Scientists in the movies

By Phil Plait | March 26, 2009 1:15 pm
Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen
Scientists are multiplying in movies.

My old bud Dan Vergano wrote a great article in USA Today, um, today, about how scientists are portrayed in the movies. He talked to a lot of people who make movies, and others who do science, and… me. Hey, cool! I’m in an article with Ron Howard!

Also in there is Jennifer Ouellette — blogger, author, TAM 7 speaker, and person in charge of The Science and Entertainment Exchange, and fellow Hive Overmind blogger (and Jennifer’s hubby) Sean Carroll.

The article is entertaining, and does a good job of talking about how scientists are seen in flicks, how that image has changed (imagine the coldly logical scientists from the original version of The Thing from Another World, for example, or Bernard Quatermass from the 1950s/60s British serials, compared to scientists in recent movies who have families and lives), and why producers care more about that now than they used to. I’m glad to hear it. I think movies have a powerful influence on how we see both science and scientists. I’m glad Hollywood understands that and wants to take care of that legacy, too, and I know that with Jennifer at the helm the SEE will help that happen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, TV/Movies

Comments (55)

  1. John

    Looking forward to the day when scientists walk down the red carpet with a beautiful woman on each arm, charming everyone they meet.

    Basically, every scientist should be like Gaius Baltar.

  2. Kevin

    So now scientists are the “invisible menace?” :)

  3. Now if only we could get Hollywood to treat science itself with the same respect, we’d be set. The poor research and bad movie physics I’ve seen is enough to put me off of cinema altogether anymore.

  4. noophy

    If movies influence how I look at scientists, does this mean all scientists have giant blue penises?

  5. I love how the article describes Dr. Manhattan as “a quantum-physics-altering blue man in shorts”. Shorts? What shorts?

    Or, as a friend of mine said after seeing Watchmen in IMAX, “Oh, my God, it was three stories tall!”

  6. Jennifer was talking about the Exchange last night at Cafe Inquiry at the Center For Inquiry-Los Angeles. It was a lot of fun.

  7. Actually, on a marginally more serious note, if you wanted to portray a scientist with a family and/or a life, maybe Dr. Manhattan isn’t your best choice.

  8. T.E.L.

    One day as I strolled through the Indiana Statehouse, I came upon the cathedral-like area under the Rotunda, the intersection of the building’s four wings. Thereat I found several statues placed there in the 19th Century to celebrate elements which were thought to characterize the culture of a free and life-filled people. These themes include such things as agriculture, oratory, justice, art, etc. There was not one labeled “science”, and at first I was a bit put off by it. How could American society at that time not think that science was important enough to count as one of its irreducible elements?

    And then I realized: it doesn’t matter what the naive think of science. What matters is that science is there just the same, even if “The People” aren’t lucidly aware of it. Throughout the last century scientists have been played in popular entertainment with varied degrees of compliment, which often has meant that the scientist is the antagonist, an antisocial agent. But what of it? Once upon a time scientists did great things, and couldn’t have cared less about common misconceptions. Now there’s a subculture who fret over how how they are played in the movies. What’s more important?: to do great things, or to convince the masses through propaganda that they are great? Are scientists now degenerated to the level of any other petty bloc, in the market for territory and converts?

  9. While I admit to loving the old B movies/Mad Scientists (as comedy, whether intentional or not), I recently recorded/burned to DVD an old film with Gene Barry The Atomic City which had NOTHING to do with the Science. It was a Thriller, where Barry’s character’s son is kidnapped to force him to reveal Atomic Secrets. (One good thing was that he turned over data from a failed experiment to delay the kidnappers, giving time for the FBI to try and locate them).
    Of course, I just returned (thank you, NetFlix) Monarch of the Moon, a homage/parody comedy of the old 1930’s-’40’s Serials, complete with the ‘silly science’ that many of those had.

    J/P=?

  10. I wonder how much of a problem there is of student disillusionment. I mean, is there a trend young people who see CSI or a similar show as making “science” glamorous… who later drop their academic program when they realize that forensics or digging for dinosaur fossils requires inordinate amounts of patience?

    Other than glossing over that, the article did a pretty good job of pointing how pop media *can* have positive ramifications for science.

  11. T.E.L.,

    Science depends on government largess for funding, which requires sympathetic politicians in the halls of power, which in turn requires an electorate which cares.

