Stranger than Fiction

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

There's no shortage of movies that play fast and loose with the laws of nature. One scientist is on a mission to fix these flaws, but will it really improve scientific literacy?

Illustration: Mike Pick

One of the highlights of this year’s AAAS meeting (at least to someone following online) was a session called “Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: The Science of Superheroes.” At its core was a panel moderated by Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, or SXE, an organization that aims to “bridge the gap” between fiction and non-fiction. Writers and directors get help on source material from scientists, who in turn have an opportunity to connect their areas of expertise with general audiences. 

Of the panelists, the one who made the biggest impression outside the science community was Sidney Perkowitz, a physics professor at Emory and a member of SXE. In an effort to bolster the public’s understanding of science and respect for scientists, Perkowitz has developed a highly quotable rule of thumb for their depiction in cinema: “one big scientific blunder in a given film.”

Of course, this rule could be seen as an example of science’s public relations problem. From an insiders’ perspective, this is a professional defending his turf from exploitation and perversion. But from an outsider’s perspective, this is an egghead who only deigns to come down from the ivory tower to throw a wet blanket over the entire concept of fiction. You mean Spiderman catching Mary Jane a second before she hits the pavement would do as much damage as just letting her fall? Where’s the fun in that?

Ouellette gives a recap of the panel at her group blog, Cocktail Party Physics, where she says Perkowitz’s position has been blown out of proportion somewhat. The main idea is consistency and plausibility of the premise, rather than breaking out a protractor every time someone fires a gun, as these guys might. Singled out were the giant bugs of Starship Troopers who would collapse under their own weight, and the instant ice age of The Day After Tomorrow.

Science fiction fans will recognize this as a variant of the “hard versus soft” debate, or as I like to call it, pretty much every conversation I’ve ever had with my colleague Lee Billings. And while I find Perkowitz’s aim of getting the public more interested and knowledgeable about science an eminently laudable goal, as a soft sci-fi devotee, I can’t totally let him off the hook. It seems that he is making two contrary suppositions in his crusade: One, that moviegoers are at risk of being unduly led to believe that the science of the movies is the same as the real world, and two, that moviegoers don’t want to see films that have preposterous relation to real world science.

While those two camps certainly exist, I would imagine that they don’t overlap. I also imagine the second doesn’t include enough people to really influence Hollywood’s decision-making. To wit, Perkowitz’s claim that The Core, a ridiculously implausible movie where Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart drill to the center of the planet to save the world from killer sunbeams, “did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch.”

The Core made about $74 million; not a huge success, but not a flop either. Compare that to the meager $12 million made by Gattaca, a much better film by any measure and one of Perkowitz’s exemplars of science-done-right cinema.  And though Gattaca succeeded artistically and in scientific plausibility, it wasn’t immune from criticism by geneticists and bioethicists who felt that its extreme vision of genetic discrimination was essentially an anti-science message.

On the other extreme is Avatar, which is now easily the most successful film ever made and nothing one might mistake for a textbook supplement. It’s not alone at the top of the box-office charts, either: about two-fifth’s of the all-time top 50 are obviously science-fiction, with another handful on the border. These big earners include such highly scientifical works such as Independence Day and both Transformers movies. 

But maybe there is hope buried in those statistics. Despite the compound scientific impossibilities inherent in its premise, Avatar is a movie about science, whereas Independence Day and its ilk are movies about blowing things up. After watching Avatar, one can talk about the scientist’s role in the technological dichotomy inherent to colonialism without getting into the economics of shipping magic rocks four light-years to hit quarterly profit targets. Likewise, as Perkowitz suggests, was The Day After Tomorrow a “teachable moment” on climate change, even if it got the science totally wrong. 

It’s those kinds of movies—or television shows, or video games—that scientists have the potential for the return on investment. But don’t miss the forest for the trees; if it takes giant blue aliens or a glacier crushing New York City to make people watch a movie about ecology, we can work on the details later.     

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published February 25, 2010

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