Physics goes to Hollywood
Apr 23, 2004
What do films like Independence Day, Armageddon and X-Men have in common? The answer is that apart from costing millions of dollars to make, they all feature in a new course called Physics in Films that is being taught to students at the University of Central Florida. Costas Efthimiou, the mathematical physicist who teaches the course, believes that non-science students learn more about the fundamentals of physics by studying films and science fiction than they do from more traditional approaches (arXiv.org/abs/physics/0404078).
Efthimiou points to recent surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation in the US which show that 50% of Americans do not know, for instance, that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the Sun, or that electrons are smaller than atoms. Even more worrying for Efthimiou is the fact that many non-science students – who need to take a core physics course as part of their degree – say that they find physics too difficult or plain boring.
“All this affected me deeply and I decided to do something,” Efthimiou told PhysicsWeb. “So I came up with the idea of using cinema as a learning tool.” In the course he focuses on fundamental principles using scenes from popular films. For example, he discusses the law of gravitation as used – or misused -- in Independence Day, the conservation of momentum in Tango and Cash, and speed and acceleration in Speed 2. Science fiction films might be notorious for breaking the laws of physics, but Efthimiou believes that it is a good exercise for the students to discover this for themselves.
After running the course three times Efthimiou has found that the attitude of the students has changed and that they are more enthusiastic and interested in physics than before. Moreover, examination results have improved, and more and more students are enrolling on the course. Indeed, he is writing a textbook about his approach along with his head of department, Ralph Llewellyn, who also teaches the course.
Other institutions running similar courses include the University of Glamorgan in the UK, which runs a degree course in Science and Science Fiction, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, which offers a course that teaches physics through the exploits of comic-book superheroes such as Spiderman.
About the author
Belle Dumé is Science Writer at PhysicsWeb