SEED asks about cinema science

The SEED question of the week is this one:

What movie do you think does something admirable (though not necessarily accurate) regarding science? Bonus points for answering whether the chosen movie is any good generally….

Hmmm. I know I’ve posted a few movie reviews here. Let’s see, what have I said…

After careful analysis of the Pharyngula cinematic history, I’ve come to a few conclusions. My taste in movies is indefensible, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with science, so I’m not going to try. The representation of science is generally execrable. The Day After Tomorrow was appallingly bad; X-Men 3 had less serious intent, but it’s treatment of genetics and evolution is abominable. Scientists are generally portrayed as cold, soulless creatures with goals that transcend conventional morality—movies aren’t good at explanation, but at least they try to flatter us.

The question asks me to pick out a movie that does something admirable regarding science, even if it isn’t very accurate. I’m afraid I’m going to have to choose Underworld: Evolution, because it shows that vampire scientists are very clever at coming up with hi-tech solutions to defeat a werewolf infestation, which may come in very handy in the coming apocalypse, and because, well…Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight black leather. There’s a whole grand lesson in evolutionary biology, mammalian physiology, and materials engineering right there.

For the bonus points, no, the movie isn’t particularly good, except that it’s got Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight black leather.

I’m afraid I haven’t seen any serious mass-market movies that do much of anything for science. There’s something about trying to be entertaining to a mass market for a whole hour and a half or two that is antithetical to actually presenting the real process. Perhaps part of the problem is that people want a story with a beginning and an end, and science is this ongoing event that lacks such discrete and conclusive conclusions. Maybe it’s a good thing for movies to confine their treatment of science to issues in how to resolve a werewolf problem.


  1. says

    In the early days of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the host had his robot friends tell “one good thing and one bad thing” about the movie they saw that day. The source of humor was how deeply the ‘bots had to dredge to find good things to say about the movies the Mad Scientists subjected them to.

    I could say bad things about many movies and good things about a few, but in terms of relating to the science I’ve done on a true emotional level, one movie stands out.

    I did my undergraduate thesis on weakly ionized plasmas: electrons scattering about inside a gas of atoms and small molecules. I found a way to employ genetic algorithms to the problem, extracting data about microscopic properties (cross-sections of individual atoms, say) from the macroscopic measurements one could take in the lab (e.g., how fast a charge pulse traveled through the gas mixture). I had my GA program spew massive loads of numbers to the screen while it executed, so I could watch my population of virtual noble gases diversify and evolve.

    One evening, not too long before my thesis was due, I had a simulation running back in lab while I went to visit some friends. They had a giant-screen TV plugged into a computer so they could watch movies off their terabyte RAID array; not able to leave my work alone, I popped open a terminal window and logged onto the lab computer via the TV set. While I leaned close to the stream of flickering green-on-black ciphers, scrutinizing the atomic parameters as they mutated and felt selection pressure, a friend walked up behind me and said, “Hey, you’re turning into the guy from Pi!”

    So, as far as realism goes, I have to give the prize to Darren Aronofsky.

  2. JakeB says

    Well, perhaps it’s not in the spirit of the question, but _An Inconvenient Truth_ managed to present a lot of data in an entertaining fashion, as well as conveying the idea that it doesn’t take special powers to begin to understand science, just the desire and a decent amount of intelligence.

  3. Rocky says

    Good Morning PZ,
    I agree, the movies mentioned may have been OK as a movie, but not great science movies at all.
    Not on the list, but I LOVED Jurrasic Park, especially the 1st one, as I had just read the book when it came out, and I’m a dino nut. Appollo 13 was pretty good too.

  4. says

    I’ve got one for you: Contact, with Jodie Foster, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. It’s not perfect, but it portrays scientists in a more positive and realistic light than any other blockbuster I can remember.

  5. j says

    I never liked science-fiction movies. I love sci-fi novels and short stories though. There’s a wider variety, and they’re not as clichéd (is that a word?).

  6. gwangung says

    For the bonus points, no, the movie isn’t particularly good, except that it’s got Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight black leather.

    Well, in my book, that DOES make the movie good.

  7. Andy says

    In RoboCop 2, there’s a scientist who insists that the corporate plan is immoral and that he doesn’t want it being done in his lab — he’s threaten with being replaced. He’s wearing a lab coat and generally a stereotypical 80s movie scientist, weak willed, and most likely thrown in just to show that those with intelligence thought the plan was doomed to failure (so you can see exactly how EVIL the bad guys of the movie, OCP, are).

    Plus, it’s got that awesomely bad brain-smashing scene at the end.

  8. says

    Last night I watched Outbreak (it was on television here in the UK) with my girlfriend, who is a microbiologist. She even wanted to watch it, at first, but 5 minutes in was screaming at the fact that the on-screen display indicated that the virology department where the movie starts was doing work on those famous viruses anthrax and salmonella.

    From that point on it had to be a matter of “ignore the microbiology”, which is quite difficult in a film about infectious diseases! Is it any wonder I’ve never felt the urge to watch AI: Artificial Intelligence?

  9. Stwriley says

    I’d have to say Deep Impact for anything recent. I know the whole “send an expedition to blow up the asteroid” thing is generally overdone (i.e., Armageddon and Space Cowboys) but they at least tried to do it within current technology and presented the very real problems involved. It also has pretty good portrayals of the advantages and pitfalls of how we do science (the asteroid stays unknown too long because of something as simple as a traffic accident) and when it does we see the interaction of science and politics on important issues in a pretty realistic fashion (and with a sympathetic President, too.) Finally, unlike other “destruction from space” movies, even success is pretty bad for us, since the whole eastern seaboard is wiped out. I know it has some fudges of the science, but not very many and it still tells a pretty decent tale.

  10. Dark Matter says

    How about the following list:

    October Sky

    The Right Stuff

    Apollo 13



    Code 46

  11. says

    One of my favorites is Gattica. I know that going into space is a bit odd (but a nice metaphor for the antiseptic world depicted). What I didn’t like is that’s too close to becoming true.

