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Hollywood Science

Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World

Sidney Perkowitz
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood Science
    Book Description:

    Whether depicting humans battling aliens or a brave geologist saving lives as a volcano erupts, science-fiction films are an exciting visual and sensuous introduction to the workings of science and technology. These films explore a range of complex topics in vivid and accessible ways, from space travel and laser technology to genetic engineering, global warming, and the consequences of nuclear weaponry. Though actual scientific lab work might not be as exciting, science fiction is an engaging yet powerful way for a wide audience to explore some of the most pressing issues and ideas of our time.

    In this book, a scientist and dedicated film enthusiast discusses the portrayal of science in more than one hundred films, including science fiction, scientific biographies, and documentaries. Beginning with early films like Voyage to the Moon and Metropolis and concluding with more recent offerings like The Matrix, War of the Worlds, A Beautiful Mind, and An Inconvenient Truth, Sidney Perkowitz questions how much faith we can put into Hollywood's depiction of scientists and their work; how accurately these films capture scientific fact and theory; whether cataclysms like our collision with a comet can actually happen; and to what extent these films influence public opinion about science and the future.

    Movies, especially science-fiction films, temporarily remove viewers from the world as they know it and show them the world as it might be, providing special perspective on human nature and society. Yet "Hollywood science" can be erroneous, distorting fact for dramatic effect and stereotyping scientists as remote and nerdy, evil, or noble, doing little to improve the relationship between science and society. Bringing together history, scientific theory, and humorous observation, Hollywood Science features dozens of film stills and a list of the all-time best and worst science-fiction movies. Just as this genre appeals to all types of viewers, this book will resonate with anyone who has been inspired by science-fiction films and would like to learn how fantasy compares to fact.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51239-8
    Subjects: Film Studies, General Science, Technology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface: A Personal Note
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Sidney Perkowitz

    • Chapter 1 Looking for Science in the Movies? Check Out Science Fiction Films First
      (pp. 3-16)

      Think back to the last science fiction movie you saw. Was it Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, where humans, aliens, and droids battle one another with sizzling laser weapons or humming light sabers? Maybe it was War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise, where literally bloodthirsty aliens scoop up people into huge war machines yet eventually give in to natural forces. Or was it The Island, where an evil scientist clones wealthy people to provide them with living stockpiles of spare body parts?

      Maybe it was a slightly older movie you rented from Netflix, like the 1997...


    • Chapter 2 Alien Encounters
      (pp. 19-48)

      Probably since humans first saw the stars in the night sky, we have wondered about the universe: What’s out there? How and when did it begin? How big is it? Will it end, and when? What’s our place and purpose in it, if any? And knowing that we live in a huge cosmos with cold, empty spaces between the stars, always there is one last question: Are we alone?

      That big question is answered with an equally big “No!” in the many films that employ a classic science fiction theme: human meets alien. Since we have no idea if any...

    • Chapter 3 Devastating Collisions
      (pp. 49-66)

      If you were a regular viewer of science fiction films anytime from the 1950s to the 1990s, you might have felt vulnerable just standing on the Earth’s surface. According to films like Meteor and Deep Impact, you could expect some immense piece of space debris, the size of Mt. Everest or bigger, to come smashing into our planet every so often. It would raise havoc, causing earthquakes and tsunamis, wiping out cities, and threatening to destroy all earthly life. Also according to these films, although you wouldn’t be safe anywhere, big cities were the worst place to be. Against all...

    • Chapter 4 Our Violent Planet
      (pp. 67-90)

      A collision with a giant asteroid or comet might be the worst thing that could happen to us and the other living things on our planet, but that isn’t expected to occur very often. Although such a collision probably erased the dinosaurs, we have no evidence that space debris has ever wiped out large numbers of people: one unlucky individual, in 1954, and perhaps a few others who happened to be in the wrong place have ever been hit.

      In contrast, our own world generates and supports varied disasters that have killed millions over the centuries and have nothing to...


