Another Reason Scientists Don't Always Make Great Storytellers

By Sean Carroll | August 15, 2009 2:01 pm

The world is not magic. At least, that is, the actual real world around us. That’s the great insight we’ve achieved over the course of centuries of scientific investigation into the universe. It all follows rules; everything has an explanation (which is not the same as everything having a reason).

So I was struck by this blog post by screenwriter John August. He talks about the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s weatherman character is stuck in a time loop of unspecified duration. For a film that seemed fairly inconsequential at the time, it’s really a great starting point for all sorts of conversations — I use it in my book to talk a bit about time-travel paradoxes. (Did I mention I’m writing a book?)

But August uses it to illustrate the cinematic usefulness of unexplained magic. Even in a fictional universe, you don’t want it to be completely magical — there need to be rules, otherwise it’s impossible to have a coherent drama in which the characters struggle to achieve some goal. In Groundhog Day, the goal is to win the love of Andie MacDowell, although different stories make different choices.

But the central conceit of the movie — Bill Murray is stuck in an endless loop, trying to get out — remains completely unexplained. In an early version of the script, apparently, there was some talk of a voodoo spell that set the time loop in motion. Removing that bit of explanation was an incredibly smart decision. If it had been included, the focus on the story of the protagonist’s journey would necessarily have been diluted by the attention paid to the voodoo spell. The movie worked much better with that little bit of magic remaining unexplained.

You can just imagine if Murray’s character had been a physicist instead of a TV personality. Forget about winning someone’s love; the guy would have spent millions of years trying to figure out the mechanism behind his travel in a time loop. It’s great when scientists talk to Hollywood, but thank goodness they haven’t taken over.

  • JRQ

    Or consider the irreparable damage done to the Star Wars franchise in Episode I by explaining The Force with “midicholorians”.

    Star Wars is great as futuristic fantasy. As science fiction, it’s silly and embarrassing.

  • Walter Sear

    Or not.

    I abohore holliwood trying to replace science with magic, just because they are to ignorant/lazy/disengenous/trite to bother to as someone for a plausible and still engaging plot device.

  • per

    It might just be so that there are things you think you know which you, in fact, do not know. Drawing yourself into a box like this might hinder the discovery coming from a totally unexpected direction. I am not advocating magic or anything the like, but there is a tendency to intellectual arrogance here which I think hinders scientific progress.

    Best P

  • Jason A.


    Nothing you said has anything to do with magic. ‘New physical laws’ aren’t magic – they’re new physical laws. Undiscovered things aren’t magic, they’re undiscovered things. Taking the position that ‘we don’t know everything, therefore we must not rule out anything’ is dumb. See: Russel’s Teapot.

    edit: okay, he edited a lot out of his comment, just so it doesn’t look like I’m coming out of the blue here.
    Bottom Line: Drawing the most likely conclusion based on mountains of evidence is not ‘intellectual arrogance’.

  • per

    Youre a quick commenter Jason 😉

    Well, since I did edit the comment I only say this; It is very tempting to say – now we know. Everyone wants the feeling – yes, finally, now we got it. However, history repeats itself on this point – progress are usually to be found when people least expected it. That was the core point of my argument.

  • The Science Pundit

    Another movie that leaves the central conceit unexplained (and is a much better movie that it would have been otherwise) is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It isn’t always necessary to explain how things came to be for a movie to be entertaining. In fact, sometimes it helps when they’re left unexplained.

  • Jacob Wintersmith

    That wouldn’t make a very good movie, but it might make a fantastic video game. Imagine a game where the big obstacle to accomplishing your goals is your initial ignorance of how the imaginary world works.

    One way to present this would be to basically toss the player through a portal into an alien world.

    Another way would be to set it in a world very similar to our own but introduce some novel and mysterious “magic” force (like Jason, I philosophically reject the whole natural / supernatural division) which the player must investigate and master. I like the idea of setting it in the Victorian era, since it lets you draw from the Steampunk tradition aesthetically, and the assumed background physics is Newtonian. (Thus neither the developer nor the player should feel any need to say, investigate the intersection of this new magic force with quantum mechanics. I don’t think that would work even in a video game.)

