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  1. A Beautiful Movie?

2. Math mysteries maintained

3. Science movies on the move

4. Should we care?


Medicine Man poster image, courtesy Disney.

















An alien life form arrives from space in this classic science thriller.
Courtesy Universal Pictures.






Engineers battled with supervisors and the national guard, trying to stop a meltdown in this 1979 movie, released just after the meltdown at Three Mile Island.
Courtesy Columbia Tri Star Films.

  Change: The only constant
Even though mathematician John Nash was diagnosably "mad," A Beautiful Mind shows him in a sympathetic light. In the 1930s and '40s, in contrast, mad movie scientists lacked the redeeming social qualities.

Peter Weingart, a professor at the University of Beilfeld (Germany), studies how scientists are portrayed in films -- fact and fiction. A central goal, he says, is to look at how "science is depicted as a 'strange' and 'extra-social' activity."

Connery as sweaty hunk, his fetching co-star behind him, stares at camera. Certainly, Sean Connery's gruff botanist was not a guy you'd want to meet for a game of whist and Crowe-Nash, as we've seen, was not precisely a paradigm of psychological stability or extroversion.

By email, Weingart told us that his ongoing analysis of 400 science and science-fiction films shows a trend toward portraying scientists "as youthful action heroes" -- think of Jodie Foster as an interplanetary astrophysicist in Contact or Harrison Ford as swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones.

Current crisis
Movies also reflect headlines, says David Kirby, a postdoctoral researcher in science and technology studies at Cornell University. "Films incorporate a lot of the anxieties that are present in American society at the time they're made." In the 1950s, after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, he adds, "people started talking about DNA and a lot of horror films picked up on this anxiety" with features on mutants, killer shrews and the Dr. Bizarro scientists who created them.

Movie anxieties reflect headline anxieties.

Horror over atomic weapons also motivated movies of the period. "The dropping of the bomb had a big impact on films," Kirby says. Between bombs and DNA, people in the 1950s were unhappy about any "type of science where you're going to change nature. The message was that we made a mistake when we messed around with the atom. Who's to say we're not going to make another mistake with DNA?" In film, as in politics, the status quo was king in the 1950s.

Promotion coming
In moon suits, two doctors examine their patient.The portrayal of science and scientists continued to grow more realistic in the 1970s, Kirby says. Andromeda Strain, a 1971 movie based on a Michael Crichton book, was particularly impressive, he says. "A lot of people point to that as the best film for showing how science operates [the author had a medical degree], but "that makes it very boring as a film."

To find the size of the invading microbes, the scientists used filters of decreasing size, says Kirby, "It takes about 10 minutes. It's realistic, but filimically, would be better if they found right away." Crichton discussed negative portrayals of scientists (see "Ritual Abuse" in the bibliography).

Three heads appear above a glowing nuclear reactor.Even engineers got positive play in moving pictures. The Jack Lemmon character in the China Syndrome, a 1979 film about a meltdown at a nuclear reactor, was a crusader for public safety. The movie was released -- through sheer luck -- immediately after the meltdown at the reactor at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Engineers also played larger-than-life nerd-heroes in Apollo 13, about a near-disastrous moon mission.

Pros of con-sulting
From an accuracy point of view, movies these days are trying to hew to reality, says Kirby -- so long as it does not destroy the plot. "By the 1980s, filmmakers want films to be taken seriously, because they want people to come see them. You don't see hardcore stereotypes of scientists unless it's in comedy. The trend I see is very much toward making realistic science."

Indeed, filmmakers went whole-hog for science consultants by the 1990s. When Kirby analyzed the use of science, engineering and math consultants for film, he found that 60 percent used them during the 1990s.

It's nice to hear that Hollywood is spewing the bucks. But it's just a movie. Does it matter if moviemakers get it right?



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