  12. Once upon a time scientists did great things, and couldn’t have cared less about common misconceptions.

    When? It couldn’t have been when Galileo wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, or when Darwin insisted on cheaper editions of The Origin of Species so that working Englishmen could read them, or when Einstein collaborated with Infeld to write The Evolution of Physics.

  13. Mark

    Interesting article. IMHO, the best depiction of a scientist in a film in recent memory is Cilian Murphy’s physicist Capa in Sunshine. Scientists are so often used as side characters to provide exposition, and when they are main characters they’re usually involved in some moral struggle about the ethics of their work. I thought it was incredibly refreshing to see Capa as a scientist whose role in the story was…to do science. Specifically, to advise on the nature of the nuclear bomb they were using to remove the Q-ball.

    I have to say that although I thought there was a lot wrong with the film from an artistic standpoint, and obviously it played a fast and loose with the science, I was thrilled by its overall attitude towards science. The film took the time to slow down in between the action and regard the natural world with a sense of awe, encapsulated by Murphy’s monologue about the nuclear reactions in the bomb, and also the scene in which the entire crew sits in the observation room to watch Mercury transit the sun. The film devotes probably 2 full minutes to just this scene, watching the black dot cross the disk and observing the crewmembers’ individual reactions, turning it into a beautiful meditation on the motions of the universe (in addition to serving the narrative as a study of each of its characters, setting up the action to come).

  14. Chris A.

    @ T.E.L.
    If scientists don’t play an active role in shaping their image, then others will rise to fill the vacuum, and not always in a way that is flattering or even fact-based. A case in point are the creationists who will insist that scientists are all atheists who know that their theories are fatally flawed, but who conspire behind closed doors to lie to the public and falsify data in their evil agenda to deceive the public into rejecting God.

  15. T.E.L.

    Blake,

    Actual science in the US has been enjoying public funding for many decades, including the times when scientists in the movies were almost always played as less than sexy. It’s a fallacy to propose that science in this country hangs precariously on the fickleness of the public at-large. Science has been happening for quite a while, since long before the movies. Science gets funded because it pays off. If it didn’t, some other mode of inquiry would be getting the dollars.

  16. It’s a start. Now, can we get a good actor doing an accurate portrayal of a working scientist in the leading role of a GOOD movie?

    I haven’t seen Knowing yet, but I’m pretty sure that’s not it.

    BTW, WTF does this mean? (From the USAToday article):

    “On the small screen, shows such as CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are undoing the legacy of Star Trek’s pointy-eared Mr. Spock by making scientists look almost cool, says media scholar David Kirby of the United Kingdom’s University of Manchester.”

    Um. Forgive me, but there is no one cooler than Star Trek’s pointy-eared Mr. Spock. Unless they are saying that BBT and CSI are backpedaling scientists from ungodly cool to almost cool.

  17. T.E.L.

    Chris,

    The best thing scientists can do to support science is to do science, and do it well.

  18. flawedprefect

    Wow – Phil, thanks ever so much for the link to the science and entertainment exchange. as a writer/producer (ok, independent film-maker) and lover of sci-fi, I want to do my part by portraying good science in my work. I also think characters who use the scientific method should be shown as heroes more often, rather than side-kicks, oddities, or foils to the hero.

    It’s just far sexier to see the Hero take a chance and cut the red wire, instead of wheeling out a chalk board and do a quadratic equation with only ten seconds to BOOM.

  19. Chris A.

    @T.E.L.

    “It’s a fallacy to propose that science in this country hangs precariously on the fickleness of the public at-large.”

    Really? You don’t think that science funding is dependent at all on the public outcry (or lack thereof) which politicians feel their chances of reelection may hinge upon? What would a politician’s chances of reelection in a staunchly conservative district be if he/she strongly supported Federal funding for stem cell research? What about a politician representing a district with a large GLBT constituency who voted down funding for AIDS research?

    Methinks you don’t live in the real world.

  20. Davidlpf

    Just took a quick look and nope not blue no wonder I am not a scientist.

  21. does this mean all scientists have giant blue penises?

    Yes, including the women.

    It comes with the doctorate, I think.

  22. And yes, all scientists are doctors. Doctors of Science, to be specific.

  23. For some reason, this reminds me of a web comic about “mad scientists.” Click on my name for the link.

    The punchline is:

    “Sad truth: Most “mad scientists” are really just mad engineers.”