  12. John says

    I liked “Fat Man and Little Boy”. Oppenheimer (and all the scientists) are very sympathetic, and the science isn’t total crap.

    (Disclaimer: my sophomore physics prof (a recent Nobel Prize winner) appeared in the movie and was rumored to have done the chalkboard equations.)

  13. Paul Poland says

    Movies that show scientists in a good light ?

    “Them !” – the scientist not only had NOTHING to do with the giant ants, but was actually helpful in getting rid of them.

    “Day the Earth Stood Still” – Klaatu decided it was better to talk to the Earth’s scientists instead of the military or politicians.

    “Contact” – Dr Arroway was a normal person that did very good science [except for that math error in the beginning – by her calculations, our galaxy has no life in it].

  14. says

    I really liked Kinsey from a few years ago; Liam Neeson was good at capturing Kinsey’s curiosity about nature and about people. It’s the only scientific biopic I’ve ever seen, so it becomes the best by default.

    “Copenhagen” was a debate between Werner Heisenberg and Niels and Anna Bohr about their roles in the war effort. It’s mostly about ethics and the personal relationships between the characters, not the science.

    Peter Greenaway directed “Darwin”, a set of tableaux accompanied by narration. I haven’t seen, but would love to.

    Are there other scientific biopics? I vaguely recall hearing about a black-and-white Marie Curie one.

  15. Ken says

    I am with PZ on Underworld: Evolution. “Kate Beckinsale in skin tight black leather” says it all. And if you think about it there is a lot of biology and behavioral science involved in that. Is that enough rationalization??

  16. says

    I don’t think you can legally say “Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight black leather” twice without linking to pics.

    Like [url=]this[/url].

  17. Phoenician in a time of Romans says

    Not on the list, but I LOVED Jurrasic Park, especially the 1st one, as I had just read the book when it came out, and I’m a dino nut.

    I went to this movie as part of a large group from the university compsci department. Two thirds of the way through the movie, with the tension racheting up nicely, the characters turn on a computer, and there’s this sort of neat 3D GUI. Then the little girl pipes up “Oh, I know, this – it’s a UNIX system”…

    … and a whole row and a half of people burst out laughing.

  18. says

    Blade Runner. Science and technology is pervasive throughout the film, but it’s used matter-of-factly. It’s no big deal to stop at a kiosk to buy a synthetic eyeball.

    I do it all the time at the mall.

  19. Dior says

    my favorite is Twister. It shows scientist as people with personal problems; some are shown (Kerry Elwiss) as schisters, and others as noble with a goal to help mankind. It shows us as people first and I like that.

  20. Steve_C says

    Damn. You beat me to it.

    I just want a Spinner. Is that really too much to ask for?

    And Deckards apartment.

  21. Greg Peterson says

    I’m going to say “Lorenzo’s Oil,” crappy Nick Nolte Italian accent and all, because it seemed to me to represent the sould of science: A problem to be solved, hypotheses, research, experimentation. Now, in real life the rapeseed oil “solution” didn’t actually help that much, but as an example of how a scientific process might work, I can’t recall having seen it laid out better in a movie.

  22. Aris says

    I can’t advice you on good science movies, but I found “Barnyard: The Original Party Animals,” which I watched with my kids during a promotional screening earlier this week, infuriating: The movie depicts both male and female bovines as cows, complete with protruding, prominent udders. I don’t know what this means. Where the filmmakers afraid to show bulls and cows as distinct bovine genders? Nobody mentioned to them that cows are female? You don’t have to be a farmer to know that. Why such a shameless biological misrepresentation? It’s definitely an imponderable since I’m pretty sure I spotted in the background an actual bull who sported horns.

  23. Bob O'H says

    How about 2001? Slightly more science than Bladerunner, but they treated the space stuff and AI psychiatric problems well.

    The BBC (I think) made a TV film about Crick and Watson a few years ago that was pretty good. Jeff Goldblum played Watson.


  24. frumious b says

    Aris: the generic term for a bovine is “cow.” it applies to both male and female. the word “cow” also means a female of any species where the male is called a bull. so you have bull elephants and cow elephants, bull whales and cow whales, and bull cows and cow cows. In the last, we usually just say bulls and cows. Cows of both sexes have horns. It’s just cow farmers saw off the female cows’ horns.

    In Texas we just call them cattle.

  25. Keith Wolter says

    My first thought, too, was of Jurassic Park. Defienitely the first one; the second one sucked, and the third, eh, whatev. But the first movie did, I thought, an interesting and admirable job of bringing science (OK, bad science, but not horrible, scream-at-the-screen-it’s-so-bad science) to the masses. While I don’t really understand chaos theory, I’m pretty sure Crichton doesn’t either. And I realize that the reality of extracting DNA from bugs to make dinosaurs is a real stretch, but it seemed grounded in at least hypothetical pausibility. Plus, it was a great “movie” movie. Laura Dern; Samuel Jackson; velociraptors; ’nuff said.

    I actually had a molecular biology class in college in which the final exam consisted entirely of passages from Jurassic Park that we were to analyze for scientific merit, based on our coursework, and explain the good and the bad. (This was before the movie, but obviously after the book, which I had not read.) I thought it was a neat, unexpected direction for the class, which had been pretty hard up until then, although anybody who had read the book might have had something of a leg up. Problem was, all the quizes and the mid-term exam had been very straightforward, detail-oriented, short answer type deals, so no one was expecting it. Needless to say, the gunner pre-meds FREAKED; I remember one girl who, after going up to the proctor with questions multiple times, simply burst into tears and left. As I recall, I did better on the final than I had on the tests up ’til then.

