July 5th, 2006
July 5th, 2006
From the 1902 production Voyage to the Moon to the recent What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, physics has appeared in numerous feature films. Sidney Perkowitz examines the accuracy of physics in the movies and asks how realistically physicists are portrayed on screen.
I have always wanted to be a physicist, but little did I know what a glamorous and exciting profession I was entering. If the movies are to be believed, my fellow physicists are not just smart people. They are also courageous, often saving the world even at grave personal risk; generous, freely giving their valuable research results to humanity; and handsome or beautiful to boot. Do I really mean beautiful? Yes, because the physicists who loom large in the film world - male or female, heroes or villains - are often presented as extremely attractive people. And, if one is to believe the movies, physics is also full of thrilling new results such as cold fusion and the ability to manipulate quantum reality by our very thoughts.
I know all this because I have spent the last year, glassy-eyed in front of a monitor, analysing dozens of films for a forthcoming book about science in the cinema. Much of my viewing has involved alien creatures, destructive asteroids and berserk robots, as most movie physics appears in the form of science fiction. Indeed, this genre has contributed nine of the 20 biggest films by sales worldwide; chief among them is Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999), which took a staggering $920m at the box office.
Although my diet of films has involved many mad scientists and much misrepresented science, there are actually quite a few good science-fiction movies out there. These include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), which were among seven science-fiction entries in a list of the 100 best US films compiled by the American Film Institute in 1998. Science also appears in biographical films (or "biopics" in Hollywood jargon) of eminent scientists, as well as in documentary or semi-documentary films; none of these, however, do anywhere near as well at the box office as your average science-fiction blockbuster.
Some academic commentators have examined the cultural meaning of science-fiction films, notably Vivian Sobchack in her classic 1987 work Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. But how are scientists portrayed in the movies? And how accurate is the science on the screen?
From zeros to heroes:
Scientists first appeared in the movies in George Méliè's 1902 production Le voyage dans la lune (Voyage to the Moon), where a collection of bearded astronomers cannons off to the Moon à la Jules Verne. Other landmark films to have shown scientists - not always in a favourable light - include Fritz Lang's seminal Metropolis (1927), which features the wild-eyed, wild-haired C A Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Every bit as mad as the infamous Dr Frankenstein, Rotwang creates life not by stitching corpses together, but as an engineering project. He builds an electrically animated, machine-like, yet sexy female robot to replace the woman he loved and lost, all of which suggests he could do with a good therapist.
It would be nice to think that cinematic portrayals of physical scientists have become less negative since Rotwang's early appearance. However, the reality is mixed, with ups and downs that reflect ongoing changes to science and its role in society. For instance, when humanity faced global nuclear disaster during the Cold War, physicists were seen by some as evil wizards who brought nuclear weapons into the world. Later, as ideas like clean fusion power began to seep into the popular consciousness, physicists were instead increasingly depicted as saviours.
Since Rotwang's day, there have been at least 60 feature films featuring physical scientists and their research. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon) appeared early on, in Madame Curie (1943). Like other biopics of the era, the film made the protagonists unrealistically good looking and emphasized their heroic qualities, although it did show some insights into scientific life not often found in fictional stories. Indeed, given the need to encourage more women to study science, the issue of how female physicists are portrayed in films remains pertinent even today (see "Women in the movies").
Physics in film really hit its stride in 1950 with Destination Moon, a movie about the first rocket ship to go to the Moon. Scientifically accurate in its treatment of spaceflight, the film was to initiate a string of movies that constitute a golden age of science-fiction cinema. By then physics had entered the public psyche following the development of atomic bombs, radar and rockets during the Second World War, and - spurred further by a growing interest in spaceflight and technology - physicists appeared in several classic films of the 1950s.
In addition to the rocket scientists in Destination Moon, there is Nobel laureate Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), a veteran of the Bikini atomic-bomb tests, who faces an alien invader at an Arctic research station in The Thing From Another World (1951). That year also saw the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which universally respected theoretical physicist and Einstein look-alike Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) helps alien visitor Klaatu warn Earth to be careful with its nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, The War of the Worlds from 1953 sees nuclear and astrophysicist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) fighting invading Martians.
