The "Science" of Angels & Demons

By Chris Mooney | May 21, 2009 11:02 am

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.

Comments (8)

  1. Mike

    Its ironic that the organization that honored Forrest Mims (Discover magazine and associated blogs) has no mention of the recognition being given Eugenie Scott. http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/05/genie-scott-hon.html#comments

  2. We adore Genie! She recently joined us at Innovation2008 and NCSE has been a wonderful supporter of the ScienceDebate initiative. And as I’ve already told her, SciAm’s spot on.

    But back on topic…

  3. As I understand it, matter-antimatter reactions produce a great wallop of gamma rays.

    Wouldn’t how “explosive” this is depend on the opacity to gamma rays of the materials present?

    I’d guess that there’d still be an explosion, but kind of a spread out mushy one, with a hella lot of ionizing radiation in a wide area.

  4. giotto

    This is the first article I’ve seen addressing the film’s offenses against science; this after a number of weeks of hand-wringing in the media over the film’s offenses against the Catholic church. While this is, to some extent, surely a reflection of the fact that “science” is not an institution (and certainly not an institution, like the Church, with attack dogs on long leases), I fear this also might reflect the desires of the consumers of media. I guess we’ve had decades of training in suspending disbelief when it comes to science in movies–we have science fiction to thank for that–and I suspect that is for the better. We don’t want science to become suffused with piety, after all. But we are into the third century after the Enlightenment; how is the church still able to plaster its messages, at will, across our consciousness?

  5. MadScientist

    @giotto: Ah, the catholic church and Dan Brown – it reminds me of the muslims and those awful caricatures in that Danish newspaper – except that the church doesn’t demand that its followers kill Mr. Brown. History suggests that there is a limitless ongoing supply of gulls, but it seems that as education improves, church income drops. Now we just need to improve education and maybe the superstitious mob would become a minority at some future date.

  6. Heh. I had some objections to the science when I read the book a few years ago. But, to be honest, I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to this film. (I mean, given the choice, I’d go see Star Trek again– it was awesome, although it does have some serious scientific boners in it.)

    I did, however, hear an article on NPR about the historical inaccuracy of the book and movie– specifically about the Illuminati, which were nothing like what they are portrayed as in this story….

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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