Inspirational Literacy Through Science Books and Films Sidney Perkowitz Physics, Emory University

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  • Inspirational Literacy ThroughScience Books and FilmsSidney PerkowitzPhysics, Emory

  • Why am I interested in all this?

    Books nonfiction pop science Empire of Light (1996)Universal Foam (2000)Digital People (2004)Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World (2007, in progress)

    Stage works fictional and fictionalizedFriedmanns Balloon (2002, 2005)Albert and Isadora (2002, 2003)Glory Enough: Rosalind Franklin and DNA (2005)

    Various articles, essays and media appearances

    and I teach science to scientists and nonscientists at Emory

  • What are our goals in conveyingscience at a popular level? We ought to teach some science whether it be concepts, facts, or the process We ought to teach about scientists who they are, what motivates them, what they doWe ought to convey this in a gripping and entertaining way that can inspire interest in science and its issues, and can even inspire scientific careers

  • How can we do this?Through nonfiction and fiction books, of course; but we shouldnt ignore the power of other media too

    [Science fiction] movies are, naturally, weak just where the science fiction novelsare strong - on science. But in place of an intellectual workout, they can supply something the novels can never provide - sensuous elaboration. In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate. Susan Sontag, The Imagination of Disaster Commentary, Oct. 1965 film floods into a viewers system of responses much more engulfingly than a book can. In a film, most of the work of transmutation from words to effect has already been done for the viewer. Stanley Kauffmann, Divining Divinity The New Republic, June 19, 2006

  • But arent movies less reliable and accurate than books?Science fiction films tend to hype science beyond reality, often through spectacular special effects. But even the wildest science fiction films contain nuggets of real science, and involve scientists as characters, though typically as stereotypes. When well done, these films generate awe and amazement, and show the human impact of science.*

    Science fiction films have the power to inspire and to offer entry points into science. There are also scientist biopics and documentaries or semi-documentaries about real science, many of them accurate and thoughtful works.

    * The list of the 100 best American films compiled in 1998 by AFI includes seven science fiction films.

  • Science fiction films can be overwrought Popular science and science fiction books rise or fall on the quality of their ideas. For fiction, plot and characters matter too, though characterization is often a weak point of science fiction.

    Science fiction films depend heavily on spectacle and special effects, often to the detriment of other qualities. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

  • The Day After Tomorrow (2004)Climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) risks his life in Antarctica, to get data that confirm the coming of a new Ice Age due to global warming. He fights a government hostile to his findings, and his warnings save many lives. Then he treks 200 miles on foot through Antarctic-like conditions to rescue his son.

  • There is lots of raw materialA search under science fiction on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) yields over 1,400 films since 1902, and searches using key words science and scientist give over 500 films since 1920.

    and it has enormous impact

    Nine of the top 20 all time highest grossing films are science fiction, which means millions upon millions of people have seen these movies

  • PHYS 380R/FILM 373 Science in Film

    Course IntroductionLe Voyage dans la Lune, Destination Moon

    When Worlds Collide Planet-Killers and Rogue Stars When Worlds Collide, Night of the Comet, Armageddon, Deep Impact

    Worlds Gone Mad (Un)Natural Disasters and Environmental CrisesSoylent Green, Volcano, Waterworld, Day After Tomorrow, An Inconvenient Truth

    The Third Horseman Plagues, Pandemics and Viral CatastrophesPanic in the Streets, The Omega Man, The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak

  • PHYS 380R/FILM 373 Science in Film

    Alien Encounters The Invader Complex and The Messiah ComplexThe Thing From Another World, War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), E. T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Day the Earth Stood Still

    The Movie Scientist Knights and Madmen in White CoatsMetropolis, Frankenstein, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Strangelove, The Boys from Brazil, Contact, The Day After Tomorrow

    Smashing Atoms A-Bomb Nightmares: Cinema for the Atomic AgeGodzilla, War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), On the Beach (1959, 2000), The Day after Trinity, Sum of All Fears, The China Syndrome, Chain Reaction, Fat Man and Little Boy