  24. I think what is even rarer than a scientist doing good science in the movie world is a team of scientists doing good science. More often than not, the scientist is the lone maverick type (admittedly, an American hero archetype) rather than someone who works with a team of fellow scientists, methodically investigating a problem and then coming up with a solution based on all their observations.

    Solutions which, of course, almost always involve crossing the polarity.

  25. llewelly

    In the comments at the USA today article, some are referencing the NIPCC report, by S. Fred Singer (of tobacco infamy), like this:
    rphull:

    Take a look at the global warming document “Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate” This document, published by the Heartland Institute, clearly shows that human emission of greenhouse gases is not responsible for current warming.

    Link added by me.
    I’d have posted this there, but when I tried to register, I got ‘system unavailable’.

  26. Though I’m not a scientist by trade, I like to think I have the philosophy down pat. Of course, I learned everything I know from Dr. Horrible. *finger-wave*

  27. Dr. Peter Venkman

    Back off, man. I’m a scientist.

  28. “Looking forward to the day when scientists walk down the red carpet with a beautiful woman on each arm, charming everyone they meet.”

    John, don’t forget there should also be glamorous women scientists walking down the red carpet with a Boy Toy on each arm…or a man with a man on each arm or a woman with a woman on each arm…well, you get the picture :)

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I’ve heard about that Exchange, glad to hear it is alive.

    Funny how Ouellette can project that “people in Hollywood think science is cool,” which seems to me what could be the driving force, while Howard, a Hollywood person, can claim that “there is a higher tolerance…”.

    The clincher is of course “… maybe even an interest or a demand, for better science,” Let us hope so! (^_^)/

    if you wanted to portray a scientist with a family and/or a life, maybe Dr. Manhattan isn’t your best choice.

    Or without a kinky sex life. (o.O)

  30. BTW, a movie with really cool scientists doing really cool stuff is the New Zealand film, The Quiet Earth. Of course, they pretty much destroy the world, but hey…

    The final shot in the movie is sublime goodness.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Speaking of having more portrayal of actual trial and error, which Carroll mentions in the article, I just saw a television serial of The Andromeda Strain which had some superficial coverage of that. (And infrastructure falling to pieces, of course.)

    Not as good as the book though. And it isn’t every lab that has an atomic bomb sitting in the basement for sterilization.

    rather than someone who works with a team of fellow scientists, methodically investigating a problem and then coming up with a solution based on all their observations.

    kuhnigget, somehow you got me thinking of House – and not because of the lone maverick in charge. ;-) Close enough?

  32. Everything I know about scientists I learned from “Mystery Science Theater 3000″.

  33. T.E.L.

    Chris A.,

    Me thinks you live in a fantasy world in which there is no end to enemies massed at the gate. Apparently the Bush era lives on.

  34. Daniel J. Andrews

    The Quiet Earth was indeed a good film although the arrogant scientist meme is used, but not by the main character who portrays a sometimes naked cross-dressing scientist instead. :) But there’s good reason for that and it just highlights his humanity all the more.

  35. Manveet

    Movies and television still have a long way to go with respect to how they represent scientists.

    Most movies and television series still portray scientists as either awkward beta losers (e.g. The Big Bang Theory), or as mad scientists bent on destroying the world.

    We still need more role models that make being a scientist cool. Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan

  36. Manveet

    Movies and television still have a long way to go with respect to how they represent scientists.

    Most movies and television series still portray scientists as either awkward beta losers (e.g. The Big Bang Theory), or as mad scientists bent on destroying the world.

    We still need more role models that make being a scientist cool. Unfortunately Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan are no longer with us.

  37. CincyJeff

    Sam Jaffe’s Prof. Jacob Barnhardt, Gene Barry’s Dr. Clayton Forrester, and Rex Reason’s Dr. Cal Meacham seemed like upstanding role models, and two out of three ended up with the girl! Alas, poor Kevin McCarthy, being a mere MD, got dumped by a pod. But hey, on the down low, I always wanted to be Morbius and get my hands on that Krell technology!

  38. Eric

    *checks*
    Alas, no giant blue penis. But, I don’t have a PhD.

  39. Daniel J. Andrews

    O/T: You can sign up to send your name on a microchip to Mars. You still get a nice online certificate and you don’t even need to submit any email address.

    Phil, you usually are pretty quick on having people sign petitions for various things. This is a fun little one.

    http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/participate/sendyourname/

  40. The enemies aren’t massed at the gate.

    They’re on the school board.

