To Air Is Human

An Aerodynamicist and a Cultural Anthropologist Discuss “Dune”
An aerodynamicist and an anthropologist discuss the world of “Dune,” finding it as aesthetically beautiful as it is functionally implausible.

The new Dune is a gorgeous movie, but… there is something quirky (well, wrong, mmmmm very wrong) about the physics of flight. Here an aerodynamicist—an engineer who studies and designs for flight within terrestrial atmospheres—and a cultural anthropologist—somebody who studies the glorious mess of human cultural worlds—discuss how weird Dune is on both fronts.

Oh, and the aerodynamicist and anthropologist are married; and this is dinner; and there is a wide eyed, slightly bored (silent) kid there too. As such, the prolific swearing has been softened: they don’t usually use the word “friggen” quite so much.

There is a way in which the fidelity of Denis (not Jacques) Villeneuve to the book has produced much of the patent ridiculousness of the film’s approach to propulsion, instrumentation, extraction, manufacture, repair, and cultural diversity. But knowing that doesn’t temper the many sighs of exasperation heard (most especially from the engineer’s corner) during the long temporal expanse of the film’s run. Still, this is a critique of a wrong approach to air, and not in the least to Villeneuve’s approach to making glorious stories for the big screen.

Listen to some of the conversation here, or read the full below!


Aerodynamicist: The level of sophistication of this society is like the one from the Middle Ages. It’s witches and this one guy with a book. It’s clearly not a scientific book. It’s just a little prayer book.

And there’s the Chosen One and then the war between the “house of this” and the “house of that.” The only things they can do are fight each other and pray. So, they have the technological sophistication of the Middle Ages, fine. It’s a feudal society.

But, they can do interstellar travel by using spice as a fuel. Fine, I’m okay. Again, I’m fine, I can do that. And, they can actually land an egg-shaped starship without any visible propulsion system on a pad of concrete. Okay, fine. But—and this is the but—they have to use a helicopter to fly their military people.


Anthropologist: So why is this a problem?


Aerodynamicist: It’s a problem because if a ship can fly without a propulsion system, you don’t need a frickin’ helicopter. And because the helicopter is mechanically complicated: you can see, because it actually breaks in the friggin’ sandstorm.


Anthropologist: But it’s beautiful though.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, it’s beautiful. I agree with that. But, if you don’t need a helicopter—because you have got some kind of magic ball flying machine—then you don’t need the frickin’ helicopter. They have that!

All right, my pizza is done. [The aerodynamicist pulls a pizza from the oven.]

If you look at the helicopter, there’s a cockpit and instruments and stuff and they actually even say, “oh I’m flying 5,000 meters over the ground.” I was really surprised to hear that.


Anthropologist: So what year is this happening?


Aerodynamicist: Huh?


Anthropologist: Ten thousand—


Aerodynamicist: What?


Anthropologist: What year is this, in the future, where they’re talking about meters?


Aerodynamicist: This is 11,161 so they’re still using essentially the same technology as today and if you look at the instruments, they look like an altimeter you can find in a frickin’ Cessna. So, fine. And you know, they are at 5,000 kilometers, that’s pretty high—


Anthropologist: Meters, meters, meters.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, okay. Good. So my question is: what is the fuel for that? I’m assuming it’s spice, because they don’t have any other fuel?


Anthropologist: No, no, but things explode.


Aerodynamicist: It explodes! So it’s probably full of some kind of kerosene. I wouldn’t be surprised if they use Jet A-1, which the thing we use here. But maybe, if it’s made of spice, it’s actually carbon neutral? If so, they should actually say that. That’s a plus point of this movie, that the society is not fossil fuel based.


Anthropologist: It’s totally fossil fuel based.


Aerodynamicist: No, it’s spice.


Anthropologist: No, spice—from someone who has read the book—spice is a thing that allows a certain kind of creature to bend space time to make starships move between stars.


Aerodynamicist: Ahhh, and it allows interstellar travel, so it has nothing to do with fuel.


Anthropologist: It’s not a fuel.


Aerodynamicist: Ah-ha. So, it allows interstellar travel, because it can bend space. Maybe I should read the book before criticizing the movie.


Anthropologist: No, it’s fine.