    Of course, I lost all respect for Crichton with his global warming “analysis”, but that is another story… (Anybody else notice how the coverage of this heat wave has not been linked to climate change? I realize one month does not a trend make, but I figured the MSM would do the same song and dance they did after Katrina, with Fox News dissassembling madly, etc. I think everyone is just too scared of how fucked we all are to talk openly about it right now…)

    I also thought Gattaca and Contact were good.

  26. says

    Someone pitched 2001: A Space Odyssey already–my favorite–so I’ll throw in two of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky: Stalker and Solaris. A lot of people don’t like Tarkovsky, and while I do I cannot explain exactly why, except to say that I love his painstaking construction of mood and story. Also, the 1950 French film Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes without a Face) is a classic, although it features the requisite “mad scientist.”

  27. David Lewin says

    I also liked “Twister,” even if the grad students seemed over the top.

    Has anyone seen “Infinity,” a 1996 love-story biopic about Richard Feynaman? Mathew Broderick is the lead, but doesn’t seem like he’d grow into the Feynman I knew.

    Otherwise, I’d say “Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World,” for the accurate portrayal of a Darwin-like surgeon/biologist.

  28. says

    Science and technology as problem solving techniques are sometimes also depicted well on TV – so perhaps by extension in the movies, though rarely. Science fiction aside, what about MacGyver? Or the Bloodhound Gang and Mathnet segments of 3-2-1 Contact and Square One TV? I can’t think of any movies, alas, that haven’t already been mentioned. Well, does Stephen Hawking’s Universe count?

  29. frank schmidt says

    Contact and Twister, both because they portray scientists as human beings.

    I regard both as wildly improbable, especially the latter. Forget riding out the tornado belted to a water pipe – what red-blooded man would leave Helen Hunt for some braindead weathergirl?

    But I’ve known scientists who correspond to every one of the characters in either.

  30. craig says

    I liked “Sphere,” overlooking the Michael Crichton aspect of it, but it was directed by Barry Levinson and everyting he directs is pretty much worth watching on some level.

  31. Aris says

    frumious b: the generic term for a bovine is “cow.”

    My understanding is that the primary meaning of “cow” designates a female animal, usually bovine, but also, as you indicated, the adult female of other large mammals. “Cow,” as both male and female, seems to me to be a rather less common usage.

    However, semantics aside, as I mentioned above, both male and female animals in this movie have udders. Big, protruding, prominent udders; not nipples, but bulging, pink udders. I don’t think male bovines have udders, even in Texas — but then again, Texas is a whole different country from what I hear…

  32. says

    Barnhardt: Have you tested this theory?
    Klaatu: I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to another.

    Now that’s science. The Day the Earth Stood Still. And Contact. I liked Enemy Mine, which is a combo space opera/extraterrestrial anthro movie. Too many others to mention really.

    But back to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Look at Barnhardt, the scientist played by Sam Jaffe. Look at the way he approaches the alien and the problems/solutions the alien brings:

    Klaatu: You have faith, Professor Barnhardt?
    Barnhardt: It isn’t faith that makes good science Mr. Klaatu, it’s curiosity. Sit down, please. There are several thousand questions I’d like to ask you.

    Barnhardt: One thing Mr. Klaatu, Suppose this group should reject your proposals. What is the alternative?
    Klaatu: I’m afraid there is no alternative. In such a case, the planet Earth would have to be… eliminated
    Barnhardt: Such power exists?
    Klaatu: I assure you, such power exists.

    and my favorite:

    Barnhardt: Tell me, Hilda, does all this frighten you? Does it make you feel insecure?
    Hilda: Yes sir, it certainly does.
    Barnhardt: That’s good, Hilda; I’m glad.

    Now that’s a scientist!

  33. says

    An excellent question. My vote is for movies like “Erin Brockovich” and “The Insider” which portray scientists who defy the corporate system.

    Note how few of these movies being suggested are not documentaries or based on a true story or real-life character, though. That’s expected, but sad.

  34. KP says

    Back in Grade 10 Chemistry, a test question was “Other than Carbon, name an element with 4 valence electrons”. Because of a Star Trek episode that had a “silicon based life form”, I guessed silicon and got it right. So Star Trek provided me with some (in this case accurate) science info.

  35. John Aspinall says

    I’m surprised no-one’s yet mentioned Primer.

    Low budget, geeky, confusing, it’s got lots of things to dislike. Yet it’s the only movie in the last ten years for which my first reaction on finishing watching it was “I’ve got to see that again, right now.”

    It captures the stumbling, fumbling nature of discovery better than any other movie I can think of. (And its got a cult following. )

  36. Colin says

    I gotta agree with amk. Kinsey was a fabulous movie and it really did a good job portraying that joyful scientific slightly-manic curiousity. Overall it really felt truthful and human — rather than over the top or stereotyped.

  37. says

    As a member of that collective mass of fabulists called “screenwriters,” I had to chime in here.

    The portrayal of science in movies is never going to be “great.” Since movies are about drama, conflict and, with big blockbusters, visual whizbangs, the needs of the story are always going to override the literal truth of things. “Reel” life as opposed to “real” life.

    Screenplays need conflict, conflict, conflict, so everything in that story gets slaved to that purpose. While it’s not impossible to tell a good science story within that structure (“Contact” leaps to mind), it’s just much, much harder. (Even “Contact” took liberties.)

    If reality doesn’t work, change it on the page to what does, mix in a bunch of really cool sounding terms misappropriated from the real world and bang, you have the verisimilitude you need to make it all sound plausible, even though it isn’t.

    It’s a lot like Intelligent Design.

    Those of you who are science educators should be aware of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s efforts to increase the amount of media out there with positive and fairly accurate representations of science and scientists in them.

    They offer grants and fund programs at numerous film schools, festivals, and New Media departments for ventures that treat science honestly. I’d encourage you to read up about those programs and point any of your students with a love for both science and writing their way.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta get back to my script. The Evil Scientist is just about to find out if his efforts to genetically engineer DNA from an Old One with a human worked. Don’t fret though. The Good Scientist is not that far behind and will arrive just in time for the showdown.

