially justified as it seems to be some sort of electromagnet contraptionnote .
- Also the anti-mass spectrometernote , which has several parts that must spin for it to work.
- Not to mention the Combine Interdimensional Portal, the subject of the page quote. The final portion has spinning shields which Gordon has to destroy.
- Every advanced technology ever really just has to have spinning parts, including the Black Mesa/Resistance/Nova Prospekt teleporters, the displacer gun, the Citadel's core containment system, Black Mesa's generators and reactors, Xen rocks, and even parts of GLaDOS. Don't forget the spinning blade contraptions of Ravenholm as well.
- Each Garden in Final Fantasy VIII has a massive spinning ring that presumably keeps it in the air. So do the airships in Final Fantasy XII; at one point, this becomes a plot point when the characters deduce that an airship is about to crash because its "glossair rings are stopping".
- The Ryan Industries building in BioShock contains a few rooms that feature huge spinning wheels. Presumably these are part of some mechanical equipment, but why they specifically intrude into corridors and the like seems to have no practical purpose. Knowing Ryan, the ones in Hephaestus are likely there just to show off.
- In Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, there's a room with a couple of large rings spinning around a giant ball of energy in the center because the spinning has made so much science that it has gone mad and you must stop it by making the rings not spinning and the scary energy ball goes away.
- In Mega Man X: Command Mission, at the top of Central Tower is the Resistance headquarters. In there is a great big computer, and you can notice a number of spinning things throughout the room that make it operate. (Early in the game, you even find a techie repairing the central spinner underneath the main computer console.)
- When Persona 3's Aigis activates her Orgia Mode, the headphone-like disks on the side of her head spin with a loud whirring sound and emit a thin wisp of smoke.
- Discussed and Averted in the sequal, Persona 4, in which Kanji is upset that the medical tests the party undergoes did not include being placed in a centrifuge.
- Possibly justified in Aigis' example. They might be FANS!
- The Cyclotron stage in Dead or Alive 2 Ultimate.
- The Ishimura in Dead Space has her artificial gravity created by a "gravity centrifuge".
- Science cruisers, AWACS, subspace portals, and even nebula gas miners in FreeSpace all have very prominent spinning widgets.
- Teleporters from Team Fortress 2 are a prime example: They become ready to use when they're up to full speed. The upgraded ones accelerate to full speed faster.
- Initially played straight, but ultimately averted with the Observatory in Assassins Creed IV. The spinny bits just act as a giant projector, the important part does not only not spin, but doesn't need the spinny bit at all. It just can't create giant sized images by itself.
- Justice League and JLU used this on occasion.
- In "Legends", exploding Humongous Mecha + the Flash running in a circle = teleportation to an alternate universe.
- In "Divided We Fall", Lex Luthor and Brainiac use nanobots to fuse their mind and body into one entity. Then the Flash separates them by making his arms two whirling blurs of motion and shoving them into Brainithors chest.
- On Super Friends, spinning was practically the universal solution.
- In Futurama, the heads of jurists spin when deciding on a verdict in court.
- Jay's father Franklin in The Critic built something that had a bunch of babies spinning for his experiment. Turns out he invented the baby wurl-a-majig.
- The Phineas and Ferb episode "Primal Perry" specifically refers back to this very article when Baljeet is inside a spinning machine made by P&F for plot reasons.
Buford Is science happening yet?
Baljeet (from inside the machine): I am getting nauseous!
Buford (smug) Sounds like science to me.
- Even today, most electricity is, in fact, generated via spinning magnetic turbines. Coal? Burn it, heating water, generating steam, spinning a turbine. Wind power? Wind spinning a turbine. Hydroelectric power? Turbines spun by water and gravity. Nuclear power? Radioactive material boils water and we use that steam to spin turbines.
- The spinning Beach Ball of Death in Mac OS X and the spinning hula hoop in Windows Vista and 7. Although Mac OS rarely uses the Beach Ball to indicate actual progress, so it's mostly spinning when science is failing to happen.
- Also the spinning icons while progressive download buffers video content.
- Any number of supposed "perpetual motion" machines with spinning components.
- The Dean Drive perhaps. Or not, if the laws of physics have a say in the matter.
- Or the opposite, so that the "Rolls Royce" logo on the hub remains visible even when the wheel is turning.
- This trope also has a basis in the mechanical machines that until recently were the technological norm; based on mechanical simple machines, these typically have many rotating parts. In particular, in a Clockpunk or Steampunk setting, this is to be expected.
- Centrifugal governors consist of two weights on hinges on an axle. When the engine starts up, the axle spins around and centrifugal forces cause the weights to swing in and out, regulating the speed of the engine. The net effect to the bystander, though, is to have a little propeller-looking doohicky that has no obvious function.
- This is where the term "Going balls out" comes from. Not from not wearing undies, but from operating at maximum speed.
- This is referenced in the Discworld novel Small Gods. One inventive character has constructed a primitive steam engine - similar to Heron of Alexandria's, described below - and mounted it on a small boat. Long story short, it's hit by lightning in a storm, overheats, and explodes. The inventor talks about the need for something to prevent excess pressure building up,
"some sort of governor device. I feel I could do something with a pair of revolving balls."
"Funnily enough, when that lightning bolt hit, the thing started glowing, and we went scudding across the water, I distinctly felt my-"
- Imparting a spin on any projectile stabilizes its flight path and may even direct it more or less predictably. Applications include...
- Rifling in guns stabilizes the bullet, making it more accurate at longer ranges and allowing for cooler slow-mo shots.
- Most balls in sports where the ball is airborne. It can either cause it to go straight or curve in an arc. Or bounce rather oddly.
- The very first steam engine. No, not Watt's. The ones built by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria (AD 10-AD 70) A bronze sphere on an axle, connected to a water tank itself set above a fire. The steam rises from the tank and into the sphere, and then exits through nozzles pointed in opposite directions. The sphere turns, and science happens
- Let's not forget flywheels!
- Although if you use one to power a railgun, it's more like "When things very suddenly stop spinning, science happens!"
- The Tipler Cylinder. When this baby spins up, you're gonna see some serious shit. Because it's a time machine. To be fair, it would actually have to be infinitely long to possess this property, but aside from that, it's hard to get more science-from-spin than a time machine powered by spinning.
- Spinning black holes can theoretically do the same thing, but they'd have to be infinitely old and you'd have to be a single particle in order to actually reach the closed timelike curves without getting vaporized by the mass instability at the inner horizon. Otherwise, you slam into other stuff that fell into the black hole before you (including your own body parts) with such an energetic collision that every particle in your body becomes a mini-black hole.
- Particle accelerators (synchrotrons and other circular accelerators at least) literally make science happen by spinning things. Admittedly very small things that you can't actually see spinning.
- How do you get Artificial Gravity in real life? Why, you spin your space station or ship, of course! You can also spin just part of your ship, but given Conservation of Angular Momentum, spinning part of your ship will cause the rest of your ship to start spinning in the opposite direction. SCIENCE!
- Which is why you set up two of them, counter-rotating, to cancel out most or all of said spin. Then you use gyroscopes (MORE SPINNING) to correct for any remaining spin.
- Centrifuges! an essential tool of chemistry and biochemistry, because spinning a tube a several thousand cycles per minutes can separate liquids of slightly different densities in mere minutes instead of hours, days or weeks if allowed to happen through gravity alone.
- The screw. Just its shape can drill holes, move matter, and secure things. The screw (and its derivatives) is used in so many applications it's very easy to take it for granted.
- For that matter, drills and lathes too.
- The Homouroboros at the San Francisco Exploratorium.