Aerodynamicist: Still, the helicopter and the flying ball?


Anthropologist: But the reason that we know that spice is not the propulsion method is because things blow up when you drop a bomb on them.


Aerodynamicist: Right. So actually, the military equipment they have is insanely similar to the basic WWII stuff where you shoot at each other.


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: It is interesting to notice though, that there are no personal rifles. The personal combat—man-to-man combat—is only done with swords, which is surprising because you have space cannons that you use for big spaceships. But, it’s better to fight with swords. That’s the thing about the feudal system.

So, I guess there’s a law that prevents you from having a gun? But, at least a small gun, you can have a small gun. But, you have to have a big gun to shoot a friggin’ space ball that doesn’t follow the laws of gravity at all. Good.

The thing about the voice that makes you do stuff? I’m happy with that, because that’s magic. And I’m okay with magic. I’m just not okay with stupid technology.


Image from Dune. Courtesy of

Anthropologist: You had a complaint earlier, that there’s nobody that makes technology.


Aerodynamicist: The only people that appear to exist in the movie are the lords, the peasants, and the “sword,” the fighters. Which is fine, because it’s a feudal society. So, you don’t need anything else.

Except if you have flying balls, because somebody has to make the flying balls. So if you only ride horses it’s okay it’s like—


Anthropologist: No horses.


Aerodynamicist: But there are no horses. So nobody’s making the technology, and there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable fueling system for all of the spaceships. Even Star Wars shows that you have to fix the spaceships. So, where do the spaceships come from? Clearly not from the books in the buildings, because the buildings are made of concrete. They are very nicely done, with beautifully designed windows.


Anthropologist: Like a castle.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, exactly like a castle.


Anthropologist: A brutalist castle.


Aerodynamicist: Yes, but Mid-Century Modern. Nevertheless, there is no book that tells you how to build this technology. I guess, you have a doctor at the end, because there’s that weird horrible fat guy who gets fixed.


Anthropologist: They soak him in spice.


Aerodynamicist: Oh, spice.


Anthropologist: I think they soak him in spice to fix him.


Aerodynamicist: Maybe the book says something about this, but the only explanation to me is that all the societies inherited technology that works, and nobody know how to make it. They’re just using it.


Anthropologist: But I don’t think that’s the story. I think the story is that they make it somehow.


Aerodynamicist: But that really doesn’t transpire at all in this movie.


Anthropologist: Yeah, fair.


Aerodynamicist: At one point, this giant spacecraft comes out of the ocean, which is awesome and it’s beautiful, beautifully made. Right?


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: First, why do you want to put a spacecraft in an ocean? Fine, I’m assuming that’s what you want to do, okay. And then I read that the Russians built—


Anthropologist: No, it’s a good point, because maybe they park it there, right?


Aerodynamicist: No, it seems to be parked, but they also said they are masters of the ocean, so maybe it’s actually also a cruise ship.


[Brief interlude where both interviewer and interviewee discuss the merits of tuna on a pizza in French with a child.] 

Image from Dune. Courtesy of IMDB

Anthropologist: So they say that they’re masters of the sea and the land.


Aerodynamicist: No, the sea and the—


Anthropologist: Air.


Aerodynamicist: The sea and the air. And the air, I’m assuming, is actually the helicopter.


Anthropologist: Yes.


Aerodynamicist: But on the other hand, this giant spacecraft comes out of the water with some kind of anti-gravity machine, so this has nothing to do with interstellar bending space time crap. And once again…


Anthropologist: No, but there is some kind of anti-gravity machine, because the other guy, the fat duke—


Aerodynamicist: Is floating.


Anthropologist: He floats around.


Aerodynamicist: But only himself.


Anthropologist: Yeah, he floats himself around.


Aerodynamicist: So, we might ask, why only this guy and the giant spaceship? Nichts­des­to­trotz1, If I had an antigravity machine, I would use it as a personal fighting tool as well.


Anthropologist: Instead of having a helicopter you mean?


Aerodynamicist: No, just personally. But, of course, the helicopter is useless. You can just fly with the ball or with anything. At one point, there really is just a ball that falls down. Sorry, I mean, it flies down and just lands with giant feet.


