Ask a ScienceBlogger: Science Movies

This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger is right up my alley:

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….

A bunch of my co-bloggers have weighed in already, and it’s hard not to duplicate thier choices, so I won’t even try. (Unoriginal answers below the fold…)

There are a bunch of different ways to take this question, so I’ll suggest a few different movies.

The most fun of any of the science-based movies I can think of would be Real Genius. The actual science content is complete crap, but no other movie captures the sheer exuberant joy of nerd-dom. Val Kilmer alternates between deadpan and manic, the villainous professor is entertainingly smarmy, and the geeks inherit the earth. And, hey, lasers!

If you prefer serious movies, I’d probably go with Apollo 13. Yeah, fine, it’s more engineering than science, but there’s no “Ask an EngineeringBlogger,” so I’m claiming it for Science. And anyway, the important thing is that the real heroes of the film are the guys with the pocket protectors who work out how to get the capsule back to Earth safely.

In a similar vein, there’s also October Sky, about a bunch of kids in a West Virginia coal-mining town who take up rocketry after Sputnik. As with Real Genius, there’s some great “joy of nerd-dom” stuff, and as with Apollo 13, it’s based on a true story, which is a ncie bonus.

The other classic category of science stories would be the disaster/dystopia movie, where science is portrayed as threatening, or at least ambiguous. The problem with this category is that the vast majority of such movies are really, really stupid. Probably the best of the lot (that I’ve seen, anyway) would be Gattaca, which does a nice triumph-of-the-human-spirit thing in a world ruled by genetic screening.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something obvious, though… Remind me in the comments.


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    August 4, 2006

    October Sky is good — excellent choice. I hadn’t thought of a good answer to that question (not that I was asked), but October Sky might be my choice.

    Well, after Armageddon. (Joking.)

    One of my favorite bits in the movie is when the high-school aged Homer Hickem (spelling?) is snowing various school administrators with physics equations. What was nice about that was that (a) the physics equations were real (Newtonian kinematics), and (b) it was plausible that a high school student would have a good understanding of them.

    Of course, there was a downside to that — he was ignoring air resistance, and a lightweight model rocket with fins and perhaps not-perfect-uniform direction of thrust launched into atmosphere is going to be highly subject to air resistance. As such, I was skeptical of his being able to calculate the rocket position within a few times ten feet. But, oh well. Much of the science in that movie was good.

    I’ve become cynical enough that I’m just happy to see spaceships in science fiction movies evidently obey Newton’s Laws when tooling around in space. Star Wars taught us that starfighters bank against vacuum just like airplanes bank against atmosphere, and while the movie was great, it set a tragic precedent.


  2. #2 Kurt
    August 4, 2006

    I noticed that David Ng has suggested Star Wars as his choice over on World’s Fair. In his defense, he’s a biologist and not a physicist. Personally, I can’t believe no one has yet mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, which would be my choice in this category.

  3. #3 Tony Zbaraschuk
    August 4, 2006

    In the horror movie genre, Tremors shows people actually analyzing and figuring out a series of unknown events, instead of panicking in all directions or doing something that only works because the Plot is on their side.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    August 4, 2006

    The absolutely finest hard sf idea of all time (no comment on execution) was Heinlein’s Number of the Beast. Where does a gyroscope go when you cleverly impress torque on all three orthogonal axes simultaneously?

    My movie candidate is Dark Star. It is the only futurist treatment mentioning the fundamental question of interstellar travel: What happens when toilet paper runs out far far away from home? (Is there a single watercloset in the whole Star Trek universe?)

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    August 4, 2006

    Personally, I can’t believe no one has yet mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, which would be my choice in this category.

    It’s science fiction, but it’s not so much about science, if that makes any sense. Nobody figures out why HAL goes nuts, or what the monolith is, they just get killed, or enjoy a 40-minute trippy light show.

    It’s a well-done movie, but it doesn’t do anything all that interesting with science, which was the original question. I think Star Wars is out for the same reason.

  6. #6 Erik V. Olson
    August 4, 2006

    Most of the science in Real Genius is bogus. The freezing of the dorm room floor, however, is almost classic Cal Tech hackery.

    And, hey, lasers!

    Lasers. Cause of, and soultion to, all of life’s problems.

