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Top 5 “Science Done Right” Moments in Movies

Directors take note: scientist and author David Kirby commends the accuracy in these popular films

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Warner Brothers filmed parts of the movie Contact at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array in New Mexico. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The other day I wrote about five horrendously inaccurate scenarios in science fiction movies, all selected by David Kirby, a trained geneticist and author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. If you missed it, Kirby’s list touched on asteroid predictions, natural disasters and a cloning incident—all bogus, when dissected by a scientist.

I had heard Kirby talk about the history of science advising in the TV and film industries at “Hollywood & Science,” a recent webinar hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Directors hiring scientists to review the science they portray on screen goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. Kirby is actually quite forgiving when it comes to science fiction movies heralding from those early decades. The “bad science” those movies sometimes portray is not always the fault of filmmakers, Kirby says; in many cases, it is due to the limitations of technology or simply a reflection of the state of scientific knowledge at the time. For instance, Destination Moon, a sci-fi flick from 1950, was one of the first to show space travel in a somewhat realistic way. However, the astronauts could not wear clear, goldfish bowl-type helmets, as they did in real life, because they created too much glare for the camera.

Today, filmmakers have little excuse for error.

The Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences, actually matches TV and film professionals, even video game makers, with science consultants for free. “We have Nobel Prize winners on speed dial,” said Ann Merchant, deputy director for communications at NAS and a fellow panelist. “We were told, if we built it, they would come—and they did.” Since the program was launched in November 2008, it has received three to five new calls a week and arranged a grand total of 525 consults. The movies Iron Man, Tron, Spiderman, Prometheus and The Avengers and TV shows Fringe, The Good Wife and Covert Affairs have all benefited from the service.

Here are Kirby’s top five “science done right” moments in film:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

 

“For its time, 2001 is one of the most, if not the most, scientifically accurate film ever made,” says Kirby. Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, hired former NASA space scientist Frederick Ordway to serve as his science adviser. One of the greatest lengths that Kubrick went to is in acknowledging that gravity doesn’t exist on a spaceship. “Kubrick actually decided to acknowledge this fact by building an artificial gravity wheel for the spaceship,” says Kirby. “On a long-distance space flight, you need to spin it to get the centrifugal force to simulate the idea that there is actually gravity, something pulling you down. That is what this thing did.” The prop cost $750,000 (equal to $5 million today) and took six months for Vickers Engineering Group to build. “That shows incredible commitment to scientific veracity,” says Kirby.

2. Finding Nemo (2003)

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, animators painstakingly removed all bits of kelp from the coral reef scenes in Finding Nemo after marine biologist Mike Graham of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California, explained that kelp only grows in cold waters. But, as Kirby points out, this is just one of many measures the filmmakers took to ensure scientific accuracy.

According to an article in the journal Nature, Adam Summers, then a postdoc in fish biomechanics at the University of California, Berkeley, and other experts he recruited gave lessons during the movie’s production on a wide range of topics, including fish locomotion, how fish scales reflect light and the mechanics of waves. Director Andrew Stanton attended the lessons along with animators, producers, writers and character developers involved with the project. Robin Cooper, head shader for the film, gets extra credit though. She actually reached her arm into the blowhole and mouth of a beached, dead gray whale to take some photographs. This way, when Nemo’s dad, Marlin, gets sucked into a whale’s mouth and blasted out through its blowhole, she could accurately portray the inside of the whale. “I’m just amazed at how rigorous these people were,” Summers told Nature.

3. Contact (1997)


Trailer #1

Contact

— MOVIECLIPS.com

 

Warner Brothers filmed some of the scenes of this movie, adapted from Carl Sagan’s book Contact, at the Very Large Array, a New Mexico branch of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (Remember the huge white dishes facing the skies?) Bryan Butler, then a postdoc researcher at the site, served as a science advisor.

In the film, scientist Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, tries to make contact with extraterrestrial life. According to Kirby, her actions are largely in line with SETI, or search for extraterrestrial intelligence, protocol. “The setting, the dialogue, the way that they are trying to confirm what they are seeing, is real,” says Kirby. “They have to call someone in Australia and say, ‘hey, can you see this too?’ They have to wait for it to be confirmed by somebody on the exact other side of the world before they can actually confirm that it is real. All that type of stuff was accurate.”

4. The Andromeda Strain (1971)

 

In this sci-fi thriller, based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel of the same title, a team of scientists studies an alien virus that infects and kills humans. “There is a scene where they are trying to figure out how big the microbe is that they are dealing with. From modern eyes, it ends up being a very slow, boring scene, but that is because it is realistic,” says Kirby. “It is this idea of, ‘Let’s try two microns. Oh, that’s too big. Let’s try 0.5. Oh, that’s too small. Let’s try one.’ The science in it is accurate. They are experimenting, but it doesn’t make for very gripping cinema.”

5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)


Russell Crowe played the brilliant, schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. However, the actor had a hand double. Dave Bayer, of Barnard College’s math department, wrote all the mathematical equations so that they had “a natural flow,” according to Kirby.

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