Anthropologist: Also, when they remove the spice manufacturing device, these are these balls that are flying around in the air saying, “look the worm is coming.”


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, but those are actually—yeah, those are also—and then too to pick the thing up, they need to have some kind of balloon. Which is weird because—


Anthropologist: Yeah, because they should have the antigravity device built in.


Aerodynamicist: There’s no need for a balloon, because the thing itself is flying, so they just need to make a bigger one. And maybe it can fly by itself? You can only fly a hundred tons, but for two hundred tons, you need a balloon? Fine, okay, fine, why not?

Given that nobody has a book, it’s feasible that they didn’t really know how to multiply by two. I guess my main point is, if society reverts to the Middle Ages—which is completely possible—do we lose the capacity to fly around?


Anthropologist: Oh.


Aerodynamicist: It’s not like that technology stays there, forever.


Anthropologist: But, it’s more than that. It’s like magic can be magically present, but technology cannot be magically present.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, because technology is not magic. All you have to do is bring that into the story, if that is most important thing of the story…


Anthropologist: No, but that’s really not the story. There really is magic: the woman magic politician—


Aerodynamicist: …is magic.


Anthropologist: Yeah, but it’s sort of just a skill set… that comes off as magic.


Aerodynamicist: And that’s fine! I have nothing against that. In Star Wars, “the force” is a character in the movies, and it’s magic, and it’s fine. They can still do whatever they want. Anyways, in Star Wars, they just explode the planet. There’s no need to bring on a thousand people in hand-to-hand combat.


Anthropologist: No, no, but in Dune, they can’t explode the planet because they need the spice.


Aerodynamicist: They need the spice, right.So, it only works if the societies of all the planets have been given a technology. They don’t know how to use it. It is just given, like a stone. It’s just there and you use it.


Anthropologist: But that’s what the sand worms are. They’re a kind of technology that’s just there and you use it. They’re a life form, but they’re still—


Aerodynamicist: But in terms of technology, it’s unusual, because technology is known to be manmade. I mean, the worms are like—


Anthropologist: Yeah, but you’re saying the technology is like a worm. It’s something that’s just a presence, and you use it because it’s there.


Aerodynamicist: And you have an infinite supply of it obviously…


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: …and it doesn’t break.


Anthropologist: No, no that one thing broke.


Aerodynamicist: Something broke?


Anthropologist: Yeah, the thing that was supposed to lift the spice harvester away was…


Aerodynamicist: It didn’t work right.


Anthropologist: So, they do break.


Aerodynamicist: They do break.


Anthropologist: And you can blow them up.


Aerodynamicist: They do break.


Anthropologist: But, you can’t fix them.


Aerodynamicist: Not really. I guess the depiction of the thing is maybe just for an aesthetical purpose? They just show you the…


Anthropologist: What I think is really important is that the whole thing is a critique of extractive capitalism. That’s the critique.


Aerodynamicist: Really?


Anthropologist: There’s people there, and they’re abused, and the spice is taken all for the benefit of these other people.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, but if that’s a critique of extraction, it’s really poorly made, because how can you actually build all that technology without extractive stuff? Then, I’m sorry, then you have to say okay, I’m not extracting, but then I also don’t have any technology. And they don’t want to show you that you actually have to have oil to do all the things. But then, it’s not fair.


Anthropologist: I think that’s your complaint, actually.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, probably. Yeah, I have my complaint. I didn’t see it as a political thing. I don’t care about the extractive thing. It seems like there is enough spice. So, you might as well take it to build interstellar travel.


Anthropologist: Right, fair. If you weren’t killing them all the time and being mean to them, then it would be fine.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah, but that’s also a good point.


Anthropologist: Why bother the Fremen?


Aerodynamicist: Exactly, why bother the Fremen? You don’t need to bother the Fremen. You just take the spice, since they don’t seem to use it anyway.


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: So, what’s the point? Everybody’s happy, they still live in their holes. So, ridiculous. Again, ridiculous. It does not make any sense.


Anthropologist: What’s the purpose of the movie?


Aerodynamicist: I don’t know! Oh, yeah, I know. The purpose of the movie is Jacques, you know Jacques?


Anthropologist: No. Who’s Jacques?


Aerodynamicist: Jacques Villeneuve. Oh, Denis.


