Adventures in Ethics and Science

Sometimes it’s OK to hang back on the “Ask a ScienceBlogger” questions to let others snap up the obvious answers. (Yeah, I meant to do that!) I love Real Genius and Buckeroo Banzai as much as the next geek, but there oare other films out there worth your time.

The question is:

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.

Because I’m showing up near the end of the party, I’ll give you three:

  • Microcosmos. A documentary (with not too much narration) looking at the lives of bugs (and their ilk) up close. Personally, I had some trouble with the scenes of snail (or slug?) coupling, but I’m assured by those who do not share my animus toward gastropods that they were both tastefully shot and emotionally compelling. The clear hero of the film, though, is the dung beetle. What’s the admirable thing the film does for science? It makes a piece of scientific (specifically zoological) subject matter look like the coolest thing anyone might want to consider.
  • Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Also a documentary, directed by Errol Morris, that intertwines interviews with a robotics expert (making robots with which to explore Mars), a topiary gardner, a wild-animal trainer, and a mole-rat specialist. Technically, only the robotics guy and the mole-rat guy probably count as scientists, but all four of the subjects have interesting insights to the problem-solving strategies their firlds require. What’s the admirable thing the film does for science? It shows the problem-solving aspect of science, and connects it to problem-solving in other realms of human activity. Plus, naked mole-rats!
  • Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.. Another Errol Morris documentary. This one follows the story of a guy who made his living designing execution devices and then, probably naively, agreed to work as an “expert” to determine whether there was any evidence that people had been killed by poison gas in Nazi concentration camps. (You can probably guess from the subject matter: this is not the easiest film to watch.) What’s the admirable thing the film does for science? It shows how superficial application of scientific knowledge can lead to completely different conclusions from models built taking more factors into account. As well, it shows how someone working essentially on his own doesn’t have the kind of sounding-board for whether ideas and approaches to problems are reasonable that a good intellectual community generally gives you. A member of the “mainstream” scientific community might not be so in demand as an expert for “alternative” views, but neither is he as likely to have his head turned by being recognized as an expert.

Feel free to add your science movie recommendations in the comments. (They don’t even need to be documentaries.)


  1. #1 coturnix
    August 7, 2006

    How could I forget Microcosmos! It was such a blast!

    I was seriously considering writing about Fast, Cheap and Out of Control – a great movie to write a post about – as well as Angels and Insects, but in the end decided that a movie that shows the kids that science is fun and nerdiness is cool, thus Jimmy Neutron.

  2. #2 beajerry
    August 9, 2006

    Did they mean fiction or non?

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    August 9, 2006

    I’m not sure whether the question was intended to be restricted to “fiction” movies, and I took advantage of that ambiguity to jump in with documentaries. (As I get older, I’m more interested in documentaries than most of the “entertainment” offerings out there. Also, I like stuff that holds up on the small screen, because I don’t get out much.)

  4. #4 Attila Chordash
    August 10, 2006

    Memento by Christopher Nolan is about serious short-term memory problems, i.e. the complete lack of that. Full of puzzles, tricky narrative, good characters, there was even a positive reaction at Nature.

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