Not all fictional physicists in that post-Hiroshima era were depicted in a flattering light though. In The Thing From Another World, Carrington is portrayed as an arrogant and obsessive individual who is devoted to searching for scientific knowledge, even at the cost of human life. When he presents nuclear fission as a glory of science, a bystander comments sarcastically, "Yes, and that sure made the world happy, didn't it?".
Another physicist to appear in a less than positive light is Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) in the 1959 movie On the Beach. The film depicts a nuclear war that has wiped out humanity except for a remnant in Australia, which will soon succumb to fallout. Asked who is responsible, Osborne replies "Einstein!" and expresses dismay at having worked on nuclear weapons. Another example is Stanley Kubrick's subversive comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964), where Peter Sellers plays the chief US weapons scientist. He appears far from upset about the fact that millions of people could die following the launch of a nuclear war by a demented US Air Force general. There have also been several films that have drawn directly on the dramatic story of the Manhattan atomic-bomb project. The documentary The Day After Trinity (1981) featured footage of Robert Oppenheimer, while Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) presented Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and other scientists in a fictionalized story about Los Alamos and the atomic bomb.
With new fears awakened in the public's mind by developments in biology - cloning, pandemic diseases, exotic viruses and biological weapons - the villains have become the bioscientists, in films like The Boys from Brazil (1978), Outbreak (1995) and The Island (2005). Meanwhile, some physicists are now even depicted as helping humanity. For example, in The Manhattan Project (1986), physicist John Mathewson (John Lithgow) abandons his method for making weapons-grade plutonium using laser separation after seeing how badly the government treats teenage scientific genius Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet). And in Chain Reaction (1996) and The Saint (1997), physicists and an electrochemist develop limitless, non-polluting fusion power and give the technology freely to the world.
Physical scientists have also appeared in the many movies about natural calamities, notably asteroid impacts. The first of these was When Worlds Collide (1951), in which astronomer Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) tracks an incoming object that will smash the Earth to bits, and is instrumental in building a spaceship to save part of humanity. The idea was revived in Meteor (1979), which teams a profane ex-NASA space scientist (Sean Connery) with a hard-drinking Soviet weapons physicist (Brian Keith), both of whom remain heroically at their posts to destroy an incoming rock with nuclear-tipped missiles. The scenario popped up yet again in the 1998 movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. In 1997 Starship Troopers came up with a different twist: this time, hostile insect-like aliens called the Arachnids throw a rock from space that kills millions and wipes out the city of Buenos Aires.
Getting the science straight:
All these films illustrate a fundamental pattern for movie science. Rarely is the central scientific concept utterly incorrect, but filmmakers are obviously more interested in creating entertaining stories that sell tickets than in presenting a lesson in elementary physics. They also know that scenes of scientists at a lab bench do not generally make for gripping movie moments. Indeed, the need for drama often pushes the basic scientific idea to the limits of possibility and beyond. To fit within the constraints of a two-hour film and maintain narrative drive, events may also be speeded up and supporting details may be omitted or just plain wrong.
Some films, like Dante's Peak (1997), do rather well. Indeed, a branch of the Association for Women Geoscientists awarded it a B+ to A- rating for the correctness of its science. It features handsome vulcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) warning a town in the Pacific Northwest that its neighbouring dormant volcano is about to blow. When it does, Harry is on hand to save a family to which he has become attached, even at risk to himself.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) - one of a number of films to tackle climate change - is not bad either. It features climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) who confirms the warming trend and predicts a counterintuitive outcome: as polar ice melts, fresh water will enter the North Atlantic, disrupting the enormous current that carries heat northwards from equatorial regions and so triggering a new ice age. Although this ice age unrealistically descends in a matter of days, the idea that warming can cool parts of our planet is sound science.