    And yes, she will be dressed in skin tight black leather and sporting a very big gun.

  38. quork says

    I liked the original Flash Gordon (unless it was Buck Rogers?) from the 1930s or 1940s. The special effects are laughable; they are flying their spaceship between planets while the sky behind them is blue, and the sparks fall downward from their rocket engine while the sparks go up.

    Anyway, the part I liked is the respect paid to the scientist in Flash’s group. They get captured by one of the warring sides, and its “off to the dungeons with them, we’ll behead them in the morning.”

    “Wait, I’m a scientist.”

    “A scientist, eh? Come right this way, there’s this little problem we’ve been working on…”

  39. says

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is excellent. Other good quotes:

    “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason. ”

    “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it. ”

    Oh, and is that latex? Ms. Beckinsale, you’ll have to remove those items and allow me to examine them more closely.

  40. says

    “Contact” is my front runner. After 50 years of movie fare featuring shrieking Mad Scientists, this was the first that accurately showed SANE scientists and shrieking mad RELIGIONISTS.

    Written by Carl Sagan, it depicts a powerful conflict between religion and science, and there are moments when Jodie Foster’s character Dr. Ellie Arroway is pressured by both religious and political forces to give up her mental integrity and her goals.

    The movie is prescient in including a now-believable insanely-religious suicide bomber, but it also has a gentle, smarmy, “nice” religionist – as well as a believably nasty anti-science politician – all of which pressure Dr. Arroway to admit that God (or politics) trumps all science. She never gives in. She wins through by patient force of personality and unbending allegiance to her understanding of the IMPORTANCE of real science.

    The movie contained mystical elements, but was decidedly ANTI-mystical, pro-science.

    Opinion from a native Texan and former cowboy: When cow people talk about cows, they’re talking about the females. If they’re talking about a group of males, it’s steers or bulls. If it’s a mixed group, it can only be “cattle,” which is the real generic term for bovines.

    The word “cow” specifically means female bovine and is never, never, applied to bulls. To call a bull or steer a “cow” is forgivable only when used by city people or children.

  41. Lettuce says

    Because it does seem to meet the test of being a movie, I’m going to agree with JakeB: An Inconvenient Truth does something admirable with science…

    It tries to explain and it tries to tell the truth while presnting the best consensus position it can.

  42. Eliza says

    I particularly liked one of the recent James Bond films, the one where the Korean guys change their appearance using ‘DNA therapy’, which is given through laser treatment. In fact, come to think of it, they did quite a lot of fantastic stuff with lasers in that film, and defied many laws of physics. What ever happened to stunts being performed by real people, or at least being believable.
    Also, wasn’t that the same film where he stopped his own heart through will power alone, then electrocuted a couple of guys with the defibrillator, despite there not being a completed circuit?
    Well, he is James Bond I guess, not just an ordinary mortal like you or I…

  43. Kagehi says

    I am not quite sure what problem you have with “AI: Artificial Intelligence” Ithika, the fact that it ignore the “current” state of AI? Or maybe its the planet getting frozen, which only happens at the end? Oh, I know, its the rediculous mistake 90% of the people that see it make, in assuming that its aliens that show up at the end and thaw out the child AI… Ok, it does have a corny, “We can grab something from out of time and bring it back for 24 hours…” speal, but again, this is at the tail end of the movie.

    It really would have helped if MS, and the other two parties involved, hadn’t deep sixed the book deal for the complex story they ran online as a promotional for the movie. Lot of things get filled in with that. For example, an artifical plankton is developed, which is able to use some AI style technology to talk to each other more efficiently, it was designed to alter its physical characteristics to either reflect more sunlight or allow more to be absorbed by sea water, to help control global warming. This mutates, starting to behavoir on its own. Seems it develops a strain that prefers cold, so ignores instructions and starts adjusting itself to increase reflectivity, thus actually freezing the planet very fast. The whole story line for the promo centered around a corporate cover up, in which an AI gets programmed to kill Evan Chan, who stumbled over what was happening, while the companies scrambled to quitely and secretly try to “fix” it. The scientist that creates the kid actually gets mixed up indirectly in this and they crash his aircraft, which leads to a whole mess of other things.

    The “aliens” turn out to be the “descendents” of AI that where working on a deep space project in orbit, when everything went south. Suddenly one day they stopped recieving new instructions, and everyone was a bit too busy with the planets rapid freezing to tell them anything. You could argue that a week is “too little” time for the entire planet to freeze.. Ok, fine, but this is Sci-Fi, not climatology and what would happen if the entire ocean started reflecting all the sunlight back into space? Anyway, they followed the last instructions they did know, which was to complete the project, which was very close to complete anyway, then launch on their mission. The whole end of the movie is premised on them coming back to find a world locked in ice and lacking guidence, “evolving” over time, until they had the means to mount a sort of archeological expedition onto the planet they had left. Note, there is a gap between the creation of the AI child and these events, long enough for other near human class AI to be built, some of whom where on the ship. They came back looking for their origins. The entire movie is really a sort of replay of the “life” of the first true AI, which they where all to some extent based on.

    In any case, yes, it had some corny bits, like all of them, but you need to know both stories to really know what is going on, and thanks to some stupid arguments over who had rights to the “story” in the promo, the book that was going to come out about it never did. Instead, the whole thing is buried in online archives, which don’t do the story, or the puzzles in the online game, most of which are broken when not run on the orignal servers, justice.

    Still, the story wasn’t about the “technology” in the first place.

    As to the original premise of this post.. I am not sure. Ironically, given the current development of possible jumbo jet carried high powered lasers… How about “Real Genius”? Most of it is fairly reasonable. About the only unlikely bits are the basis for how the laser gets so powerful (don’t know enough to say for sure how goofy it is, but the new super lasers use a mass of toxic chemicals, with limited use and are probably cooled too) and the idea that a prism could scatter the light enough to pop a lot of popcorn, instead of just vaporizing the prism. It even pokes fun at the religious clown in the group, who despite making a really good mirror, is a total ass and is easilly convinced that “God” is speaking to him. lol

  44. says

    Hollow man would be one of my choices, but for different reasons.