    • Chapter 5 Atoms Unleashed
      (pp. 93-115)

      Wrenching climatic change, collision with an asteroid, a meeting with aliens—any of these events could change the world. But apart from such possibilities, we’ve already changed our world through the discovery of nuclear fission, the splitting of the atom. This huge achievement, a major scientific breakthrough of the twentieth century, enlarged our understanding of the universe and affected how we live. It supported a military technology of mass destruction that altered the course of World War II, dominated Cold War politics for decades, and raised deep ethical questions. Now, with the Cold War over, there’s still great concern about...

    • Chapter 6 Genes and Germs Gone Bad
      (pp. 116-141)

      In the 1940s and 1950s, physics was riding high. Its military contributions during World War II, such as the atomic bomb and radar, helped the United States and its allies defeat the Axis powers. When peace came, physics and the technology it supported entered people’s lives. Today, this legacy is woven deeply into the fabric of society: every NASA mission, every nuclear power plant, every iPod, cellular telephone, and big screen TV owes its existence to physics and its applications. From space travel to the glossy electronic instruments seen on-screen in science laboratories, the same legacy is apparent in the...

    • Chapter 7 The Computers Take Over
      (pp. 142-164)

      Starting in the 1920s, if you had viewed too many science fiction films, you might be forgiven for nightmares in which you were surrounded by mechanical creatures that could do anything a human could—walk, talk, think, fight—only better, and often with evil intent. Or if not walking, talking robots, then you might be terrified by massive machine brains that could outthink humans or could suck humanity into an imaginary virtual world; or by hybrid beings, loathsome combinations of warm-blooded human, cold mechanical device, and inscrutable electronic chip.

      The creation of various forms of artificial or hybrid life and...


    • Chapter 8 Scientists as Heroes, Nerds, and Villains
      (pp. 167-195)

      “Find me a scientist!” roars Mike Roark, head of the Los Angeles Office of Emergency Management in Volcano, when he discovers mysterious doings beneath the streets of L.A. Apparently any scientist will do. Luckily, he gets knowledgeable, fearless, and feisty geologist Dr. Amy Barnes, the right kind of scientist and the right kind of person to help save the day when lava starts spewing onto Wilshire Boulevard.

      As Roark realizes, you need movie scientists to do movie science. Often that means physical or biological scientists. Apparently geologists, physicists, and disease experts offer cinematic action or knowledge that can save the...

    • Chapter 9 Solid Science and Quantum Loopiness: Golden Eagles and Golden Turkeys
      (pp. 196-212)

      When the Oscars are handed out every year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as millions of people watch, there are no special awards for “best portrayal of a scientist” or “best explanation of quantum theory.” Still, a few films that have some relation to science have enjoyed serious recognition. In 1998, Good Will Hunting was nominated for several awards, including best picture, and took an Oscar for best original screenplay, with another Oscar for Robin Williams as best supporting actor. A Beautiful Mind won four major Academy Awards in 2002: best picture, best director (Ron Howard),...

    • Chapter 10 Hollywood Science vs. Real Science
      (pp. 213-226)

      Watch The Core, or go to the Web site “Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics,” and you might conclude that Hollywood science is inevitably garbled or mangled, that films promote only bad science and scientific misinformation. For sure, there’s no lack of scientific errors in the movies, as “Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics” gleefully points out and as I’ve noted often enough in this book. Fortunately, as a counterbalance, there are serious science documentaries, like those shown in the highly regarded, award-winning Nova series seen on PBS. Besides, some science fiction films present science pretty well, and even those that don’t can still...

  8. Afterword: Finding Real Science in the Movies and Beyond
    (pp. 227-228)

    As I argue in this book’s last chapter, society and the movie industry could benefit by better presentations of science on screen, but how can this be achieved? What clues can tip off a movie viewer to good science-based films? And how can the coverage of science in a film be extended for those who want to learn more?

    If the film comes from a book or original screenplay whose author is knowledgeable about science, that can permeate the movie. Carl Sagan’s background as a working astronomer illuminates Contact, which Sagan helped write, based on his book of the same...

  9. Appendix: Alongside Hollywood Science, There’s Popcorn Science
    (pp. 229-230)
  10. Further Reading and Viewing
    (pp. 231-238)
  11. Filmography
    (pp. 239-242)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 243-244)
    Sidney Perkowitz
  13. Index
    (pp. 245-255)