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Art and science

Getting the film physics right

27 Feb 2020
Taken from the February 2020 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Creative licence, good storytelling and accurate physics are often at odds, when it comes to Hollywood films In this article (originally published in Lateral Thoughts, Physics World’s regular column of humorous and offbeat essays, puzzles, crosswords, quizzes and comics, which appears on the back page of the print edition) Sidney Perkowitz explores the indie filmmakers getting it all right

Hidden Figures
Top thinkers: a still from the 2016 Oscar-nominated hit film Hidden Figures (Courtesy: Hopper Stone/​Levantine/​Kobal/​Shutterstock)

Whenever bad science appears on screen, a physicist is likely to declare “that’s wrong!”, making it hard to just sit back and enjoy the action along with your popcorn. As a physicist who writes about science on screen, I myself have pointed out Hollywood’s errors in physics and other sciences. But now, having reviewed some 150 science-based films, I’ve learned that the usual rationale for distorting the science is to maintain the flow of the story, which does not automatically make these films scientific disasters. They can still provide vivid teaching moments, publicize real science–society issues, and point young people toward science. Ideally though, the science should receive its proper weight too.

Fortunately, despite Hollywood’s tendency to put “story” over “science”, there are a number of independent filmmakers who make science an integral part of their stories. Without the publicity and distribution machinery that brings Hollywood features to many millions around the world, however, such independent films typically reach far smaller audiences. But in compensation there are lots of these films, supported by organizations that value their fresh approaches – and some indie efforts become films that are indeed seen by millions.

Physics is well represented among these independent films. With roots in a film festival held by scientist-filmmaker Alexis Gambis in 2006 at The Rockefeller University, his New York-based Imagine Science Films (ISF) is a successful non-profit devoted to merging science and film. ISF sponsors varied festivals that show independent science-based films around the world, and encourages scientist-filmmaker collaborations. In 2016, Gambis began Labocine, an online digital platform with 3000 science-based fiction, documentary and animated films, accompanied by curated comments.

Many of the films at Labocine.com convey what physics is really like. For example, The Researcher’s Article (2014) entertainingly shows the process of publishing a physics paper, and how important this is to its authors. Conservation (2008) dramatizes what happens when credit for a physics breakthrough is stolen. In Strange Particles (2018), a young theoretical physicist, frustrated by his lack of research progress and inability to inspire students, faces a hard question: is there any point in being a scientist if you’re not brilliantly talented?

Some films express physics ideas. Stuck in the Past (2016) shows how the finite speed of light brings us cosmic history, as an astrophysics student looks down the length of Manhattan and imagines historic moments carried by light that has been travelling since New York City was founded. Touching on general relativity, in Einstein–Rosen (2017) two brothers with a soccer ball show that a wormhole allows travel in time as well as space. In (a)symmetry (2015), quantum theorist David Bohm talks about the deep meaning of quantum physics; and in Bien Heureux (All is Well, 2016), a young physicist has no luck in explaining quantum entanglement to a friend, but educates us, the viewers.

The Alfred P Sloan Foundation also supports independent science films. Doron Weber, who directs Sloan’s programme in Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics, sees film as one way to bring science to people. As he describes it, film, together with books, theatre and other media, “support and reinforce each other to showcase stories about science and scientists”. The programme has provided more than 600 screenwriting and production grants to develop science films, and presents awards to outstanding science films. Weber also works with the Sundance Film Institute and other film schools to “influence a generation of aspiring filmmakers to integrate science and technology” into their work by exposing them to science. He finds that most of the 263 Sloan film school awardees continue to work in entertainment media and include science and tech in their creative efforts.

Many of the Sloan-supported films can be viewed online at scienceandfilm.org. Since 2000, about 140 of these have covered physics, astronomy and space science, and mathematics. They include documentaries such as Particle Fever (2013), about the first experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and Chasing the Moon (2019), covering the early days of the Space Age. Biographical films include Dear Miss Leavitt (2018), about the pioneering astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, and Adventures of a Mathematician (2019), the story of Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and his contributions to designing the hydrogen bomb and to early computation. Some films with roots in Sloan support have reached millions through wide theatrical release, such as the Oscar-nominated hit Hidden Figures (2016), which started as a Sloan book grant.

These films have another special value: view one, and you just might learn something new about your science and yourself

Asked about the importance of supporting independent films outside the Hollywood mainstream, Gambis and Weber give remarkably similar answers. Gambis notes the varied scientific fields that Labocine films cover and their cultural diversity. For instance, the nine films I described represent five different countries and include four women among their writers and directors. Weber also cites the range of subject matter and genres, and the varied ethnicities and nationalities and high proportion of women among Sloan filmmakers.

For us as physicists, these films have another special value: view one, and you just might learn something new about your science and yourself.

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