  41. CincyJeff Says: “Sam Jaffe’s Prof. Jacob Barnhardt, Gene Barry’s Dr. Clayton Forrester, and Rex Reason’s Dr. Cal Meacham seemed like upstanding role models, and two out of three ended up with the girl!…I always wanted to be Morbius and get my hands on that Krell technology!”

    All of whom are examined in some detail in the yellow book that Phil was giving away last week.

    – Jack

  42. I went to that article knife in hand mumbling “you’d better talk about the best scientist in the movies ever or I’ll pick a plane, go there and rip open a lot of guts”, but not only I found the name… but it was even you, Phil, the one who brough he in! Dr. Strangelove rocks.

    Manveet, I think you are being narrow there: movies and tv have a lot of path to do to treat with respect almost everyone, not just scientist. In that way I think we are matched with everyone else.

    On a sidenote, I’m a mathematician and sometimes I wonder how much of my desire to become this came from Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park). Heavens, he was definetively a cool scientist: dressed in black, staring through the sun-glasses and using chaos theory talkings as a women seduction weapon!

    Thinking twice with the knife still in my hand, I come to think that, anyway, I miss Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth mentioned in that article. So if you see a small angry spaniard with a knife in hand screaming “what about Futuramaaa”, you should better hide.

  43. Robert Carnegie

    Vulcans’ poor people skills (with humans, Bajorans, etc.) make them a poor example and role model. Although Spock got to be a babe magnet in regular rotation. You think Kirk always got the girl (or had done so at a stardate prior to opening this week’s captain’s log) but Spock, McCoy, and Scott had their turns. If she was an android, only the captain’s advanced skills would do, usually.

    The image of scientists matters enough for a prototype space shuttle to be named Enterprise… And prior to that, there is a MAD magazine feature fancifully showing how after being frightened by Sputnik a message was to be presented in all U.S. popular media (can they do that?) that science is cool.

    The senior MST3K scientist is widowed, possibly in a laboratory accident, or else marooned in space and his wife cashed in the insurance years ago. He has a beautiful daughter for the bold young hero to charm and for the audience to look at with various motivations, but if her mother was around to advise her then the bold young hero would get a lot more of the cold shoulder, so she isn’t and he doesn’t. So it’s just whether the monster gets her or he does.

  44. Nigel Depledge

    T.E.L. said:

    . . . Science has been happening for quite a while, since long before the movies. . .

    This is irrelevant, because the amount of government funding going into science before the cold war was insignificant (not counting the Manhatten Project, which was really a science / engineering collaboration with the goal of making the biggest ever bomb).

    IIUC, all of the science that was done before the 20th century was privately funded.

  45. Nigel Depledge

    Naked Bunny with a Whip said:

    And yes, all scientists are doctors. Doctors of Science, to be specific.

    Well, I don’t know about elsewhere but that’s not so in the UK.

    I have a PhD so I am Doctor of Philosophy (remember that before the word “science” existed, the investigation of the natural world was called Natural Philosophy).

    There does exist the DSc, Doctor of Science, but it is only ever awarded as a high honour for a significant amount of achievement in science. It is not a degree for which you can specifically study. At my doctoral graduation, there were perhaps 10 or 12 PhDs awarded, but just one DSc, and it was a hugely big deal.

  46. CincyJeff

    Jack,
    Sorry I missed out on Phil’s yellow book give away! I’m
    sure I would have enjoyed it, but my daughter had surgery
    last week and I stayed with her.

  47. Joe Meils

    Science fiction movies and TV (and in some cases books)have a long way to go in depicting reality correctly… It’s not just scientists who get their image skewed by the media. Honestly, when was the last time you tuned into Star Trek, and noticed anyone “popping” their ears from the difference in pressure between the ship and the planet’s atmosphere? When was the last time you saw a movie about Mars, where people stayed in their spacesuits?

    One of the more accepted definitions of science fiction is that you are allowed ONE major change in what we know to be true… (say, FTL drives) and then you try to build everything else up logically from there. Current storytelling fashion seems to have drifted from that, and people are getting a distorted view about what’s possible, and what the universe is really like.

  48. @Naked Bunny with a Whip,

    does this mean all scientists have giant blue penises?

    Yes, including the women.

    It comes with the doctorate, I think.

    It turns blue when you get your PhD? Boy, am I glad I stopped at Bachelor’s! ;-)

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »