Science and the Silver Screen

Science and cinema have something of a complicated relationship.


Despite being just over a century old, cinema has expanded to become a cornerstone of modern culture. Numerous movie classics have become firmly cemented in our collective consciousness, many of which take science and its consequences as a central theme, or as the backdrop against which the drama unfolds. But how important is it, if at all, that film makers ensure the science depicted within is realistic?

Major productions now routinely employ science advisors and consultants, even when the plot itself is inherently fantastical. Cosmologist Sean Carroll served as science advisor on Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Thor’; presumably his job description was something like ‘despite heavy references to the Norse Gods, help us ensure a level of realism’. Films such as these are fairly innocuous in terms of scientific realism, the plot itself requires one big suspension of disbelief (ie that Thor exists, or that Natalie Portman is a physicist) and then the science advisor steps in to ensure the script is free of any glaring errors. For movies in which science is as peripheral as Thor, it is fairly inconsequential that Stellan Skarsgård says ‘Einstein-Rosen bridge’ instead of ‘wormhole’ (yes, Sean Carroll actually prides himself on this indispensable contribution to cinema)


What about when science isn’t on the periphery, when the plot brings it to the fore, does this necessitate a higher degree of truthfulness? The short answer is: it depends on the genre, or at least the purpose of the film. This is a good time to make the distinction between ‘science fiction’ and ‘science fantasy’. Author Ray Bradbury characterises science fiction as a ‘sociological study of the future’; essentially this genre explores the societal impacts of particular technologies or scientific principles that have been allowed to permeate civilization, like the Replicants in Blade-runner, medical technology in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or cloning in Jurassic Park.  Science fiction puts a scientific principle at its centre, and as such a certain degree of faithfulness is necessary if you want to be effectual. The best in this genre seem to give equal weight to scientific realism as to philosophical implications; the uniquely human struggle to co-exist with the ‘other’, whether it be machines, aliens or a new and pervasive technology. The more credible this ‘other’, the better the audience can identify with the struggle.

star-wars-1-vader-2400x1200-660808050818Science fantasy on the other hand is typified by Star Wars, the science is not integral to the plot but it threads itself throughout. The setting is vaguely futuristic and advanced on the surface, but the bare bones of the plot could be mapped onto a different context without much damage. Feudal Japan would my first choice for a Star wars re-hash, swapping lightsabres for Katanas, Sith for Samurai and well I suppose the emperor is still an emperor, but the plot could be left largely alone save for any explicit references to technology.  Accuracy in science fantasy films is almost irrelevant; it’s missing the point to debate whether the Death-star is feasible. Films in this genre prize drama above reality almost by definition. However that’s not to say ‘anything goes’ in science fantasy, these films must still strive to create a sense of consistency in tone, it must quickly establish the limits of possibility otherwise no real drama could unfold. The reason ‘Prometheus’ felt quite insubstantial is that it was never established what the black gloop is and what it can do; it had wildly different effects in different contexts (dissolved one person’s face, zombified another, impregnated a third), a sloppy ‘deus ex machina’, conveniently advancing the plot wherever the writers were too lazy to concoct something more engaging, therefore the tension dissipates quickly. Incidentally my failure to engage with the Harry Potter franchise is for the same reason. The rules and limits of magic are vaguely explained, such that any serious danger to the protagonist is undercut by the possibility of a convenient new spell we haven’t yet heard of fixing everything.


Scientific accuracy takes on paramount 0058273 - Copyimportance in another genre. The scientist’s biopic is enjoying something of a renaissance currently, with producers queuing up to buy the rights to the biographies of esteemed scientists. Disappointingly these tend to be very light on the science itself; typically there will be a montage of the hero scribbling equations on blackboards looking deeply bothered, followed by an explanation to the lay-person using a hilarious metaphor. Ta-da, the science is finished. This is more aggravating than any inconsistencies in science fiction and fantasy; these are real people who made great contributions to society, and like any matter of historical fact there is a certain responsibility to be faithful to the facts. In The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking appears to have an unending series of eureka moments, despite getting his jumper stuck on his head. Obviously the long process of refining and testing cosmological equations doesn’t make for gripping drama, but I’m left wondering how many people leave the cinema appreciating that the great bulk of any scientific endeavour consists in exactly that. According to Hollywood, all it takes to win the Nobel Prize is to go to any sufficiently romantic setting with a constipated facial expression, and then simply count down the seconds until revelation strikes.

Scientific accuracy will never be the most important element in any film, even the scientist’s biopic. Plot, dialogue, acting, cinematography, and score still overwhelmingly determine the quality of any movie, but just take a moment to consider what makes ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ so resoundingly brilliant, and ‘Angels and Demons’ so instantly forgettable, and it should be apparent that the level of scientific realism can be the icing on the cake, or the final straw.



The Sarah Palin Philosophy of Science (or Dumb people in High Places)

Though the years have marched by with apparent indifference, the world is still in recovery, still haunted by the shocking appearance of Alaskan beast far worse than those of Native American

Artist's depiction of Sarah Palin

Artist’s depiction of Sarah Palin

lore, more repulsive than the Sasquatch or Wendigo. This creature did not emerge from the Sea of Japan to crush cities underfoot in retribution. No, this monster came to us in the much less threatening guise of a concerned mother, bible in one hand, and a high-powered rifle in the other; Governor Sarah Palin was thrust into the public eye in 2008 as a hopeful vice president under John McCain, and she has remained attached to the political establishment ever since like a blood-engorged tick.

Her sphere of influence has grown through books, newspaper columns and even a potential second run for the vice presidency. None of which would be very alarming, if it weren’t for the fact what she utters is so frighteningly banal; so ill-considered and ill-informed, that we’re forced to ruminate over the sad fact that worryingly ignorant people occupy very high offices.

There’s nothing new in this, I suppose. People have perennially lamented the limited mental capacities of their leaders, and arguably only Marcus Aurelius approached anything like the idealistic philosopher-king envisioned by Plato. However, one particular ‘Palinism’ has stuck in my mind. In a pre-election interview Palin was asked her thoughts on science funding, to which she responded that she thinks the US government has been lax in its allocation, she expressed concern that scientists were wasting time and tax-payers money; essentially just dicking around for the hell of it. Her example? She cited the existence of scientists in France who are exploring fruit fly genetics, “I mean can you imagine? Fruit flies” she repeated indignantly, implying that she considers this to be as useful as burning piles of cash outright. There would be none of this time-wasting fuckwittery from the scientific community if she were in charge.

Drosophila Melanogaster

Drosophila Melanogaster

Now this ignorance is understandable on the face of it, high school biology was probably a long time ago for the Governor, so how was she to know that the fruit fly is the most widely used, and arguably most useful, model organism in genetics; and through studying it we have learned nearly everything we know about heredity, development and genetic disorders. Its rapid growth and reproduction, abnormally large chromosomes, and low maintenance, make it ideal for an varied array of investigations into genetics, pharmacology, developmental biology etc. etc.

 Flies though. It just sounds so much like scientists are using a much time and energy to investigate pointless questions. You can imagine the rusty cogs of Palin’s brain, and others like hers, grinding in consternation: Didn’t scientists once put an ear on a mouse? They probably make crabs run on treadmills and stick extra legs on badgers just for fun, the useless bastards.

There does seem to be a pernicious public conception of scientists of overly-curious star-gazers, heads in the clouds, examining phenomena that only they find interesting, answering questions no one asked, diverting resources away from more pressing matters. Shouldn’t all biologists be trying to cure cancer all the time? In fact this notion of aimless scientists predates science itself; a play aptly named ‘The Clouds’ written by Aristophanes satirized Socrates by imagining a fictional school of enquiry called ‘The Thinkery’, with Socrates as the head who announces, after tireless work, that he has devised a unit of measurement to determine how far a flea jumps, a comically useless enterprise according to Aristophanes. So Palin certainly isn’t the first to worry that the great ‘thinkers’ of the day have more money, and more curiosity, than sense. But she is, quite frankly, wrong.

I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream - Van Gogh

I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream – Van Gogh

This conception of scientists as overly-curious time wasters, divorced from the real world and absorbed in their pointless and endless puzzles, is not only naïve, but even if it were accurate, it would still be a worthwhile pursuit and worth every penny that is put into it. Here’s why:

Firstly, as with the fruit fly genetics example, what looks on the surface to be an esoteric and useless avenue of enquiry is in fact a very ingenious and more efficient way to study a very important problem. As noted above, fruit flies have made it easy to study heredity in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in other organisms, and helped us to unravel the mysteries of gene networks that govern development. The scientists aren’t interested in the fly’s development per se, although after years working with them I’m sure they develop a certain fondness for the bastards, but more for what they reveal of the common principles and important genes with homologues in humans, for instance, they can infer laws and principles with speed and manipulate the flies in ways that it would be unethical to do so in higher organisms. This holds true for most any other case you can name where it appears that scientists lost themselves in some pointless endeavour, usually the overly-specific and seemingly useless problem they are addressing is part of some greater whole, or indirect method of getting an important conundrum, whose solution will be of great benefit to mankind.

The other reason this view of scientists as time-wasters is flawed is that even if they are just star-gazing, listless students of the ‘Thinkery’ as Aristophanes would have it, the massive element of serendipity and luck that exists in science still means useful discoveries would be made all the time. 19th century physicists analysing the light spectrum of the sun noticed small gaps in the spectra, explained only by the existence of a new element, called ‘helium’ (from helios:  sun). The gaps in the spectra of light absorbed by different atoms also helped pave the way for the understanding of atomic structure, and thus eventually the quantum revolution itself. Now arguably the entire quantum revolution is arguably just as esoteric and irrelevant itself to the general public, most of us live our lives entirely and blissfully unaware of the mathematical descriptions of electrons and their behaviour. Only, as Brian Cox points out, silicon transistors which comprise a broad swathe of our modern technology are a purely quantum phenomenon, only possible to be built only once we understood this esoteric and pointless world of the electron.

Circuit board with silicon chips - product of the quantum revolution

Circuit board with silicon chips – product of the quantum revolution

Literally by staring into the sky and wondering about the nature of sunlight, and peering down into the energy absorbed by atoms, perhaps the two most extreme examples of arcane and abstruse behaviour, there occurred the discovery of a new element, and a quantum revolution, without which a great deal of our modern luxuries wouldn’t exist.

Back to Governor Palin. Yes there are geneticists in France, and most developed nations actually, working all day, every day on fruit flies. They have taught us a great deal, and continue to do so. Yes there are physicists who spend night after night in observatories, staring into the deep expanse of space, and others who delve into the impossibly small world of the atoms, and both of these groups have completely changed the edifice of technology and innovation in the past, and will do again in the future no doubt. However seemingly random and esoteric a scientific problem may appear, it just isn’t a good barometer of how beneficial the results might be. A revolution is always around the corner and they come from the funniest places. As it happens Socrates’ name has far out shined that of Aristophanes, and although ‘The Clouds’ was supposed to satirize the perils of thinking too deeply, historically it is in fact always been those with their heads in the clouds who made the greatest and most impacting discoveries. Now if only those in charge of allocating science funding were aware of this then people like Palin would concern me a lot less.

Palin in comparison

Palin in comparison

Science and faith: a re-consideration

science-religion  For millennia people have understood the world through the lens of faith, the firm belief in teachings handed down by a select few anointed individuals, or prophets, with a special connection to God. Biblically, there appears to only be a few people in each millennium considered worthy enough to be God’s mouthpiece; today many Catholics believe the Pope fulfils a comparable role, and other religions have similar characters who are able to delineate truths revealed from on high. On the surface, the sphere of science seems a million miles from the domain of faith, perhaps almost its opposite; after all science operates on principles of falsification and scepticism, not trust. However, from the position of a lay-audience science and religion have much more in common than you might expect.

Someone unfamiliar with the scientific theory on a given subject is expected to accept scientific truths on the authority of a few esteemed scientists whom, as far as they are concerned, are individuals with special insight. This is much the same way in which people revered the prophets of old. An obvious objection to this comparison would be that, according to the principles of the scientific method, people who doubt a scientific principle or observation are invited to disprove it, therefore the longer a certain idea lasts the more we can be confident in its truth value; whereas in religion such open enquiry has historically been discouraged, thus faith belongs in religion and should have no place in scientific discourse. I agree with this basic distinction and of course in essence science and religion are completely different entities, but to an uninitiated individual the overall experience is much the same. Can we reasonably expect a lay person to have the necessary resources, or even the requisite understanding of theory and experimental protocol to go about falsifying or systematically disproving modern scientific theories? How would any of us go about deciding whether the Hadron-collider data that glimpsed the Higgs Boson is accurate or not? We are simply expected to believe the scientists involved in such projects have the ability to know these things and trust that they do. Obviously this ability isn’t divine, but that is irrelevant to those of us who aren’t educated particle physicists, because it is unlikely we will ever have the requisite understanding to check, and know, for ourselves that what they say is true. Therefore we must accept what they say on authority, not on evidence. This is a species of faith.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan formulated the idea of ‘Le sujet supposé savoir’, or the ‘subject who is supposed to know’.  In BYU3vmSjeMdIB3wVgZVb3Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9Psychoanalysis this represents the faith the person being analysed places in the knowledge of the analyst, which Lacan considered more important than the knowledge itself. The psychoanalyst is the one ‘who is supposed to know’, and therefore the patient puts far more stock in what they say because of this supposition. Scientists fulfil this role for society, we think they are the ones who are ‘supposed to know’, and therefore we collectively heed their advice, when once we invested in the advice of prophets.  Now it is scientists, not prophets, who commune with governments, inform policy, and receive extensive tax-payer subsidy; they are the Levites of a new age.

