Dr Michael Brooks and Rick Edwards met when a mutual friend suggested they do a podcast together. Three years on their podcast Science(ish) is going strong and has resulted in a book of the same title. They work less with the science mistakes in movies but in the real science that inspired them. As they say, there are a myriad of YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts that pick holes in movie science, but a little bit of creative leeway is allowed to make a story that invites an audience in. No, Sandra Bullock’s hair wouldn’t move like that in zero gravity, but who cares? It’s still a good film and there are elements of real science that are interesting.
We often think of Hollywood as clueless about anything really scientific but plenty of directors and screen writers are really interested. Ex Machina came from an academic text on artificial intelligence that sparked interest. The author was then employed as a science advisor for the film. Science advisors are common, but are more sounding board than fact checker. They’re there to say ‘Well, if you change that then this would happen.’ so that directors and writers can find an interesting way to tell their story.
The creative leeway required for a good story isn’t always bad either. Day After Tomorrow may be a ridiculous exaggeration of the pace and realities of climate change, but it has done more to inform public interest in climate change, and increase a desire to prevent it, than any other single piece of media. Jurassic Park might be impossible, as well as unwise, but it did result in an increase in public interest in Palaeontology. The increased student numbers and funding followed. When asked, many of the current generation of Palaeontologists said they had been inspired by Jurassic Park. The fact that DNA degrades far too fast for us to ever sequence a dinosaur genome doesn’t actually matter.
Sometimes there are films that see possibilities the scientific community doesn’t. Gattaca was released in 1997 and its concept was fitting for a world watching the Human Genome Project and the rise of genetic determinism unfold. It suggested a world where every aspect of your life was mapped out according to your genes. Embryos were selected for the best mix of genes from each parent. The subjects you studied and job you did determined by genetic predisposition. Even your choice of spouse was genetically determined. The main character is someone who was born naturally, without genetic preselection. Everyone assumes he will be stupid, weak, and disease ridden. He is relegated to cleaning jobs. Until he finds one of the elite willing to swap places with him so that he can prove the genetic determinism the entire society is built on is false.
At the time geneticists dismissed the film, certain that once they could read the genome they could fix anything and everything. Twenty years on it’s been voted the most prescient science fiction film by the same community that once dismissed it. We now know that genetics is far more complicated than we could have imagined in the 1990s. It’s not just the core structure of DNA, it’s also the epigenetics and the discovery that our environment changes how genes are expressed. We don’t even know how many genes we have, or what most of them do. 98% of our DNA has been branded as ‘junk’. In other words, we know what 2% of our genome does, but the rest? We have no idea. There are also precious few things that are dependant on one single gene. Unless you want to know about ear wax, chances are you need to look at the interaction of several genes. And lets not forget that 98%. Something in there might be joining the conversation.
One thing films do quite well is look at the potential end points of a whole array of research. iRobot, Ex Machina, Channel 4’s Humans. These are all stories about the potential problems, both ethical and practical, of a successful AI program. With research into self driving cars happening all over the world, Knight Rider is no longer looking quite so far fetched. Compare Hal from 2001 Space Odyssey with Siri and you have an interesting idea of how close we are getting and how far we still have to go.
Brooks and Edwards both believe in the potential for films to start conversations, teach, and inspire. When asked what films should be shown in schools, Gattaca and Jurassic Park are both on the list. Arrival and Contact are next for their questions about what it means to be human and what confirmation of extraterrestrial life might actually mean for us. Brooks is also keen to emphasise the need to show films with female scientists. Knight Rider makes that list for the female chief technician. STEM fields are extremely male dominated and he hopes that showing more scientific heroines on screen might be as inspiring as Jurassic Park was to budding Palaeontologists.