Ask a scienceblogger about science movies

Seed has asked all the sciencebloggers to respond to the following question:

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....

I talked with Greta about this last night, and we each used similar logic for our choices. Greta's pick was Jurassic Park, which of course generally has appalling science, but in one scene demonstrates an incredibly important scientific lesson. The scientists at the Jurassic Park Institute "knew" it was impossible for their dinosaurs to reproduce in the wild because they were all males. When the dinosaurs reproduced nonetheless, it showed that scientists can't really "know" anything -- they can only attempt to explain the phenomena they observe.

My pick is Dark Star, the satirical sci-fi movie from the '70s. The basic plot involves a spaceship flying from star to star destroying "unstable" stars so that unsuspecting humans don't colonize them. But most of the time, the astronauts are just incredibly bored, since interstellar travel takes a long time. I like this notion that interstellar travel isn't just a matter of switching into "hyperdrive" and arriving at Alderaan (or what used to be Alderaan) five seconds later, so Dark Star gets my vote. Of course, even Dark Star's version of interstellar travel is wrong. The only way we might ever be able to "colonize" another star system is if we developed a ship that could sustain many generations of humans, who took hundreds of years to reach their destination.

Are these good movies? Sure. Jurassic Park is a great action movie, where the excitement never stops, and Dark Star is a hilarious (if sometimes a bit boring) sendup of pre-1974 science fiction.

More like this

I thought "Gattaca" nicely illustrated the nature/nurture debate.

Dark Star was great fun back when it came out. Perhaps I should watch it again now that I am an adult and can be discerning and critical.

Real Genius not only had some actually-not-too-nonsensical techno-babble, but it also did an effective job of illuminating the role of the scientist as a moral agent, responsible for the predictable consequences of her work. But it ended positively, without refuting the importance of science or the joy of practicing it.

Plus, it was a fucking funny movie.

By Joe Ardent (not verified) on 09 Aug 2006 #permalink

The only way we might ever be able to "colonize" another star system is if we developed a ship that could sustain many generations of humans, who took hundreds of years to reach their destination.

I thought A C Clarke got a good idea with Songs From Distant Earth (not a film though).

Don't send biology. Send instead a stock of source material, a robotic laboratory, and a database of DNA sequences, and synthesize an ecosystem once you arrive. You avoid the difficult problem of keeping living things alive for ages after ages, and reduce it all to the much easier (and perhaps already solved?) problem of getting that much storage capacity together and keeping *that* safe for the duration. And of course, you get to fast forward the thousands/millions of years it would take for terraforming to work.

What does everyone think of the science in Primer? I don't know anything about the science behind it, so I didn't know if was complete bunk or not.

Um... there really was no science in Primer. Not one bit.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 09 Aug 2006 #permalink

If you're looking for a movie with scientists as heroes, the one movie that comes to my mind is "The Andromeda Strain". I don't know about the science, but it does show them going through a process of investigation and formulating ideas as a group, trying to stop the alien virus and eventually one of them having that "Eureka!" moment to save the planet. Good movie too.

Other possibilities for inter-stellar travel exist. For one thing, you don't need made-up stuff like a hyper-drive to reach a location X light-years away in less than X years at less than the speed of light. Now that we know Einstein was right about general relativity and its effects, we know that time 'goes by' at a slower rate for those on a ship traveling near the speed of light than it does for those on the planet left or arrived at.

All you need is some constant acceleration/deceleration to get you up to speeds where relativistic effects set in, and you can go hundreds of lightyears in a single human lifespan. However, hundreds of years will have passed on the planets you left and arrive at, so it's all one-way, but for colonizing (or sending ambassadors?) it could actually potentially work *better* than messages transmitted at the speed of light.

Anyway, good post.