Actually, Prometheus, God Does Build in Straight Lines

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Slate's Culture Blog
June 8 2012 12:12 PM

Fact-Checking Prometheus: Does God Build in Straight Lines?

prometheus2
Michael Fassbender inPrometheus

Twentieth Century Fox Film

“God does not build in straight lines.” That’s what the character played by Logan Marshall-Green (whom you may know as Trey Atwood from The O.C.) declares in Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi thriller Prometheus. In the scene, the questionably named spaceship Prometheus is about to land on an alien world. Marshall-Green’s character spots a series of straight lines on the surface, and believes it’s a sure sign of intelligent life, because straight lines are a rarity in nature.

But they’re not that rare.

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According to Dr. Chloe Bulinski, a Professor of Biology at Columbia University, straight lines are all around us, from the compound eyes of insects to the collagen fibers in connective tissue. Dr. Bulinski cites Tasmania’s Tessellated Pavement, an inter-tidal rock platform that looks like the floor tiles in your kitchen, as a particularly fine example of naturally occurring straight lines.

tessellatedpavement
Sunrise, Tessellated Pavement, Eaglehawk Neck, Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia

J.J. Harrison/Wikipedia

But aren’t these just a handful of straight things in a curved world? Nope. Carbon atoms—the building blocks of all life on Earth, and, who knows, maybe alien life as well—often bond with themselves and other atoms in lines and planes. Graphite, for instance, consists of stacked sheets of carbon—and graphite, says Dr. Bulinski, is very, very straight.

There’s one caveat: the Earth is a sphere. To be really straight, long lines, whether built by God, Zeus or man, must run perpendicular to a planet’s surface to avoid curving with it. Even so, the Earth’s curvature is only noticeable on large scales, and that’s why, for most of human history, we thought the Earth was flat.

If you’re curious about what else is wrong with Prometheus, don’t miss Dana Stevens’s review in Slate.

Daniel Lametti is a Montreal-based writer and neuroscientist.

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