  7. #7 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    August 4, 2006

    If you prefer serious movies, I’d probably go with Apollo 13.

    If you’re going to use Apollo 13, you may as well also include the miniseries that seemed to be designed around it: From The Earth To The Moon (episodes: “Spider” and “Galileo Was Right”.).

  8. #8 Red Right Hand
    August 4, 2006

    Race for the Double Helix with Jeff Goldblum, Tim Piggot-Smith, and Juliet Stevenson. Unfortunately, still not on DVD (grrrr!).

  9. #9 Aaron M
    August 5, 2006

    Fun Fact: October Sky is an anagram of the movie’s original (and far superior) title, Rocket Boys.

  10. #10 Kurt
    August 5, 2006

    It’s a well-done movie, but it doesn’t do anything all that interesting with science, which was the original question. I think Star Wars is out for the same reason.

    Well, I don’t think I’m likely to change anyone’s mind, but I do feel obligated to at least say a few words in defense of 2001. It’s true that the movie doesn’t show people doing science, but I think it is uncannily accurate in showing the results of science. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke went out of their way to make the depictions of space travel and future technology accurate. In this sense it’s really the anti-Star Wars. Everything from little touches like the pay video-phone and the zero-gravity toilet, to the big points that most sci-fi movies overlook, like the fact that there’s no weight in space unless you do something such as simulate gravity as centrifugal force, and the fact that there’s no sound in a vacuum: the only thing you’re going to hear when you’re alone in a space craft is the hum of machinery and the sound of your own breathing.

    The movie also grapples with the question of what our place in the universe is, which I consider to be a scientific question in a general sense. However hokey the final reel of 2001 might seem, it’s certainly an improvement over the silly spiritualism in Star Wars. (And for that matter, I think the ending of Contact was just as hokey.)

  11. #11 Irwin Gerstein
    August 5, 2006

    Why hasn’t anyone mentioned Contact. Ignore the quasi-love stuff. Just the fact that they figured out SETI via getting signals communicating prime numbers and then detecting our emanations being sent back to us had a very solid ring of truth.

  12. #12 Jason Slaunwhite
    August 6, 2006

    Both Apollo 13 and Contact (and October Sky) benefit from how bankable space exploration is. I imagine it’s relatively easy to get funding for a space movie.

    Why hasn’t anyone mentioned Mystery Science Theater 3000? :)

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    August 6, 2006

    I didn’t mention Contact because I was trying to keep the list down. It loses points with me for going all myffic at the end, but that’s a fault in the book, not the movie per se.

    Also, nobody listens to a radio telescope with headphones.

    MST3K doesn’t make the list because it’s about mad science, which is a different thing.

  14. #14 Robin Harris
    August 6, 2006

    How about Twister? The intrepid scientists on a shoestring developing instrumentation to measure, analyze, model and predict for the betterment of mankind. Scientists as unsung heroes, driven by passion, flawed human beings. Commercial science vs academic science.

    Sure, there is dramatic license. It is, after all, a love story. But any movie about scientists that ends with the protagonists arguing about analyzing the data is a movie, IMHO, that gets science.

    And, BTW, Twister made the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. It’s a good movie, too.

  15. #15 Jordin Kare
    August 8, 2006

    In case anyone wasn’t aware of it, it’s worth noting that “October Sky” is an anagram of the original book title, “Rocket Boys”

    Three films worth noting here:

    _Manhattan Project_ has some pretty good science, including lasers — it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen where someone cuts through a wall with a laser beam, and it’s actually technically plausible! Plus there’s a wonderful (and dead-accurate) take on the national science fair. Though it *was* a bit odd to go see it (as I did) in the company of several weapon designers from Livermore Labs…

    _Chain Reaction_ was pretty dreadful overall (the writers obviously never quite understood the difference between hydrogen *fuel* and hydrogen *fusion*, for instance), but it had a couple of great bits in the life of the physics grad student hero. My personal favorite was a scene where he and his girlfriend are trapped in a lab rapidly filling with an explosive concentration of hydrogen gas, and the only way out is to move a massive stone slab — which he does by





    laying a compressed gas cylinder down with its base against the slab, and knocking the valve off with a sledgehammer…

    And then there’s _The Man In The White Suit_ which I just like, even though it’s not usually one that’s mentioned in connection with either science or SF in movies.

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