    The science is horrific, the movie awful, and presents teaching moments.

    An injected drug that causes tissue to become invisible would have affected the outer layer of the skin, connective tissues and bones last (also parts of the eyes), which would have left a literally hollow person. It wouldn’t have made for the neat visual ape CGI scene. The heart, lungs, liver and kidneys would have vanished firts. The contents of the intestines would have also have been visible for some time, as well. But that wouldn’t have been very nice to look at.

    I don’t remember if it was included as part of the movie, but having light entering on all sides of the eyes would have made vision a practical impossibility under any condition.

    Further, nobody would get permission to work on a gorilla, nor would anyone even consider it. Any primates used would be small, and without the ability to see where their eyes are, accidentally making eye contact would be a very bad thing, and a good way to get a handful of feces in the face. Animal testing had obviously failed, and in this case, a mad scientist was in truth a “you would have to be mad” scientist.

    The computer simulations of molecular modeling were hysterical, and my favorite moment was when the hero set a timer on a centrifuge, but not for it to spin for that length of time, but rather to start spinning when the timer stopped.

    The only thing it lacked were the open bunsen burners, set to a long bright yellow flame a la Darkman.

  45. eyelessgame says

    “Bovine” is an adjective, isn’t it? The bovine animal.

    The plural is “cattle,” but there doesn’t actually seem to be a word for that animal that chews its cud and says “moo”. Cows are female large herbivores, from whales to bison to… these things.

    Every once in a while the strangeness of that omission gets to me. The animal is synonymous with farm life and everyone knows exactly what it is, yet it doesn’t have a name…

  46. PK says

    A made for TV movie called “Glory Enough for All” was quite good. From the Internet Movie Database –

    “Dramatised documentary of the 1921-22 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto based on the books The Discovery of Insulin & Banting: A Biography by University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss.”

  47. Jud says

    (pedantic)Suppose it’s math rather than science,(/pedantic) but Good Will Hunting.

    “How ya like *them* apples?”

    Blade Runner and 2001 as well, of course.

    For folks into foreign films, “Until the End of the World” is fun, and the soundtrack is incredible.

    Speaking (Blade Runner) of Philip K. Dick novels turned into films, anyone seen “A Scanner Darkly”? Any good? Rotoscope too distracting?

  48. charles stores says

    If films about medical science, or more accurately, medical technique are allowed, the a film not previously mentioned (and, I believe, not shown in theaters but only on TV) was the story of the development of the Blalock-Taussig surgical procedure that made open-heart surgeries the boon that ithey have become. The film is titled, Something the Lord Made (and is not at all about anything religious). It recounts the breakthrough in technique by Vivian Thomas, an unlettered black lab assistant to Dr. Blalock and is not only a true story of medical science but a thoroughly heart-warming movie as well.

  49. says

    All this love for Contact, but am I remembering correctly that in the final scenes Foster is forced to admit her scientific conclusions are ultimately based on faith, and therefore no more valid than the sexy preacher-man’s?

  50. George says

    A Beautiful Mind was the best – in terms of doing something admirable for science. (Okay, so I think Math is science)

  51. Carlie says

    I’ll chime in for Kinsey for the portrayal of scientists, too. I’ve heard, although I don’t know much about it, that Kinsey was fairly unhinged, and some of that did come through in the movie, but I liked how he was shown as a guy who was just curious and didn’t understand why no one else got it. He (Neeson playing him) had an air of befuddlement the entire time, as to why people seemed to think it was SUCH A BIG DEAL when he was just finding DATA about REALITY. Kind of similar to the general response of evolutionary biologists to Creationists – a collective innocent look up from the petri dishes and saying “What?”

  52. Carlie says

    Max – Yes. I hated the end of Contact with the fire of a thousand suns because of that. I was all in girl-love with Jodi Foster until she did that sell-out at the end.

  53. quork says

    The Arrival (1996) with Charlie Sheen, was a pretty good science fiction movie. It was about global warming too, so maybe it could do with a comeback.

    The protagonist in the movie, played by Sheen, is a SETI researcher. When he loses his research job (due to conspiracy, of course) he takes a job as a satellite TV repairman, and modifies all the backyard dishes in the neighborhood so he can pressgang them into an array during the wee hours and continue his SETI work. Very resourceful and tenacious.

  54. Great White Wonder says

    Tourneur’s “Night of the Demon” (British version)
    …. a great movie, great discussion of science versus faith.

  55. quork says

    So no one here has seen The Calamari Wrestler? It says some powerful things about scientists, that they are able to transform a professional wrestler into a talking squid.

  56. says

    My vote is for K-Pax, a movie complete with possible aliens, allusions to the Gospels, and a psychiatrist chararcter who, despite ample opportunities to go all supernatural ga-ga, maintains a steadfast course of methodological naturalism, and realizes that what appears to be impossible is probably just stuff that’s beyond his understanding.

    Science as it should be, in other words.

  57. says

    I liked the play, Proof. Saw it on Broadway, but haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on it specifically. Deals specifically with math, and did a good job, I thought, of humanizing both the (dead) crazy math genius, and his conflicted daughters, one of whom was a math prodigy who (sort of) gave it up when her father went nuts and needed care, and one of whom is having a career in something else entirely, but was supporting the other father and sister financially. Lots of good stuff about sexism in math and science, too. Best, Marc

  58. thwaite says

    It’s not a mass-market film but Haas’s adaptation of Angels and Insects from the novella by Antonia Byatt is visually spectacular; a good intuition-builder on how different upper-class Victorian life was then (which works even for many undergraduates); discusses several core biological ideas; and gives a good orientation to the life of Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution (i.e. natural selection).
    And in its own way (Byatt’s way) it’s pretty erotic.

