Dan Vergano of USA Today–one of our top still-institutionalized science writers–has a fun piece today about scientific reaction to Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons, the film version of the novel by literary titan Dan Brown, in which an antimatter bomb stolen from Europe’s CERN threatens destroy the Vatican. It’s science fiction of course, but what’s interesting is how “realistic” the filmmakers tried to make their very unreal plot–down to the use of a CERN scientist as an adviser and the careful design of a “magnetic thermos bottle” to contain the antimatter bomb:
“Audiences are getting smarter by the minute, so I think it’s just playing fair,” Howard says. “I would like someone to see this and say, yes, it’s science fiction, but it’s smart science fiction.”
I am then quoted in the article providing the counterpoint to this perspective….
In my conversation with Vergano, I tried to make two points, both of which are elaborated on in Unscientific America, which discusses science in Hollywood in some detail. The first point: There is a big difference between “realism” and “verisimilitude”–in other words, between depicting reality and making the fantastical seem believable. The latter is what we have going on in Angels and Demons. The latter is what Hollywood is generally interested in.
Second, I also wanted to emphasize that getting the facts right, or being realistic in the first sense, isn’t really the most important thing when it comes to the treatment of science in Hollywood. I, for one, am much more concerned about whether or not films contain negative, anti-scientist stereotypes.
Anyway, I thought it all came through pretty well in Vergano’s piece:
“There’s a tension between realism and a science adviser making crazy things look real,” asks Chris Mooney, co-author (with scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum) of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, scheduled for July publication. “You can take a crazy premise and make it seem to a person watching in the theater, ‘Wow, this is really real.'”
Mooney, whose The Intersection blog (blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection) tackles questions of how society views science, worries that entertainers are co-opting scientists to sell movie tickets while misinforming the public about how the universe really works. “What is the meaning of ‘accuracy’ in the context of so fantastical a story?” he asks.
Still, Mooney says, what’s most important is how the portrayal of scientists, as good or evil, will shape how the film affects views of CERN and physics. Noting that Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who plays the scientist sidekick in the film, is perhaps better looking than the typical physicist, he adds, “Could be worse. On a list of science stinkers, this doesn’t sound like the highest one out there.”
You can read Vergano’s full piece here. Check it out–and then go see the movie. For getting a real science adviser, even with so fantastical a plot, Ron Howard deserves your ten bucks.