Sunday, February 05, 2006

Science and Cinema

As I sit here watching The Core I’m obliged to question whether there has ever been a science movie that truly manages to inspire interest in the field. Hollywood tripe of the persuasion of The Day After Tomorrow, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Armageddon and Deep Impact is suitable for amusement but hardly as an inspiring depiction of physics, geology and climatology. CSI has created enough of a cultural fascination with forensic science that students are inspired to learn more about it, juries are beginning to have unrealistic expectations concerning the efficacy of forensics, and criminals are wizening up. Surely pop culture can discover a more effective spokesman for climate science than noted late night radio conspiracy theorist Art Bell? (responsible in part for the travesty of Day After Tomorrow). I am not one to ever claim that there’s no place for fluff movies. An evening sipping a g&t and chuckling at the absurdities in The Core can be rather relaxing, particularly in the company of other geology nerds who catch the nonsense lines. However, part of the declining scientific literacy and interest we see in the U.S.A. these days is derived from popular depiction. We have an obligation not only to instruct the general public regarding our work but also to inspire them, as we know better than anyone else what is fascinating and wondrous in our fields.

Michael Crichton lost a great deal of respect in my view when he strayed off into the realm of poorly-conceived global warming skepticism, but in my personal experience, the book and movie The Andromeda Strain suits the purpose of sparking interest in science quite well, for a particular reason. To inspire interest in the science, the medium involved must inquire into the science rather than blandly state a conclusion. Some conflict must be resolved by scientific discovery to make research itself a subject of interest. This particular construction of the plot is notably absent from the films mentioned above, yet is characteristic of CSI. In The Core, science is a frequently discarded plot device only serving as a distraction from typical disaster movie fare. The science, where it appears, is only offered as an explanation for how a standard moment of suspense has come about, and perhaps that is the reason why the science is grossly inaccurate. Andromeda Strain, on the other hand, poses the problem of a scientific discovery/resolution as central to the resolution of the conflict central to the plot. If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, I highly recommend it.

The central message we must gather from all this is that pop culture must view science with curiosity or as a problem to be solved to be effective in inspiring the general public. We are unlikely to see such behavior when “science” movies and television are constructed by those who seek to convey a moral message (Day After Tomorrow) or fit a worn-out cinematic formula (The Core).


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