Skip navigationPOSTED 11 JAN 2002
  1. A Beautiful Movie?

2. Math mysteries maintained

3. Science movies on the move

4. Should we care?

Russell Crowe plays a tormented mathematician whose beautiful mind was capable of severe delusion.
Courtesy Universal Pictures






Courtesy Mike Hoover.

  Science movies: Always science fiction?
image of movie cell featuring Crowe, lit from the side, looks apprehensive, down and to his left.If you recall "the Blob," or "Frankenstein," you know how Hollywood loves to chew scientists up and spit them out.

Monsters -- scientists make 'em.

Arrogance -- they define it.

Aloofness -- they embody it.

Then along comes Jodie Foster in Contact, playing an impassioned if not exactly lovable astronomer trying to get in touch with her inner extraterrestrial. Or Sean Connery, in Medicine Man, playing a crusading botanist trying to cure cancer and save tropical forests.

Just this week we see Russell Crowe as John Nash, a cranky and crazed, but curiously empathetic, mathematician. Crowe's John Nash is a sterling role model -- he describes sex as "an exchange of bodily fluids," in a bungled barroom pickup that set the standard for suaveness.

As Crowe-Nash admitted early in the movie, he disliked people, and they responded in kind.

Poster shows ghoulish head with frown, linked to crude science lab apparatus. After a long bout of schizophrenia, Nash -- in reality and film -- snared a Nobel Prize for describing the behavior of "non-cooperating individuals in non-zero-sum games." That sounds vaguely English-like (we're told it applies to economics, international trade, and labor markets).

Buying biography
These movies, loosely patterned on living scientists, took liberties with both biographical and scientific facts. The inspiration for Foster's searcher for extra-terrestrial intelligence, to name one glaring transgression, never lifted off for interstellar space. In Nash's case, certain disturbing behaviors and at least one arrest were whitewashed out.

Some would argue that the portrayal of scientists in movies matters not one whit -- a discussion we'll visit shortly. Still -- and here's the interesting part -- each movie showed the scientist in a positive light -- as an impassioned seeker of truth, driven by forces to which mere mortals don't respond.

But it's clear that scientist movies have come a long way from "The Brain that Wouldn't Die" (1962) or "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine," a priceless but tasteless 1965 take-off on the James Bond film Goldfinger.

glowing 3-D movie glassesHave movies started to take science -- and scientists -- seriously? Could we -- perish the thought -- actually learn some science by gazing at the silver screen? Will portraying scientists as action heroes -- as happens in Indiana Jones movies -- actually help recruit people to the tough-but-rewarding job of finding out about the universe?

There's only one way to find out: Let's run the trailer for our "Nerd in Film" guide to science in pictures. Grab the popcorn and click the page. The lights are already dimming...



  The Why Files   There are 1 2 3 4 pages in this feature.
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Terry Devitt, editor; Pamela Jackson, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive.

©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.