I Want My Sci-TV

Talk to any scientist for long, and you’ll discover that they first fell in love with science through movies, books, or TV.

Scientists are not the only ones who love science in their entertainment. Among the top grossing movies of all time are the "Star Wars" films, "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," and "Jurassic Park." Science fiction novels have legions of fans, and science is the basis for popular TV dramas like "CSI" and "Star Trek," as well as for reality shows like "Myth Busters" on the Discovery Channel.

V-ger, Spock investigates ancient NASA probe, the Voyager, as it changed its own mission to acquire universal consciousness. "Regardless of how Hollywood aliens are portrayed, or how good or bad the films are, we must not stand in denial of the public’s interest in the subject. The award for dumbest creature of all time must go to the alien from the original 1983 film Star Trek, The Motion Picture. V-ger, as it called itself (pronounced vee-jer) was an ancient mechanical space probe that was on a mission to explore and discover and report back its findings. ..I have always wondered how V-ger could have acquired all knowledge of the universe and achieve consciousness yet not know that its real name was Voyager." –Neil Tyson, Director, Hayden Planetarium
Credit: Paramount

Yet for all its popularity, science entertainment apparently does little to educate. In a recent survey by the National Science Foundation, only 50 percent of respondents knew that it takes the Earth a year to go around the Sun. About the same number of people didn’t know that an electron is smaller than an atom, or that ancient humans and dinosaurs lived at different times.

One of the problems with using entertainment to educate is that the science is often wrong. Web sites like "Bad Astronomy" and "Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics" go into amusing detail about the mistakes and poor information contained in certain movies and TV shows.

But as Phil Plait, the creator of "Bad Astronomy" says on his web site, "Don’t get me wrong: I love science fiction. When I was a kid I lived on a straight diet of ‘Lost in Space,’ ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Space: 1999.’ I still do! Even though the science in these shows is usually pretty bad, they do serve the great purpose of getting people excited about science, space and astronomy."

Getting people excited about space exploration is a goal of the President’s Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond. In his testimony to the Commission, TV Producer John Bernardoni noted that America is on the edge of losing its technological dominance to other countries.

"Somebody told me that China graduated 300,000 aerospace engineers to our 58,000," said Bernardoni. "I was at the National Space Symposium when I heard that. Japan graduated something like 225,000. That’s scary – you talk about outsourcing, it’s going to make what’s happening now look pretty silly. If anybody really wants this to be an international effort, they’re not going to have to worry about it – it will be an international effort because, like it or not, that’s where all the people will be coming from."

A New York Times article published on May 3 reported that Americans are losing their scientific dominance to the rest of the world. Everything from the number of Nobel Prizes and patents awarded to the number of scientific papers published has fallen in the U.S., while those numbers have increased in other nations.

Bernardoni says one way to generate more interest among the youth of America is for government to fund more missions to space, and for the entertainment industry to create more programming about science. Bernardoni talked about his own boyhood fascination with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and how his interest was fueled by movies like "Forbidden Planet," "It Came From Outer Space," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and "War of the Worlds."

"I was at a meeting where a group of scientists were griping about why more kids weren’t signing up for aerospace," says Bernardoni. "I stood up and said, ‘Why should they? There is no big audacious goal, therefore there are no missions. If there are no missions, there are no jobs. So what’s the point?’ I said, ‘You want to get kids pumped up? You’ve got to have a vision. You get them pumped up through MTV, you get them pumped up through video games, you get them pumped up though ‘The Simpsons.’ You’ve got to go where they live, you’ve got to go to the music that their peers like – that’s how you get to kids, you do not get to kids through job fairs.’"

For many people, science means a dull textbook and a teacher writing incomprehensible equations on a chalkboard. But Costas Efthimiou, a teacher of mathematical physics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, is using entertainment to get his students excited about science. In a course called "Physics in Films," Efthimiou and his colleague Ralph Llewellyn use movies to illustrate core concepts.

For instance, "2001: A Space Odyssey" is used to discuss centripetal and centrifugal force, and artificial gravity. The movie "Contact" is used to discuss topics such as relativity, space travel, wormholes, life beyond Earth, and Drake’s formula.

Efthimiou says they also show movies that depict "bad science" – for instance, scenes from the movie "Armageddon."