  • Romeo Vitelli

    If there has to be an explanation, I’d rather it focus on some magical mumbo-jumbo concept than subject the audience to nonsensical scientific explanations. You know the movies I’m talking about.

  • Kevin Schnitzius

    Just because you can explain a gorgeous sunset or the feeling you have when you fall in love doesn’t make it any less magical. How can you possibly claim that QM is *not* magic, even if you know the rules? I think you mean “paranormal” or “supernatural”…

  • Blake Stacey

    I dunno. Bill Murray’s character certainly has plenty of time to do both! (-:

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  • Schenk Von Graf Hoffmann

    To Per no 3 do you realize just how many people truly believe they know everything or and it goes hand in hand about the – Do live in a box that they drew for themselves and do not want to get out or refuse to hear that they should because the self deluded are deaf to the masses who they beleive are asses so who cares and whats the point right ?
    The point is that there would be so many more open minds out there if it were not for the proverbial bubble of ignorance ,And meanwhile the time loop paradox carries on yet i have one question about the hypothetical and that is that the physicist that takes millions of years to figure out how he got stuck there in the first place must be quite daft at his profession and by that time do you really want to know ?
    And PARA ,SUPER or Magickal truly is within the eye of the beholder and their inspirational explanation of their experiences is the magick that inspires us to feel it enough to envision and behold what is that can be .

  • http://discovermagazine Iain Park

    Actually, we all want to believe in magic, just a little bit. We have all those silly little things we do or say like,find a penny pick it up …, knock on wood, cross your fingers, Friday the 13th, etc., etc., etc..
    So whats wrong with Hollywood giving us some magic to entertain us? There is no scientific explanation for Harry Potter, He Man, light sabers, zombies,vampires or George Bush.

    And there can be no time paradox. If one were able to go back in time and change history, then ones history would already have been different, or what actually happens is one goes back in time and creates the history that happened for another branch of the universe. And when one returns to their own time either nothing happened or they are in the ‘altered’ universe.

  • haig

    I don’t think the scientifically minded among us who have gripes with Hollywood’s portrayal of science in movies have issues with ‘magic’ or the unexplained impossibilities that are regularly used plot devices. At least speaking for myself, I only take issue when they perverse science by either stereotyping scientists (and ‘geeks’ in general) or pretend to offer scientific explanations that are just laughably inaccurate to the informed viewers.

  • Allen

    The world isn’t magic. But there is no explanation for it either. The world is what it is.

    Why do some things happen, but not others? Because that’s just the way it is. You can formulate theoretical edifices that are consistent with what we observe (and don’t observe), but this tells you nothing about what actually exists.

    We don’t have conscious experiences OF reality. Conscious experience is reality.

    Science is the art of constructing (subjectively) plausible narratives that fit what we have experienced in the past. Why do these narratives seem so practically useful? There is no reason, that’s just the way things are.


  • Jonathan Vos Post

    Groundhog Day is wonderful — BECAUSE Bill Murray’s character eventually determines and applies the rules of his world. This issue is what editors such as Stanley Schmidt (Ph.D., Physics, editor of Analog) call “Fantasy with rivets.” These are Fantast stories, but there is a carefully thought through logical consistency of the “rules of magic.” This a rational character (or society) can apply the Scientific Method to understanding how their world works, even though it differs significantly from our world. My own novel and story manuscripts collectively called “Axiomatic Magic” are set at a Caltech elsewhere in the Multiverse, one where Magic and Science both work. At my California Institute of Thaumaturgy, one studies the work of Newton: his Physics and his Alchemy, and Kepler — his planetary motions and his Astrology. My central character is an alternative Richard Feynman, who does indeed use a scientific method to deducing the laws of magic, and how they lead to catching the killer of a top Group Theory professor on campus. Because there is a Group structure to magical spells…

    Roger Callois has explained [“Au couer du fantastique” (1965); “Images, images” (1966)]:
    “The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissable within the changeless everyday legality.” To Callois, the presence of a unicorn in a garden, or something else strange into the familiar world, causes “the impression of irreducible strangeness.”