For the scientific illiterate, Science’s usurpation of Religion is like the invasion of a foreign king as seen by a peasant, it’s a purely nominal change and life continues much the same. The king himself may be the complete opposite of his predecessor in nature, but the peasant will never be close enough to either king to understand this difference, what is asked of him does not change. Science requires no less faith and fealty than religion, it may operate on completely dissimilar principles, but to the lay audience (incidentally: ‘lay’ is originally a religious word meaning ‘non-ordained’ finding new meaning in scientific society) they are equally beyond the horizon of their understanding. Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, in this case the quote should read ‘For most, any sufficiently advanced method of discerning truth is indistinguishable from special revelation’ (Although that’s much less poetic).


Serendipity in science

tumblr_kqp56wjyAh1qzn0deo1_500Some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time were made entirely by accident. When you take a cursory glance at the history of science, it can seem like a long list of extra-ordinary flukes; a sort of ‘right place at the right time’ deal. Yet somewhere along the line we have acquired this romantic notion of science, we think of it as a deliberate interrogation of nature.  The very concept of the ‘eureka’ and ‘newton’s apple’ moments implies that we consider scientists nearly perfect inductive reasoners; given enough time they could work it all out. However, I think this is only part of the picture; accidents and dumb luck have a much larger role in scientific progress than you might imagine.

We all know that Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics purely by accident, when through his poor laboratory protocol he allowed a fungus to contaminate a petri dish of growing bacteria. The very next morning he noticed that there was a clear, impregnable ring around the fungus that apparently the growing bacterial colony could not impeach, and later found out that the fungus itself released a protein that would prevent bacterial growth, as a natural self-defence mechanism. Hey presto, antibiotics for the masses. No longer do people have to die in their millions of silly old infections.


Even the seeds of Einstein’s theory of relativity can be traced back to a few plucky 19th century astronomers who set out to measure the speed of light bouncing off the earth, in the direction the earth was going. According to newton it should be faster than normal, as you’d have to add the speed of light to the speed of the whole earth. Just like when a man is walking down the carriage of a moving train, his total speed is a combination of the train’s speed and his own walking pace. But bizarrely, when measured it was the same. Light did not get faster (or slower) at all, in fact light is always travelling at the speed of light relative to anyone, however fast they’re moving. (Luckily they documented this phenomenon well enough for a young Albert Einstein to ponder many decades later.)

In fact, all these examples of lucky observers pale in comparison to that which was made famous by physicist Lawrence Krauss in his book ‘a universe from nothing’. As we all know, the universe is expanding, which means everything is getting further away from everything else. More space is literally being created between things, pushing them further apart. Recently we discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but the rate of expansion itself is accelerating, so in a short few billion years, every galaxy will be so far away from every other galaxy that each one will be effectively isolated. Galaxies will be the desert islands of space, surrounded by nothing but an incredibly vast expanse so big that even light can’t traverse it.

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

Here’s the kicker: If intelligent life were to evolve in any of these galaxies during the coming ‘age of isolation’, they themselves would have no method of knowing that the universe was expanding. If they looked outwards they’d see nothing beyond the few stars huddled together in their own galaxy, suspended in endless black void. They wouldn’t be able to measure red-shift or the astronomical distances between celestial bodies, they would have no conception of black holes or singularities. They would have to assume that a simple, eternal, steady state model of the universe is true. To put it simply, they’d never get further than a 18th century understanding of astrophysics no matter how long they were around for. How fortunate we are to be born so soon in the life of the universe that everything is still close enough to be seen!

But what does that mean for science?  What about its tradition of deduction and logic and pure rationality, does it all ultimately boil down to luck? By no means, I still there is great skill and reason involved in the progression of science, it’s just important not to deny the role of luck so far.

Alexander Fleming was a trained scientific mind, when he walked into the lab that fateful day and noticed something unexpected he didn’t just brush it aside and start over, he noticed its implications and set about looking deeper; this is the essence of Science. It is not necessarily about pure, rational or conscious deduction (though that would be ideal), but more noticing those unexpected phenomena and flukes when they arise in nature, documenting them, and attempting to understand them. Perhaps science is more about being watchful, and not letting even the seemingly insignificant little anomalies escape your attention.


Science is more akin to photography when considered in these terms. The photographer, like the scientist, is dependent ultimately on his equipment; its scope, resolution and quality will all affect the outcome of his work. He must be ever watchful and observant, with all his powers of observation trained on his subject. There is also a combination of luck and proficiency, neither is more important, without fortunate accidents we could not hope to make much progress at all, and without the ability to notice and utilize these mistakes then we would also be unable to advance.