Hall's heroism in sticking to his scientific guns and going on a remarkable cold-weather trek to rescue his teenage son is overdone, but real physicists will understand - though maybe not applaud - Hall's immersion in his work, which at one point threatens his relationship with his family. That intense commitment to science is one feature of the scientific mindset that is often accurately portrayed in science-fiction movies, which are not known for much depth of characterization.
Other films built around a nub of sound science include Meteor, Deep Impact and Armageddon, which all envisage various objects colliding with the Earth. Such an event is not out of the question: two years ago asteroid 2004 FH came within 40 000 km of the Earth, and large space objects have hit our planet on other occasions. One created the 1.2 km wide Barringer Crater in Arizona. Another, some 10 km across, landed near the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago and kicked up enough dust to seriously affect the world's climate, which is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs.
Indeed, the size and speed of the colliding objects in Meteor, Deep Impact and Armageddon jibe well with the destruction they cause. But contrary to the films, the chances that a random rock will hit a big city is tiny. These movies also ignore the fact that we currently know of only one object with even a remote possibility of hitting the Earth: asteroid 1950 DA, with a 1 in 300 chance of smashing into us on 16 March 2880.
Another film that fails in the details, despite its use of a physics concept, is Starship Troopers. It has a real-life parallel in a US Air Force programme nicknamed "Rods from God", in which dense metal rods would be launched from above the Earth to hit targets with a similar impact to that of a tactical nuclear device. Such rods would not have to be big: after all, the rock that created the Barringer Crater was just 50 m wide yet had the impact of a 10-20 megatonne hydrogen bomb.
However, the rock that destroys Buenos Aires in Starship Troopers is launched by aliens from their own distant solar system. As that can be no closer than the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, audiences are asked to believe that the aliens can hit a city-size target at a distance of four light-years or more. Since it would take decades for an object to reach Earth from that distance - even one travelling at a sizeable fraction of the speed of light - the Arachnids would be well advised to find a different weapon.
Volcano (1997) is even further off beam. It features an erupting cone suddenly growing out of the La Brea tar pits in the heart of Los Angeles, a site where fissures in the Earth's crust allow crude oil to seep to the surface and deposit pools of thick liquid tar. Fortunately, geologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) helps find ways to cool and divert the lava flow. The problem is that the film blames the San Andreas fault for causing the brand new volcano, even though this particular type of fault can only produce earthquakes.
A special place in the annals of bad physics, however, goes to The Core (2003). It features geophysicist Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), who finds that the Earth's rotating iron core has screeched to a halt, thereby threatening the whole planet. Along with three other physicists - experts in materials, lasers, ultrasound and nuclear weapons - Keyes builds the Virgil, a vehicle that cuts its way down through rock and magma to the Earth's core. There the scientific team saves the planet by setting off hydrogen bombs that restore the Earth's spin. After a scene where Josh uses a peach to correctly illustrate the inner structure of the Earth, virtually every other scientific fact and activity in the movie is completely wrong. For example, the scientists in the film tell us that the Virgil is built from a magic material that gets stronger at higher temperatures; they blame the microwave radiation in the universe for melting the Golden Gate bridge; and use non-directional hydrogen-bomb blasts to impart spin to the core.
What the #$*!:
But these triumphs of drama over scientific reality are not in the same class as what was done to quantum physics in the movie What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004), or What the Bleep for short - a film not made by a Hollywood studio, but widely distributed in cinemas. The film combines the story of Amanda (Marlee Matlin), a photographer, with documentary-like interviews of a dozen sages. Amanda is unhappy about her recent divorce and about her body shape, which she sees as fat. Meanwhile, the sages talk about shaping their own "reality", by which they mean a vastly garbled version of quantum theory that somehow transmutes quantum uncertainty into the ability to shape the human-scale world by thought alone. When Amanda grasps this message, she suddenly and happily finds that she can slim her thighs just by wishing it.