Anthropologist: Denis!


Aerodynamicist: Denis! Denis Villeneuve, do you know Denis? It’s fun playing poker with Denis. So, Denis said, “I want to make a beautiful thing,” and he makes a frickin’ beautiful thing. The film is beautiful.


Anthropologist: It’s true. It’s beautiful.


Aerodynamicist: He makes beautiful great music with his friend Hans [Zimmer]:


“Hey Hans, how are you doing?”
“Voooooooom. Voooooooooom.” [Impersonating Hans Zimmer scores.]

He’s been doing that for ten years: “Voooooooom. Voooooooooom. la-la-la-la.”

Okay, fine beautiful, but it doesn’t make any sense. That’s my summary.


Image from Dune. Courtesy of IMDB

Aerodynamicist: I’m sure I’m not going to be hired by The New York Times to make movie reviews.


Anthropologist: There’s something engineer-y about your review that I really like. We don’t have to include this, but when I saw the dragonfly helicopter, I thought, oh that’s really cool, you’re going to love that. And you saw the dragonfly helicopter, and you were like—


Aerodynamicist: This is ridiculous.


Anthropologist: This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah.


Anthropologist: If there hadn’t been spaceships that could go up and down without any sort of propulsion—


Aerodynamicist: Then it would be fine to have the dragonfly. I mean it doesn’t work here, but if the whole world was based on mechanical stuff, then the dragonfly is beautiful, I love it.


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: But not when you can just say, “snap,” and then, “I’ll fly myself.” Why would you build a helicopter? It has a clear propulsive lifting system. No other thing, which is much bigger, has any.


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: So why? If you can do big, you can do small. I mean—


Anthropologist: No, but you have the small one that the Baron flies around. You have small. You have big. You just don’t have mid-sized. Car sized.


Aerodynamicist: If you had a giant space craft that could lift up from the Earth’s gravity and go into orbit at the speed of a giant plane, that means you would have some kind of antigravity, or something that propels you that fights gravity.


Anthropologist: Yeah.


Aerodynamicist: Then you don’t need wings, because that’s aerodynamic. The helicopter is based on aerodynamics, so you need air. But you don’t need air if you can fly an 18-wheeler anyway. That’s the thing that drives me nuts. It doesn’t make sense.

The society looks like the year 1,000, like the Middle Ages. But their helicopters are essentially contemporary machines, with slightly better bearings, from the 2000s. Their spacecraft is better than Star Wars. But, the intelligence of the people is essentially feudalism, and they behave essentially like they do in fairytales.


Anthropologist: Though, the anthropological critique is that every society is monocultural. All of the people on Arrakis are the same—they’re the Fremen. And all the mean, bald people from that planet are all mean bald people, regardless of gender. And all of the people from Caldonia…


Aerodynamicist: Did they have different genders there?


Anthropologist: Maybe there was a girl, in the bath.


Aerodynamicist: Yeah. But they don’t fight.


Anthropologist: They might fight. No, no they don’t fight.


Aerodynamicist: No.


Anthropologist: I mean, honestly, the idea that you would have a planet that was monocultural is as absurd as having a helicopter…


Aerodynamicist: That’s true.


Anthropologist: …and a flying space ball of cement.


Aerodynamicist: Absolutely. So of course, the movie chooses not to show, but by not showing it would be like having a… I don’t even know how to make the right metaphor. The movie is only showing 10% of society. Not even 10%—


Anthropologist: It’s not that. The movie is actually like the history of a society of which you just don’t know very much. You have all of these details about certain things and then you have other things which are completely absent.


Aerodynamicist: I mean I guess the guy who wrote it was like, “okay I want to do the story of King Arthur, but in the future.”


Anthropologist: I have to say, having read the books, that the story arc of this Paul whatever his name is, is really interesting. It’s not Neo. It’s not the Matrix. It’s not Jesus Christ. It’s different. Well, it might be Jesus Christ, but different. But you don’t see that until you get to book 4.


Aerodynamicist: It’s going to take a while.


Anthropologist: Yeah, that’s gonna be a lot of movies. icon

  1. A funny informal way to say ‘nevertheless’ in German.
Featured image: Behind the scenes on Dune. Courtesy of IMDB.