  • PHYS 380R/FILM 373 Science in Film

    Send in the Clones Cinema for the Genomic AgeJurassic Park, The Sixth Day, Boys From Brazil, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Gattaca

    Of Men and Machines A. I. and Synthetic Souls: Robots and Cyborgs A.I., Electric Dreams, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus, Forbidden Planet, Westworld, RoboCop, I, Robot, Terminator

    Reel Science the Scientist BiopicMadame Curie, Gorillas in the Mist, Infinity, A Beautiful Mind, Kinsey

  • Cloning and genetic manipulation Films

    The Boys from Brazil (1978) Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979)Jurassic Park & sequels (1993 - 2001)Gattaca (1997)The 6th Day (2000)Code 46 (2003)The Island (2005)


    Brave New World, A. Huxley (1932)The Boys from Brazil, I. Levin (1976)Jurassic Park, M. Crichton (1990)More Than Human: the Promise of Biological Enhancement, R. Naam (2005)After Dolly: Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, I. Wilmut, R. Highfield (2006)

  • Robots, computers, A. I., and cyborgs Films

    Metropolis (1927) The Terminator & sequels (1984 - 2003)2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Robocop & sequel (1987, 1990)Colossus (1970) The Matrix & sequels (1999, 2003)Star Wars & sequels (1977 - 2005) A. I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)Star Trek & sequels (1979 - 2002) I, Robot (2004)Blade Runner (1982) Stealth (2005)

    Books Metropolis, T. von Harbou (1927)The Sentinel, A. C. Clarke (1948, 1968)I, Robot, I. Asimov (1950)Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, P. K. Dick (1968)Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, B. Aldiss (1969)The Age of Spiritual Machines, R. Kurzweil (2000)Flesh and Machines, R. Brooks (2003) Digital People, S. Perkowitz (2004)

  • The nuclear age and its creators FilmsThe Beginning or the End (1947) Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)On The Beach (1959) Infinity (1996)Dr. Strangelove (1964) Chain Reaction (1996)The China Syndrome (1979) The Saint (1997)The Day After Trinity (1981) The Sum of All Fears (2002) Silkwood (1983)


    On The Beach, N. Shute (1957)Red Alert, P. George (1958)Brighter than a Thousand Suns, R. Jungk (1970)The Making of the Atomic Bomb, R. Rhodes (1986)Chernobyl Record, R. F. Mould (2000)American Prometheus, K. Bird, M. Sherwin (2005)

  • Scientists in science fiction films tend to be stereotypes

  • Some movie scientists aremad, obsessive, or clinically insane

    some scientists are evil

  • some are heroic or nobleand some scientists are nerds

  • Two realistic fictional film scientistsRadio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway(Jodie Foster), Contact (1997)Mathematician Prof. Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgrd), Good Will Hunting (1997)

  • Maybe scientists as characters are better left to books, as in Lab lit As defined by scientist-editor-writer Jennifer Rohn (, lab lit depicts scientists as central characterstypically taking place in a realistic as opposed to speculative or future worldthis genre features realistic scientists in the real world whose research underpins the plot.

    Lab lit lite (peripheral): Prodigal Summer (B. Kingsolver) The Speed of Dark (E. Moon) Quite A Year for Plums (B. White) Crow Lake (M. Lawson)

    These contain a scientist protagonist but the novel is not about his/her research; insights into science can be gained, but only en passant

  • Lab lit II30 50 pure lab lit novels: Cantors Dilemma (C. Djerassi) Mendels Dwarf (S. Mawer) Intuition (A. Goodman) Long For This World (M. Byers)

    In these novels, while human interest vitalizes the narrative, the scientist practices science. The reader is effortlessly drawn into a hidden world viewed from a scientists eyes. Such a perspective is extremely valuable; sympathy can breed understanding, trust and attraction.

  • Some winners and losersamong science-based filmsTen best

    Metropolis (1927) The Thing from Another World (1951)The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953)On the Beach (1959) Blade Runner (1982) Jurassic Park (1993)Gattaca (1997) Contact (1997) A Beautiful Mind (2001) The Day after Tomorrow (2004)

    Two worst