  59. Rocky says

    I am a confimed Trekie, but since no one mentioned it, (and TV shows are being mentioned), I loved absolutely loved Babylon 5. Total different concept of the universe, and the interrelations of the creatures that inhabit it.
    Jurrasic Park had many moments that were (unfortunately) dumbed down for the public, (I personally laughed at the beginning when they were just brushing the dirt of the Velicoraptor bones), ya GOTTA love the dinosaur visuals! Expeything before was a claymation Ray Harryhousen dino, good, but not up to newer computer graphics. I believe the Science Channel “Walking with Dinosaurs” series is popular for the same reason.

  60. says

    Actually, I think you’re both right:

    Once again, Kate’s slinky figure is decked out in skintight inky latex and cinched with a black leather corset. from

    Have you read the 2006 winners, runner ups, and dishonorable mentions of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest? This one seems apropos:

    Although Brandi had been named Valedictorian and the outfit for her speech carefully chosen to prove that beauty and brains could indeed mix, she suddenly regretted her choice of attire, her rain-soaked T-shirt now valiantly engaging in the titanic struggle between the tensile strength of cotton and Newton’s first law of motion.
    Mark Schweizer
    Hopkinsville, KY

  61. JakeB says

    Am I right in remembering that the aliens are interested in heating up and/or poisoning the atmosphere to make it more hospitable to them?

    (I keep thinking that movie reminded me of Sturgeon’s excellent short story _Occam’s Scalpel_, in which Howard Hughes turns out to have been an alien with those goals.)

  62. says

    OK, 2001, Blade Runner, (thanks for the Robo II love, I made the face of Cain articulatable; a colleague is working with the guy who made the brain out of gelatin and goo), Jurassic Park (SGI was a big sponsor, and, running Irix instead of Unix, had an actual demo not made for the movie called File System Navigator, accessed by typing fsn at the prompt. Took forever to load, though), Contact, another big vote for Primer (I shipped it back to Netflix after the third viewing), and from, here’s my review of AI.

  63. Ginger Yellow says

    I’ve been reading The Quest For Consciousness recently. In it neurologist Christof Koch says that Memento has the most accurate representation of memory function in any film.

    For myself, I have to agree with the shout outs for Primer, although it’s more about the nature of engineering than science – the science itself is pretty hokey. I’ll come up with my own science nominations when I’ve had a chance to think about them.

  64. says

    The ending of Contact was a big disappointment, and it wasn’t the ending Sagan wrote in the book. So blame the director or somebody for that.

    I second the other votes for “Twister” and “A Beautiful Mind.”

    If we’re adding documentaries, definitely “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Flock of Dodos.”

  65. Alex Fairchild says

    I was thinking about this the other day, In ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, the device for erasing memories is described as a disruptor of neural connections in the limbic system. The entire mechanism, some type of portable 3-d visualization and zapping device that can burn off key neurons was theoretically plausible. And in general the treatment of the scientists at work had a realistic feel to it, with the junior lab assistant snippily saying “I already ran the diagnostics! Of course i thought of that!” then immediately looking chagrined that he’d spoken that way to his boss, the very published Doctor!

  66. says

    Wait – wasn’t Jodie Foster’s realizatin that her experience as she remembered it a matter of faith because she couldn’t prove it? I have not seen the movie for awhile, but did enjoy it.

    1. Inconvenient Truth
    2. Rocket Boys
    3. Kinsey
    4. Twister
    5. Star Trek, First Contact, for its portrayal of Zefrem Cochrane

    Not sure about the science aspect but for sheer enjoyment, no question: the entire Back To The Future series for its portrayal of Doc Brown, who it seemed to me was modelled after Oliver Heaviside

  67. evolvealready says

    Contact and Inconvenient Truth. Yes.

    Regarding Contact, I’m in agreement with those who said the ending was lame and wishy-washy. I never read the book. I can’t imagine Sagan wrote that crappy ending. Must have been (I hope!) Hollywood-ized? Anyone know?

  68. says

    No one seems to have mentioned The Dish. From the netflix description: “July 1969. Neil Armstrong is about to walk on the moon, and everyone’s eyes are riveted to their TV screens. In Parkes, Australia, a radio dish antenna is slated to receive Apollo 11’s video feed and send that historic sight out to the world … that is, if the Australian staff (including pipe-smoking, absent-minded scientist Sam Neill) and their NASA supervisor (the tense, by-the-book Patrick Warburton) don’t make any mistakes!”

    Very enjoyable.

    In my comments about Proof “the other father and sister” should read “the father and the other sister.”

    Best, Marc

  69. says

    A double bill matinee of Memento and Primer would keep everybody in their seats till they’d seen second screenings of each.

    Rocket Boys (anagram for October Sky) is notable for being nearly point for point the exemplification of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Talk about yer “descent into the underworld” and “return with the elixir” and “apotheosis with the father.”

  70. hank says
    Destination Moon

    I recall a Heinlein anecdote about the movie — years later, he told an audience that he and his wife used a roll of butcher paper and spent many days, in 1949, with pencil and slide rule, to get the orbit and trajectory figured correctly. And some young person in the audience asked him “Why didn’t you just use a calculator?”

  71. dAVE says

    Brain Candy – from the Kids in the Hall was really good.
    It involves a research team in the pharmaceutical division of a large corporation working on an antidepressant. The board starts cutting projects left and right, and the head scientist is called in and asked if his product is ready. He doesn’t want his entire staff out of work, so, after initially saying it needs more work, he says that it is ready. Of course, it turns out to have side effects, and he tries to get the word out to the public.

