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14 November 2014

Good Science Also Has a Place in the Cinema

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Although movies that reinvent the laws of physics, chemistry or biology seem to be everywhere nowadays, there are still some science fiction films that provide good examples of scientific rigor. A new proof that plausibility is not an obstacle for the imagination opens this month at theaters around the world. Interstellar is supported not only by the direction of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) and by the interpretations of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, but it also has the scientific backing and executive production of physicist Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Interstellar is set on a future Earth, whose resources have been depleted, threatening the survival of humanity. The chance discovery of a wormhole, a theoretical concept of physics that can join two distant regions in space-time, will give scientists the opportunity to explore the existence of other habitable planets in the universe. One of the most praised aspects of the film is the most faithful depiction of a black hole ever achieved on screen, a task in which Thorne collaborated with the visual effects team. “It’s the first time that the representation of a black hole begins with the equations of Einstein’s general relativity,” the physicist points out in a promotional video.

To demonstrate that popcorn does not conflict with academic rigor, we review here five examples of scientific quality in movies that are often among the most cited.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

The recent film Gravity (2013) from Alfonso Cuarón garnered praise for its accurate portrayal of the conditions of astronauts in space, but the fact is, as noted by astrophysicist and popularizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the venerated Stanley Kubrick achieved the same thing 45 years earlier, anticipating the era of manned space stations. The excessive length of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and its complex plot, which can only be explained in full in the book by Arthur C. Clarke which was the origin of the film, weighed at the time on the commercial success of the film. However, this Kubrick classic has stood the test of time thanks to its realistic depictions of silence in space, life in microgravity, the creation of artificial gravity, interplanetary travel and communications, and of the advances in supercomputing. In an almost anecdotal way, we see in the film 2001 screens that are as flat as those of nowadays, a technology that did not exist in its day and that was even ignored in its sequel 2010. One negative criticism often mentioned is that the film failed to predict the miniaturization of computers.

2. Primer

The director, mathematician and engineer Shane Carruth wrote, produced and directed a 2004 low-budget film about time travel that has been chosen as one of the best models of so-called “hard” science fiction, the most rigorous in its scientific approaches. And this is despite the fact that the plot of the film, the story of two engineers who accidently discover a system to travel through time, is so extremely complex that it is almost incomprehensible without the aid of some diagrams that circulate on the Internet. Among the successes of Carruth was drawing inspiration from the ideas of physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman to propose time travel as a turning back of the clock in real time. In addition, Primer shows the work of researchers in a true light, with characters who speak and act like real scientists and, in some cases, even make their discoveries almost by accident.

3. Gattaca

At a meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, scientists chose Gattaca as one of the most scientifically sound works of science fiction in cinematic history. The film, shot in 1997 by Andrew Niccol, is a dystopia about how genetic engineering in humans and control of reproductive techniques may lead society towards a system of discrimination based on eugenics, an argument already explored by Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World. But this is not the only futuristic classic revisited in Gattaca. In the film, the dictatorship of DNA reaches its climax in a civilization ruled with an iron fist through biometric mechanisms, which assume a similar role to the telescreens through which Big Brother, as imagined by George Orwell, was spying on the population in 1984.

4. Contact

The only novel written by astrophysicist and popularizer Carl Sagan was made into a film by Robert Zemeckis in 1997, creating what for many is the most plausible account of an extraterrestrial first contact since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by Steven Spielberg. In his story, Sagan poured all of his knowledge about the actual work of the scientists searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and one of those scientists, astronomer Jill Tarter, was the model for the main character. Contact is realistic in all its aspects, from the communication with a distant civilization by means of radio and television signals using mathematical language, to the possibility of physical contact using the principle of wormholes, a contribution that Kip Thorne made to Sagan’s novel.

5. The Andromeda Strain

The story of a deadly disease that plagues mankind is more relevant than ever in the context of the Ebola outbreak. The Andromeda Strain was filmed by Robert Wise in 1971, from a script based on the novel of the same name by writer Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park. The book was published in 1969, the same year that the world was worried about the discovery of a deadly new pathogen, the Lassa virus. In Crichton’s story, the risk is not from a virus, but rather from an alien life form that falls to Earth hidden in an old satellite. The argument is reminiscent of dozens of other productions, but few have reached such a degree of scientific plausibility in the background and in the form. Just as the Martians of The War of the Worlds succumbed to terrestrial microbes, the Andromeda life form also has its Achilles heel: it is only tolerant to a narrow range of pH (acidity), which provides scientists with the key to defeating it.

By Javier Yanes for Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)


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