As it turns out, What the Bleep was made by adherents of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment in Yelm, Washington. This fringe group follows the "teachings" of a 35,000-year-old warrior called Ramtha - an ascended "Master" from the lost continent of Lemuria as it happens - whose thoughts are "channelled" by a woman named J Z Knight, one of the film's gurus. One talking head with believable credentials - Columbia University science philosopher David Albert - later complained that his interview was edited to completely excise his opposition to the ideas in the film. No wonder film critic Philip French in the Observer newspaper called What the Bleep a "near-demented combination of quantum physics [and] New Age mysticism".
While films like The Core are simply disdainful of science - or do not care enough to get the physics even vaguely right - What the Bleep is positively misleading. It purports to present an accurate, documentary-like view of quantum physics, but in reality aims to persuade the credulous that quantum physics supports the distinctly odd views of a particular faith-based group. Nevertheless, most of the films I have discussed have at least a modicum of real physics. The fact that many are science fiction is a plus: having interviewed numerous scientists for my books and articles, many told me it was science-fiction books and movies that inspired them to go into science. Complete and exact scientific accuracy in films is therefore not as important as you might think; even if the movies do not get every detail right, they may well excite young people to do science as it should be done.
Still, there is no reason why we should not have more films that combine gripping entertainment with valid science, and that present scientists as rounded human beings. It is pleasing to be painted as courageous, generous and extremely good looking, not to mention heroic; but these positive exaggerations are as unrealistic as those that present physicists as despicable villains. I hope that a recent series of workshops held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles will fulfil its goal of getting scientists to write screenplays that filmmakers will want to use. Meanwhile, next time you see a movie, settle back and enjoy whatever good physics may appear - unless you are watching The Core or What the Bleep, in which case, try not to choke on your popcorn.
Women in the movies:
Female physicists are rarely presented well in movies. An early example is When Worlds Collide from 1951, which features Barbara Rush as an astrophysicist. She only appears as a secondary character, whose main functions are to assist her father and to fall in love with a handsome spaceship pilot. Things had not changed much by the 1980s, when Kelly McGillis plays glamorous Charlie Blackwood in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun. Despite being an astrophysicist, Blackwood is for some strange reason involved in training fighter pilots, notably Tom Cruise, with whom she has an on-screen romance.
Thankfully, the film portrayal of female scientists has improved in recent years. One study by Jocelyn Steinke from Western Michigan University revealed that 31% of all on-screen scientists in films made between 1991 and 2001 are female. This compares with just 17% for all films between 1929 and 2003, according to a separate study carried out by Eva Flicker from the University of Vienna.
One film with a positive image of a female physical scientist is Contact (1997), which features radio astronomer Eleanor Arroway, played by Jodie Foster. Dedicated to her work, Arroway comes across as a less glamorous but more complex and believable scientist than Blackwood. When her funding is withdrawn, Arroway works hard to find other support, and shows integrity in standing by her beliefs about scientific knowledge versus religious faith, even at personal cost. Offered a chance of romantic involvement, she chooses instead to continue her work, making her more than a typical Hollywood romantic cliché.
Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue) in The Saint (1997) is also a serious scientist - an electrochemist who can make cold fusion work and is passionate about its possibilities. But The Saint (Val Kilmer) - a professional thief - manipulates her yearning for romance and steals the notes for her process. Eventually all is resolved, however: they fall in love, and Russell convinces The Saint that they should give cold fusion to humanity rather than profit from it. Although Kilmer is top-billed and has all the exciting action scenes, Shue emerges as the film's scientific centre and as a gutsy, idealistic, and attractive woman. While these women are better examples than Hendron and Blackwood, not all is perfect: Arroway's entire career is shakily based on finding intelligent aliens, and the cold fusion that Russell pursues has been discredited in the real world.
At a Glance: Hollywood physics:
Since the 1920s there have been at least 60 feature films featuring physical scientists and their research.
Not all movie physicists conform to the stereotypical mad scientist, but include heroes and villains too.
Although the physics in films is rarely completely wrong, some films (like Dante's Peak) are much more accurate than others (notably The Core).
The 2004 film What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? misleadingly purports to present an accurate view of quantum physics but in fact promotes a strange quasi-religious cult.