    Contact bugged me for a couple of reasons: When James Woods’ character asserts that over 90% of the world believes in God – Jodie Foster’s character should have pointed out that they all have different concepts of what they mean by “God” and got the entire room into a religious argument. Second, when the “nice” minister asks her if she loved her father and when she says yes, asks her to prove it (thereby trying to make an analogy between proving/disproving the existence of God and love), she should have pointed out that she isn’t declaring that her love for her father exists outside of her mind. Third, when she comes back from the journey, and James Woods’ character says that there’s nothing on the tape “hours and hours” of nothing, she should have immediately seized upon that and told him that if she didn’t go anywhere for any length of time, how could there be “hours and hours” of time-stamped static.

  72. says

    Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight black leather.

    Babes in leather or latex turn out to be a good criterion for cheesy but fun movies involving some screenwriter’s take on science. Other examples: The Fifth Element, Resident Evil, Aeon Flux, . . . All terrible but enjoyable (Ultraviolet is an exception in being terrible and unenjoyable). Only in Flux is the scientist up to any good, in his case saving the world. Definitely admirable. And then there’s Charlize Theron in skin-tight black latex. . .

  73. says

    Regarding Destination Moon and Heinlein (BTW, a hearty recommendation from my spouse, the Heinlein fanatic, for John Varley’s Red Thunder), Werner Von Braun hadn’t worked out the stages necessary to achieve Delta V until he was on Disney’s payroll for the Disneyland TV episodes directed by animator Ward Kimball.

    In an afternoon with the master at Imagineering, Kimball told how he’d been pegged to come up with some episodes for the series promoting the future Anaheim park because Disney had spotted a copy of an Adamski book on UFOs on Kimball’s desk. He hired von Braun, and got the props department to make plenty of scale models. The night before shooting, he was in a panic because the multi-stage rocket model hadn’t yet been delivered, and finally tracked it down to an old codger waiting for the last layer of varnish to dry. “What’s yer hurry?” he’d asked, “It’s gonna fall back down before it’ll ever fly to the moon. Rockets is just science fiction.”

  74. says

    I find that, unexpectedly, Steamboy leaps to mind as a movie that does, well, something for science. For me, it was a positive because it sort of pulled my brain out, shook it around, and revealed how much culture there is in the way we think about, talk about, and even do science. Even when we are playing by the immutable, universal laws of science, the game can be very different.

    It also makes scientists into peacenik action heros, which appeals to me personally. And it handles the steampunk conceit of “What if certain technologies showed up much earlier in history than they did?” in a much more capable and interesting way than did, oh, I’m just groping for an example here—William Gibson’s execrable The Difference Engine, a book that was so bad that I opted to read the book of Mormon in Spanish rather than go through that again when I ran out of things to read while doing field work.

  75. Manduca says

    I liked Sam Neill in The Dish: the scientists (mathematicians and engineers) are real, smart, resourceful, and likeably geeky. No one is trying to rule the world or defeat nature, just relay Neil Armstrong’s radio signal from the moon to NASA via Australia.

  76. says

    Oh, hell yeah, The Dish! It was great, though more about technology than science per se.

    Destination Moon, while quite a technical achievement, was not much about science; it was about the superiority of Free Enterprise™ over all other systems. The book was very entertaining, but hey, Nazis on the moon?

  77. says

    You mistake me, Kagehi. I haven’t seen AI, but because I know more about CS and AI than (for example) virology I would have a hard time not being distracted by any nonsense they throw at me. On top of that, any film directed by Spielberg and containing *that kid* will probably blow my schmaltz deflector shields all to heck.

    If it is, in fact, a half-decent movie then I’ll see it at some point. But I always got the impression that it wasn’t much of a movie in the story-telling sense either.

  78. Matt T. says

    While I don’t really understand chaos theory, I’m pretty sure Crichton doesn’t either.

    Me neither, and the more I read on it, the less I understand. I wish I could find an explination that really clicks in a simple way, though I understand the general concept, but in explaining it to others, the best I can come up with is “shit happens”.

    Anyhow, I’m gonna geek out hard on y’all. Not a movie, but a show. “Doctor Who”. Now, granted, the gobbledegook run heavy and hard, especially in the Jon Pertwee days*, but here and there, there was good science, particularly the odd bit of cosmology. Plus, the Doctor’s a scientist who almost always uses his head to defeat his enemies. He doesn’t put up with superstitious nonsense, dealing only with fact and hard data. Even better is the characterization, not cold and stuffy – though definately not human – the Doctor is simply madly in love with creation and all its wonders. As a scientist, he’s a dabbler, fascinated by everything and always wanting to learn more. I freely admit my own layman’s fascination with the scientific world (particular physics) is because of spending my youth watching “Doctor Who” on Mississippi public television.

    Even better, the expanded fandom of liscenced novels and Big Finish’s audio plays has filled in some of the rather glaring holes in how the TARDIS works and how the Doctor can regenerate, using stuff like string theory and modern genetics. I imagine it’d still drive an actual, sho’nuff scientist up the wall with how fast-and-loose it plays with even fairly loose stuff like string theory, but I still appreciate the effort and it seems to be done with a bit of love and appreciation.

    Speaking of British sci-fi, there’s also Bernard Quatermass of the epynonymous movies and serials. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those flicks, but I do remember the Quatermass character well. He doesn’t put up with military bullstuff and doesn’t beat around the bush. When, in Quatermass & The Pit, he’s forced to accept the evidence of the spaceship as fact, even though it’s mind-boggling to comprehend, he just deals with and gets down to bidness.

    * Apparently, you can reverse the polarity of a neutron flow, somehow or another, but it just doesn’t do all that much.

  79. aiabx says

    I have to go for Ghostbusters, mostly for the useful science catch phrases we use in every day life:

    Dana Barrett: You know, you don’t act like a scientist.
    Dr. Peter Venkman: They’re usually pretty stiff.
    Dana Barrett: You’re more like a game show host.

    Dr Ray Stantz: Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.
    Dr. Peter Venkman: You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.

    Dr. Peter Venkman: No, no. Just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?
    Library Administrator: What’s has that got to do with it?
    Dr. Peter Venkman: Back off, man. I’m a scientist.