  • Jonathan Vos Post

    Jeffrey Redmond commented, when I pointed to this thread on Facebook:

    Stuck….. until he learns how to properly behave with kindness and consideration to others. It takes him day after day to finally realize that life is not just about him. It’s about others we see and interact with, too.

    They really do have that groundhog festival each winter in Pennsylvania. They keep a pet one named Phil at a cozy warm little window booth in the town library. He hybernates for the winters, but they keep waking him up to pull him out into the cold daylight.

    There and then he blinks and shivers, while putting up with the band music and crowd cheering. And he may even wonder all about Cosmic Variance – until they put him back so he can finish his nice long sleep.

  • daisyrose

    If there is one thing that modern Science has proved beyond a doubt , it is that everything that we used to consider material and solid is ghostly and that we are ghosts our selves – Utterly incomprehensible !

    The world finds pleasure in the supernatural because there it can find some shadow of a truth and no amount of disbelief will ever diminish that pleasure.

  • Pope Maledict XVI

    I’m a bit shocked that you thought “Groundhog Day” inconsequential. I immediately thought that it was one of the truly great movies, and a lot of serious movie people agree with me.

  • Ian

    “The world is not magic. At least, that is, the actual real world around us. That’s the great insight we’ve achieved over the course of centuries of scientific investigation into the universe. It all follows rules; everything has an explanation (which is not the same as everything having a reason).”

    Ahem, whilst many might agree with the notion of a God and the teachings of the Catholic Church, it the Scholastics and Wis 11:21 that is credited with removing the magic from the world … therefore making sciene possible.

  • Sarah

    It does seem science fiction writers have a hard time writing comedy and ( especially ) romance. The mechanism gets in the way. Another time-travel story that gets it right was Richard Matheson’s “Somewhere in Time”, which is essentially another love story across time lines. (I can’t speak to the 1980 movie, never saw it. ) The time travel was unexplained, but interestingly based on totally convincing oneself that the time had shifted. Props, costumes, mental effort and voila. Yes, I know, a little solipistic, but it worked.

  • Woody Tanaka

    “It does seem science fiction writers have a hard time writing comedy and ( especially ) romance.”

    Yes, because science fiction is fundamentally writing is about ideas, not people. Most other fiction is about people, with the ideas being absolutely secondary. Understand this, and you’ll understand why Hollywood films (and most all other forms of fiction) don’t care all that much if the science or history or whatever is factually wrong, so long as the point of the interpersonal relationships is essentially correct.

    Art is telling the truth by lying correctly.

  • amphiox

    I wouldn’t call an unexplained plot device ‘magic’ per se, merely unexplained. In the Groundhog Day example, if they had included the scene with the voodoo, then that would have been magic.

    Leaving a mystery unexplained doesn’t automatically default to unexplainable.

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  • Brian

    Let’s not forget the point of view of the protagonist. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is not a scientist and neither are any of the other major (or indeed minor) characters. Introducing “SCIENCE” into such a plot would clearly be out of character and irrelevant to the plot structure.

    Like it or not, all sci-fi stories are predicated upon a good story. If scientific fidelity must be sacrificed then so be it. Truthfulness to science as the scientific community must be reserved for documentaries and the like. Clearly some movies are compatible with sound science and may even benefit from that. However the science is optional. A solid story is mandatory!

  • P

    Sometimes it is very interesting and fun to start of with “axioms” that seem to counter regular experience and see where they lead to.

  • Jerry Coyne

    Umm. . . .err. . . .who ever claimed that all scientists were great storytellers? Geez, even most STORYTELLERS aren’t great storytellers! Don’t the the implicit criticism of scientists here; look at Back to the Future, in which a “scientist” was involved in the story, and it was great.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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