Feature

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Educating via analyses of science in movies and TV

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6:56pm, October 12, 2004
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The arrival of a new ice age in a matter of weeks? Setting the Earth's core rotating with a few nuclear bombs? Fault zones that gape open to swallow people, speeding trains, and even small towns? "Get real," say earth scientists decrying the recent movies The Day after Tomorrow and The Core and the TV miniseries 10.5. For years, scientists have worried that inaccurate science on both big and small screens misinforms viewers who may not distinguish what's fiction and what's fact. However, some scientists see opportunities in even the most outlandish films and television shows. To dispel popular misconceptions about science, educators are teasing out shreds of scientific truth hidden within the fiction, and scientists are using unredeemably inaccurate scenes as ways to attract public attention to genuine scientific concepts.

Some scientists propose that more-accurate depictions of research and more-favorable portrayals of scientists in film and on TV may lead young people to study science. The boost in interest in forensics careers that has followed the hit TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and a few similar British series offers these science advocates hope that their scheme might just work.

Lights! Camera! Weirdness!

The media hype generated by a blockbuster movie provides a great opportunity to reach a wide audience and talk about nonfiction earth science, says Andrew J. Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. This summer, he took advantage of The Day after Tomorrow, which has raked in more than a half-billion dollars worldwide.

That blockbuster followed a long tradition of inaccurate cinematic depictions of science. In Georges Méliès' 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon, six adventurers travel in a capsule fired from a large cannon. After their lunar landing, the explorers are kidnapped by disgruntled moon inhabitants, escape to their capsule, nudge it off the moon's edge, and fall back to Earth, where they splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

Just a few problems: No cannon can fire a projectile into space, and even if it could, the explorers inside would die from the fantastic acceleration that would be required. Also, Méliès depicted the moon as having Earthlike gravity early in the movie and then conveniently ignored this gravitational pull later, so that the explorers could return home. The list of technical critiques could be much lengthier, but you get the picture.

In the century since Méliès' 14-minute film debuted, special effects have improved substantially, but scientific accuracy often has remained low on the priority list. The premise of last summer's The Day after Tomorrow is that global warming suddenly interferes with the ocean's thermohaline circulation that brings warmer water to the North Atlantic and warms Europe. The sudden collapse of the thermohaline circulation brings on a new ice age in a matter of weeks.

"The special effects are quite good; I was riveted," Weaver says. However, he dismisses the idea that modern-day global warming can trigger an ice age.

To counter the inaccuracies underlying The Day after Tomorrow, Weaver and his colleague Claude Hillaire-Marcel of the University of Quebec in Montreal used computer models to analyze today's climate in terms of what's known about global cooling in the past.

Without a doubt, abrupt climate change has occurred—but it was abrupt in terms of decades, not weeks. For example, a few times during Earth's history, the onset of cooling seems to have been triggered by immense surges of glacial meltwater into the North Atlantic (SN: 11/2/02, p. 283: Available to subscribers at Once Upon a Lake). When the ice sheet covering northeastern Canada collapsed, about 8,200 years ago, more than 163,000 cubic kilometers of trapped water drained into the North Atlantic in a matter of months. That influx raised sea level by as much as 50 centimeters, shut down thermohaline circulation, and, in a decade or so, inaugurated a 400-year dip in global temperatures, some studies suggest.

In their analysis, Weaver and Hillaire-Marcel found no plausible scientific scenario that would shut down thermohaline circulation in the next 5 centuries. They published their analysis in the April 16 Science and the June Geoscience Canada.

Also, Weaver conducted dozens of interviews on the subject when media interest in The Day after Tomorrow was high. Weaver appeared on several radio talk shows that were carried throughout Canada, and his comments appeared in newspapers and magazines in locations as far away as Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Shaky premise

Erroneous depictions of science are by no means limited to the silver screen. In May, during the so-called sweeps period, when TV networks vie for large audiences, NBC aired the 4-hour miniseries 10.5. That drama depicts what happens when a series of large earthquakes devastates the West Coast.

The broadcast was the most-watched miniseries or movie on any network in the past 2 years, pulling in an audience of 20.7 million on its first night and just under 20 million the next. Among scientists, however, the ratings were low.

"[My colleagues and I] saw a 3-minute preview about 3 weeks before the show was to air," says Rick Wilson, a geologist with the California Geological Survey in Sacramento. "They got a lot of the little things [in the movie] wrong, and a lot of the big things were wrong, too."

The California geologists took advantage of the wave of public interest to present reliable earth science information. Two weeks before the program aired, the scientists conducted interviews with journalists from 30 or so NBC affiliates that would be carrying the show. Many of the interviews made local news shows.

Wilson also wrote a press release in the form of a movie review for the California Geological Survey's Web site, which typically gets a spike in visitors when public interest focuses on earthquake-related issues. In his review, Wilson contrasted the fictional events depicted in the miniseries with scientific facts. On a reality scale of 1 to 100, he rated the show—you guessed it—a 10.5.

For one thing, the largest quake predicted by the scientists in the movie, a magnitude-10.5 whopper, isn't possible. The main factor determining the energy released by a temblor is the length of the fault that slips during the quake. During the largest quake ever—a magnitude-9.5 quake that rocked Chile on May 22, 1960—a 1,600-kilometer-long stretch of fault ruptured. A magnitude-10.5 quake, which would release about 32 times the energy of the Chilean temblor, could occur only during the rupture of a fault zone that stretched a quarter of the way around Earth. No fault zone is that long.

In another far-fetched scenario in 10.5, the gaping tip of a rupturing fault chases a speeding train before it swallows the doomed choo-choo. Although earthquakes can produce cracks in the ground, fault zones never split open. The sides of a fault zone are in constant contact, Wilson says.

