Science on Screen: Explaining Why Zombies Want to Eat You and Other Mysteries of Life

A film series examines how movies make use of science

Is there real science behind 12 Monkeys?
Is there real science behind 12 Monkeys? Photofest

More than most art forms, cinema was founded on science. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison drew on optics, chemistry, metallurgy and neuropsychology in devising and perfecting motion pictures. Edison’s early cinematic developments were covered by Scientific American, while Popular Science and similar magazines devoted articles to film technologies like color and 3D processes.

And yet for over a hundred years, feature films have played with science’s facts and distorted its principles and theories. Think of the astronomers who, after being shot from a cannon, discover beauty queens on the moon in Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. Or The Thieving Hand (1908), in which the eponymous hand attaches and detaches itself from unsuspecting hosts to go on crime sprees. Rockets that roar through the vacuum of outer space, doctors who turn into insects via electrical pulses, donated eyes that see ghosts: the list of cinematic crimes against science seems endless. Whether bringing dinosaurs to life through snippets of DNA in Jurassic Park or turning robots into assassins in The Terminator, filmmakers have leaned on science to add credibility to their work—whether or not their interpretations made any sense.

Starting in 2005, Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, then the associate director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, and entrepreneur Richard Anders began addressing the disconnect between film and science. The Coolidge (a movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts) initiated a series that brought the “top minds in the world of science, medicine and technology,” as Taylor-Mead wrote later, to introduce films that matched their interests. Science on Screen quickly became a favorite part of the Coolidge’s schedule and since 2010 has received major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The 2011 season began this week with a screening of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), introduced by Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow at Harvard University and co-author of “Ecophysiological traits of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous plants: are the costs and benefits the same?” Who better to introduce a film about a giant, man-eating plant?

In November, the Coolidge is showing Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, preceded by Dr. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School (HMS), and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at HMS. No one in cinema handled dreams better than Buñuel, which is why Dr. Stickgold will be talking about the dreaming brain. December’s entry, 12 Monkeys, is paired with journalist Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses. In January, MIT physics professor Edward Farhi discusses the physics of time travel for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Taylor-Mead admits that the series had some growing pains. “Just searching for the closest match in terms of subject matter,” she wrote, “can mean you’re often stuck with a less than stellar example of film art, and that you’re merely attempting to illustrate information already given.”

The key was to find pairings that made sense but were still surprising. For example, Guy Crosby, a professor of food science and nutrition at Framingham State College and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, as well as the science editor for Cook’s Illustrated and the science expert for America’s Test Kitchen, spoke about how our sense of taste works for Babette’s Feast (1987). In my favorite pairing, Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, introduced George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Questions he raised included: What explains zombies’ lack of executive function? Why do the walking dead have such lousy balance, and why are they always so hungry?

Starting in January, 2011, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began awarding grants to non-profit art house cinemas to create their own Science on Screen programs. Eight theaters were chosen: The Loft Cinema, Tucson, Arizona; California Film Institute, San Rafael, California; Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, New York; Maiden Alley Cinema, Paducah, Kentucky; Oklahoma City Museum of Art Film Program, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in conjunction with Circle Cinema, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut; SIFF Cinema, Seattle, Washington; and Tampa Theatre, Tampa, Florida.

In addition to Science on Screen, the Sloan Foundation has funded a Film Program “to expand public understanding of science and technology.” Since 1996, the Sloan Foundation has offered screenwriting and film production awards, as well as sponsoring science seminars and panels at major film festivals. Over 250 projects have received funding, including such filmmakers as Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, and Julian Schnabel. The Sloan Science and Film page on the Museum of the Moving Image website offers more information, and you can also stream some of the winning shorts.

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