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A Defense of Scientific Inaccuracy

Making science accurate in movies without taking out the wonderment Science has always had a hard time fitting in movies. From the Terminator franchise to What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, filmmakers often pit creative license against scientific authenticity. A cluster of recent TV shows, however--Fringe,..

Making science accurate in movies without taking out the wonderment

Science has always had a hard time fitting in movies. From the Terminator franchise to What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, filmmakers often pit creative license against scientific authenticity. A cluster of recent TV shows, however--Fringe, Numb3rs, and The Big Bang Theory-employ accurate science and mathematics to dramatic (or comedic) effect. In the realm of feature films though, some movies may cling close to scientific principles, most toss in a muddle of jargon, lab coats, flashing lights, or worst-case scenario: cast Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist.The National Academy of Sciences is aiming to put an end to playing outside the rules of science with its new initiative, the Science and Entertainment Exchange. According to Jennifer Ouellette, the program's director, its long-term goals are to "improve the portrayal of science and scientists in film and television by developing lasting relationships and collaborations between scientists and entertainment industry professionals."When science is adhered to like scripture, the results can be outstanding. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was co-written by famed futurist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Sure, we don't have computers like HAL yet, but the movie's more accurate moments imbue it with an eerie, futuristic ambiance. For example, all the scenes in outer space are silent, since sound does not travel in a vacuum. Star Wars--for all its whooshing space ships and clattering, cosmic explosions--evidently never received that memo.


Films like 2001--or the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which adhered to scientifically known quirks of human memory so closely, it proved somewhat prophetic--can completely change the way the public understands the universe. More dubious endeavors, however, have the potential to mislead: Who wasn't completely terrified of virtual reality after seeing The Lawnmower Man?The NAS is hoping that bringing the two communities together will result in more 2001s and Eternal Sunshines, which it believes will be a boon for everyone: Through films, scientists get a popular conduit for their oft-misunderstood ideas; whereas filmmakers can produce more authentic work with the aid of researchers and academics.Depending on how you look at it, the Exchange is perhaps as much a disservice as it is a service. By cracking down on fuzzy science, the NAS will flout one of the cardinal purposes of moviemaking: invention. After all, is scientific inaccuracy really so dangerous? It's the fantastical inaccuracies Hollywood science--your flux capacitors, transmogrifiers, and warp drives-that get people hooked on science in the first place. Films and television have a capacity to compel and enchant, giving audiences their first taste of new worlds and strange ideas.How many physicists today were likely Star Trek fans as children-probably because it was far more fantastic than so-called "hard sci-fi" films like 2001? According to theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, the answer is: a lot. Krauss wrote a book called the Physics of Star Trek, which investigates whether science would allow for wildly fictional concepts like inertial dampers and warp drive. "I never dressed up in a uniform or anything," he writes, "but I did watch the series growing up--as did almost all physicists I know." (Another famous Trekkie-cum-scientist, Stephen Hawking, penned the book's preface.)

By fictionalizing high-minded concepts and ideas, entertainment can bring some of the greatest achievements and aspirations of science into the mainstream. The Terminator franchise got us all thinking about robotics, concealing a spooky prediction of a "technological singularity" among explosions and car-chase scenes. In Godzilla, War of the Worlds, The Andromeda Strain, and countless more Hollywood films, a scientific phenomenon is a kind of deus ex machina, saving the day at the last moment. Even when the facts are wrong, we come out of the movie theater feeling that science is powerful and capable of changing the world. And many of us want to learn more.Ouellette -- who herself wrote a book about Hollywood science, The Physics of the Buffyverse--is careful to point out that the Exchange isn't just "scientists swooping in to ‘save' Hollywood from bad science; it's scientists offering input to enhance creativity."Certainly, if a middle ground could be achieved in the entertainment industry between sensational Hollywood and depictions that respect the laws of the universe, we might be in for some great movies. Regardless, I'm keeping my warp drive.(Photos: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by David Lee - © 2004 Focus Features; 2001: A Space Odyssey, by MPTV - © MPTV - image courtesy MPTV.net; Star Trek, © Paramount Pictures)
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