On the days that 10.5 aired, the number of visitors to the California Geological Survey's Web site was about double that recorded in the days just before and after the miniseries. Wilson says that the spike demonstrates how valuable even shows with flawed science can be for getting the public to pay attention to scientific topics.

Face to face

While the scientific community can use press releases and critiques of movies to reach a broad audience, it is also turning to movies to provide instruction to smaller groups.

Many teachers use films to illustrate scientific concepts within their classrooms. "The bad stuff is usually spectacular," says Tom Rogers, a former mechanical engineer who now teaches at Southside High School in Greenville, S.C. If the science in a movie is really bad, Rogers says, he writes a review for Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics (http://www.intuitor.com/moviephysics/), which is a feature of an educational Web site that he founded.

One example that Rogers and other science teachers use in their classes comes from Speed 2: Cruise Control, a movie released in 1997. In a climactic scene, a cruise ship crashes into a dock and several waterside condominiums, pitching people through the front windows of the ship's bridge.

Here's the problem, as Rogers presents it to his class: The deceleration of the ship, as estimated from frequent camera shots of the ship's speedometer, is so small that in reality passengers relaxing on the deck should have barely felt a bump.

During his physics classes, Rogers also presents accurate cinematic depictions of science. "It's harder to find good stuff," he notes.

For example, he shows excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey to teach the concept of artificial gravity. In the film, it's generated along the rim of the rotating space station by centrifugal force. Students use visual clues to estimate the size of the space station and its rate of rotation. They then plug those numbers into the appropriate formula. If they do this correctly, they determine that the gravity at the outer rim of the station is about 90 percent of that on Earth.

Outside the classroom, the "Science in the Cinema" film festival sponsored by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is a long-running example of presenting scientific ideas to people via movies. "The idea [behind the film festival] is to place the public in a situation where they're receptive to science," says Bruce A. Fuchs, director of NIH's Office of Science Education.

On a handful of evenings each summer since 1994, NIH has shown films with a theme or topic related to medicine. After the evening's movie, a guest speaker with expertise in the film's topic talks about the issues presented in the film and then takes questions from the audience. This year, Fuchs moved the venue from the NIH campus to a theater in nearby Silver Spring, Md., a change that has been attracting a more diverse audience, he says.

Scientific supply

Professors at U.S. universities have built entire courses around analyses of movies. At James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., for example, Christopher S. Rose has used films as diverse as Jurassic Park, Gattaca, and The Boys from Brazil to explore issues related to cloning and genetic screening in his "Biology in the Movies" course.

A "Physics in Films" class at Central Florida University in Orlando, taught by researchers Costas Efthimiou and Ralph Llewellyn, has drawn more than 2,000 students since its first offering in 2002. The course has proved so popular that the researchers have developed versions that exclusively focus on physics of superheroes, topics related to astronomy, and pseudoscientific themes such as ghosts, astrology, and extrasensory perception.

Some researchers in the United Kingdom have suggested that using movies to teach science might make those courses more attractive. The number of students choosing courses in some scientific disciplines has declined significantly in recent years, notes Robert J. Newport, a physicist at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

There's also been a worrisome decline in the number of students choosing to major in certain scientific disciplines in the United States, says Robert J. Barker, a physicist at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) in Arlington, Va.

Although some companies and academic institutions can compensate for a deficit of homegrown science talent by hiring capable foreign workers, some jobs, such as those in defense industries, require security clearances that can be issued only to native-born citizens. "This is easily a long-term problem," says Newport. "Something needs to happen."

In an attempt to boost student interest in physics, Newport and his colleagues are developing an educational package, intended to reform the undergraduate physics curriculum, that includes deconstructing scenes from films to teach scientific principles.

Recent trials of that technique in high school physics classes garnered high praise both from students and their teachers, Newport says.

"I'm kicking myself that I didn't think of this before," says John Paul Riordan, a physics teacher at Rainham Mark Grammar School in Rainham, England.

To boost interest in science and engineering, AFOSR goes further than using films as educational material. It has initiated a long-term program that includes sponsorship of a script-writing workshop for scientists at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles that was conceived by Martin A. Gundersen, a physicist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The workshop's rationale: Getting science-literate people involved in a project's early stages, especially during development phases, might result in more-accurate depictions of science and scientists, which would lead to more science students.

"Much of the science [in movies] is wrong, when it easily could have been right," says AFI's Joe Petricca, a director of the recent workshop. Scientists are typically called in as technical advisers too late in a project for their input to have a substantial influence.

Unflattering portrayals of characters with scientific or technical backgrounds, as well as poorly presented concepts, may deter student interest in science. The scientist in films often is socially inept or has mental problems.

Petricca says he's inspired by the CBS network's highly successful show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs, which seem to be boosting student interest in forensic-science careers. A dozen or more universities recently added majors in forensic science, says Jim Hurley of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Existing programs are seeing a boom in interest as well: On Aug. 5, USA Today reported that 13 percent of the incoming freshman at West Virginia University in Morgantown had chosen forensic science as their undergraduate major, making it the most popular major for the second year in a row.

Newport says that a similar uptick in forensic-science enrollment has occurred in the United Kingdom, thanks to several TV series including Waking the Dead and Silent Witness. This year, 80 students are enrolled in the forensic-science program at the University of Kent, a set of courses that didn't exist just 3 years ago.

Newport says that skyrocketing interest in the field results not only from the intriguing subject matter but also from the positive role models depicted. "Scientists [in the shows] are portrayed as real people who are literate and sociable," he notes.

Although media portrayals apparently have made forensic science seem like an exciting career, can they do the trick for disciplines such as plasma physics or ceramics engineering?

In that regard, Petricca says, he just has to be optimistic. He argues, "The facts of science are more interesting than anything you can make up."


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