Science in the movies

This week’s “Ask a scienceblogger” is more pop culture than actual science:

What movie do you think does something admirable (though not necessarily accurate) regarding science? Bonus points for answering whether the chosen movie is any good generally.

Thoughts after the jump…

I’m one of those people who forgets about 90% of the movies I watch, so I welcome suggestions from y’all in the comments about other good answers to the question. As for me, along the lines of coturnix’s post on making science–and scientists–cool, one of my favorite movies ever is Real Genius. Val Kilmer plays Chris, a genius/slacker at a MIT-type institution, filled to the brim with science prodigies. He’s lost his inspiration until a younger genius, Mitch, arrives at the college and ends up as his roomate. Along the way, Chris teaches Mitch how to relax a bit, and Mitch reignites Chris’s passion for science.

Sure, along the way they find out that the laser they’re working on for Chris’s boss (Dr. Hathaway) is actually intended to be used for nefarious military purposes, and Hathaway’s other student is a suck-up that Chris and Mitch mentally torture, but the movie makes science nerds look cool. They even create a temporary indoor ice skating rink–could your business major buddies do that?

Now, sure, much of this isn’t plausible or accurate, and a bit of the mad/bad scientist is on display via Dr. Hathaway’s character. But score one for the sci/tech nerds winning in the end, without having to be tortured by frat boys as in some other nerd hero movies.

If you haven’t seen the movie, rent it. It’s a moral imperative.


  1. #1 Marc Connor
    August 3, 2006

    I think Socrates wrote the most profound review of this film. “I drank WHAT?!?!”

  2. #2 MT
    August 3, 2006

    Mimic. Based on a short story though, so I don’t know what credit the movie industry deserves. For its time, Alien was great, speaking of horror. I guess these are all science fiction. Oh Contact. Not to mention The Dish.

  3. #3 Dior
    August 3, 2006

    just finished PZ’s marathon post on this and no one mentioned real genius. you’re right, this movie rocks. now if i could only find a groupie that loves intelligence….
    btw i nominated “twister”

  4. #4 Meri
    August 3, 2006

    Oddly enough, Real Genius is on Comedy Central right now. Well, was on this afternoon.

  5. #5 Ruth
    August 3, 2006

    I recently saw some old black and white movies on TCM. One was a biography of my hero, Dr. Paul Erlich, with Edward G. Robinson in the title role. Best scene-Dr. Erlich smoking a cigar in the lab as he experiments with various tissue dyes.

    There was also a sanitized biography of the Curies. I mostly liked it because I love Greer Garson in any role, even if she is too glamourous for Marie Curie. Best scene-Pierre and Maria become so wrapped up in a technical problem, they walk out of a party they were having to go to the lab. This is just the sort of thing most of us closet Aspies would do!

  6. #6 lincoln
    August 3, 2006

    I think the best movie of recent relevance is John LeCarre’s “The Constant Gardener”. It is quite relevant to much of the HIV/AIDS discussions on this site. Even though he was put down by the pharmaceutical manufacturer’s for his story, which surely is not a surprise, Le Carre said “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard”.

    I find it quite a horror what some thoughtless scientists will do in experimentation especially in the remote corners of the world. Not so very long ago, it was 23 of 26 MD scientists that were brought up on charges and found guilty at Nuremburg, and a few let off quite easy I might add, for the atrocious experimentation of IG Farber’s scientists in Germany. It is important to remember the past, so we can do our best to avoid a repeat of such horrors.

    From what I read on this site, I think that Tara and some of the other folk here believe that everyone who disagrees about the causality relationship of HIV to AIDS is a threat to the idea that germs cause disease, but to me, that is quite a stretch to say something like that. For most people, although probably not for some folk in the science world, it is quite easy to go beyond simple germ theory to explore what leaves lots of people open to being taken over by germ diseases in the first place. Even your own grandma will tell you that simple truth. That is not to say there are not also lots of nasty bugs that will knock pretty much any or everyone over that gets a good dose of them, but most of what we all come in contact with in usual life does not do so for most people, unless they have other problems going on at the very root of the situation.

    Although it goes pretty much beyond scientific ability to prove or disprove, I don’t believe one can divorce the effects of mind and ones beliefs or thinking or stress, from the effects on the body, or even simpler things such as nutrition and lifestyle that combine to leave many people open to illness. Some of you may disagree, but to each their own, as everyone has a right to their opinions, and I firmly stand by Tara’s right to believe whatever she wishes.

    The following two pieces demonstrate Le Carre’s story quite vividly (pictures too) as far as some HIV drugs are concerned. Hard for me to believe that these drugs are still dispensed by the goodly men that consider themselves to be doctors.

    Don’t mean to trouble you none, and Thank all you kind folks for letting me put in a few words of my own.

  7. #7 Mouth of the Yellow River
    August 3, 2006

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

    Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. Reality-based, humorous, irreverant, relevant, personal take-home lesson, real-time experiment, appealing to all ages, political statement.


  8. #8 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 4, 2006

    It took place at Pacific Tech!
    Far too cloudy in Mass to ever do the popcorn stunt.

  9. #9 RPM
    August 4, 2006

    Good call. Best Val Kilmer movie ever (#2 is Top Gun). And, yeah, it’s obviously CalTech, not MIT.

    BTW, I saw the PhD comics dude (Jorge Cham, I think) give a talk and he mentioned Real Genius. He said that the kids in that movie are grad students. No way, man. They were so undergrads.

  10. #10 rsimmon
    August 4, 2006

    Caltech References in Real Genius

  11. #11 Robert Madison
    August 9, 2006

    Good call. Best Val Kilmer movie ever (#2 is Top Gun). And, yeah, it’s obviously CalTech, not MIT.

    * WRONG!*

    That would be Tombstone my friend!

    It’s OK, you can change you’re statement at any time. “You’re a daisy if ya do…”

    And don’t forget about “The Doors”. He was pretty good in that as well.