Movies like ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Deep Impact’ introduced to pop culture, the near earth asteroid risks.
Image Credit: Don Davis

"Bad movies are probably the best for educational purposes, since they maximize the contrast with real science," says Efthimiou. "Also, ‘good movies’ are rated as boring by the students; they adore ‘Armageddon‘ and ‘Independence Day’ but they dislike ‘Contact‘ and really hate `2001: A Space Odyssey’."

The class uses "Fermi problems" to find approximate solutions to situations presented in the films. In a Fermi problem, the goal is to get an answer within an order of magnitude (typically a power of ten). The physicist Enrico Fermi was known for his ability to make approximate calculations with little or no actual data – so-called "back of the envelope" solutions.

The students in Efthimiou’s class are presented with a Fermi problem based on a situation in a film, and create a model using simple formulae from physics. Even without having definite knowledge or exact numbers to work with, by making reasonable assumptions about the situation, they are able to come up with an approximate answer.

Efthimiou has found that examination results have improved dramatically since he began the course. More students are enrolling, and faculty who once resisted teaching the traditional course are now signing up to teach "Physics in Films."

HAL, the computer with self-awareness from the Arthur C. Clarke classic series, 2001.
Credit: 2001:Space Odyssey ©.

His students, who are mostly non-science majors, often have had bad experiences with science, or they have come to believe that science is difficult and uninteresting. Efthimiou says the public school system does little to engage students in science, and the physical sciences and mathematics are often denigrated or "dumbed down."

But Efthimiou also blames the entertainment industry, since it often projects negative stereotypes of scientists. Because of biases that have been part of their early science education, many people find it easy to accept these negative representations. Efthimiou says one of the goals of his course is to make students more aware of how science is portrayed in the media.

"We do not ask that they dismiss the entertainment industry because science is portrayed so badly most of the time, but we do ask that they should not passively assume that what they see in the big or small screen is reality," says Efthimiou. "If we persuade people to think about what they see, to check it against real-life situations or examples discussed in the course, and to draw conclusions as to its validity or impossibility, then we have succeeded in creating a public that has adopted the scientific method – and society will benefit tremendously."

Related Web Pages

NSF survey
Dinner with Captain Kirk
List of highest-grossing films from Wikipedia
President’s Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond
NYT article: U.S. is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences (sign-in required)
Fermi Problems
Papers by Efthimiou and Llewellyn: 1 * 2 * 3



Physics in Films

Here are sample questions from the course, "Physics in Films" taught at the University of Central Florida:

a. In "Armageddon": compute how much the two asteroid fragments will separate as a result of the NASA plan.

b. In "Speed 2": compute the deceleration of the cruise ship and decide if the collision (as seen by the ship passengers) is as dramatic as the director shows to us.

c. In "Independence Day": compute the potential energy stored in the spaceships hovering above the cities.

d. In "Tango & Cash": compute the physiological effect of current on Tango and Cash when they are electrocuted by the inmates.

(a) Armageddon: A modern nuclear head is about 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. Assuming that the nuclear head carried by the space shuttle in the movie is 100,000 Hiroshima bombs, than each piece will deflect by 216 meters. Even if the team spends no time to drill, the deflection by no means can be more than 1080 meters, or the lengths of a few city blocks.

(b) Speed 2: They would hardly feel a thing. The maximum deceleration of the cruise ship (as shown by the director) is about 0.04 meters per second squared. This is 250 times smaller than the acceleration of gravity. An acceleration/deceleration smaller than one-tenth of the acceleration of gravity is already small.

(c) ID4: With reasonable assumptions of the size of the space ships, we can compute that the potential energy stored in each hovering ship is equal to about 17,600 Hiroshima bombs. This energy will be released when the ships are shut down. And this happens above every major city of Earth. So when the ships are brought down by the allied forces, the planet is doomed!

(d) Tango & Cash: There is no way they can survive. With reasonable assumptions based on the scene, we may calculate that the current that goes through the heroes is about 1 Ampere. However, currents of 25 milliAmperes to 3 Amperes are the MOST fatal since they induce ventricular fibrillation. If the current is above 3 Amperes the chances to survive are better since it stops the breathing. Recovery can happen if CPR is provided immediately to the victim, but this does not happen in the movie. High currents also can cause internal burning.