    Janine Melnitz: You’re very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
    Dr. Egon Spengler: Print is dead.
    Janine Melnitz: Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual but I think it’s a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play raquetball. Do you have any hobbies?
    Dr. Egon Spengler: I collect spores, molds, and fungus.

    Dr. Peter Venkman: Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole through your head. Remember that?
    Dr. Egon Spengler: That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.

  80. fyreflye says

    Science fiction movies are generally pretty bad but within the parameters of the Seed question I’d have to cast another vote for Apollo 13 and Contact, with a slight minus for Contact because it does diddle around a bit with the idea that the inteligence found at the end of Jodie’s journey is really God rather than a memory of her father.

  81. Ginger Yellow says

    A.I. is not a half decent film. It may be OK if you’re fully versed in the backstory, but the film itself is turgid, mawkish and massively overlong. It also has the worst ending I’ve ever seen apart from Return of the King.

  82. quork says

    Am I right in remembering that the aliens are interested in heating up and/or poisoning the atmosphere to make it more hospitable to them?
    (I keep thinking that movie reminded me of Sturgeon’s excellent short story _Occam’s Scalpel_, in which Howard Hughes turns out to have been an alien with those goals.)

    Yep, that’s the plot. I am not familiar with the Sturgeon story.

  83. quork says

    I was thinking about this the other day, In ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

    And that line about brain damage was a classic!

  84. says

    Replying to a comment way up there, I saw A Scanner Darkly and liked it. The pop neuroscience “split brain” business seen in the trailer annoyed at least one neuroscientist I know, who almost decided against seeing the movie because of it. However, in context it seemed to work pretty well, for reasons I could go into if you’ve seen the book or read the movie (strike that, reverse it).

  85. says

    Egon Spengler: Sorry Venkman, I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

    The best movie ever made about science and engineering students was “Real Genius” starring Val Kilmer. It nailed the pressure cooker weirdness of the high-tech education, all the way down to the loopy ways we had of blowing off steam.

  86. RCP says

    As said before, October Sky was pretty good.

    I’m suprised no one has mentioned The Core as a terrible science movie. I accidentally saw it about a year ago, and I hate it more with each passing day.

  87. Scott Hatfield says

    I must say that many of you have misread Contact’s ending, which is most certainly not about the triumph of religion or the mistaken rendering of science as just another belief system. Foster’s character, despite a profound personal experience, shows the tremendous intellectual courage that we associate with real scientists and rarely find in the devout. Unwilling to compromise her scientific principles, the astrophysicist publicly concedes a point to the odious politician whose real interest is not in slamming science (as some of you have written) but of publicly putting the kibosh on an unverifiable story that challenges prevailing beliefs.

    I also like the fact that Foster’s boss and rival in science, played by Tom Skerrit, cynically avers a belief in the supernatural that the intellectually honest Foster does not, then chides her privately for not having the sense to tell people what they want to hear.

    It would definitely be a mistake to regard the film as primarily about the fulfillment of SETI when its conclusion points so strongly to the nature of science and its relationship to belief. The conclusion is a little less bracing that Sagan’s novel, but I think the essence of what he was trying to accomplish comes through beautifully.

    I also am rather fond of the historical drama of Darwin’s life embedded in the first episode of PBS’s ‘Evolution’ series, entitled “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” The script, based on the work of historian James Moore, cleverly weaves much of its subjects written views directly into dialogue. There are few things in science education that approach it in terms of ambition, production values and level of detail.



  88. HP says

    Over on Dynamics of Cats yesterday I mentioned the H.G. Wells/Cameron Menzies film Things to Come (1935). One of the themes of the film is that the course of scientific and technological progress is nonlinear: There are always barbarians and philistines at the gates of Science, and sometimes they even sack the city and take over. Also, it has gorgeous miniatures and matte work, and an extremely young Ralph Richardson hamming it up as a post-apocalyptic warlord. I give it 4.5 Erlenmeyer flasks.

    And while we’re discussing ’30s SF, Quork, you might be thinking of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. IIRC, Ming the Merciless kidnaps Dr. Zarkov and forces him to work on some kind of doomsday device. Zarkov reminds Ming’s lead scientist why he became a scientist in the first place. Ming’s man decides to help Flash and Zarkov overcome Ming, but winds up sacrificing himself and never does get back to his original research. (Watch FGCtU, and you’ll never look at Star Wars the same way again. Trust me on this.)

  89. says

    I don’t know if anyone has mentioned Proof. It isn’t exactly Science (it’s about a group of genius mathematicians), but it is very good. It even handles the math pretty well. Now if only more mathematicians looked like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhall

  90. Ginger Yellow says

    Serenity: possibly the only sci-fi film ever not to have sound or visible lasers in space (of course there were lots of flaws with the science elsewhere, but this is impressive stuff). Given the number of Browncoats in the blogosphere, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed nobody else has nominated this film.

    Dark Star: brilliantly brought home the fact that interstellar exploration, even at near light speed, takes a really long time and is really, really boring.

    And for wooden spoon: Star Wars III. I don’t think there’s a single law of physics this film didn’t break.

  91. Magnus says

    Finally a theme on pharyngula i can academicaly relate to. (I have a bachelor in Visual Culture – Film and TV).

    I remember a film i saw in the Hallmark Channel about Stephen Hawking discovery of the singularity of the big bang or something (forgive the unscientific language and knowlege, as noted, im not a real scientist, im a student of popular culture). I think the film also had reenactments of the interview Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson gave after recieving the Nobel prize for the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. It was more a film about the Big Bang discovery than Stephen Hawking i think.

    I’m quite suprised no one has mentioned the Alien films. I found them quite convincing, well, the two first anyway, in their depiction of space travel, cryonic sleep and human psycological reactions to all this. And the terraform colony in Aliens at least had realistic estimations on the timescale of such a large operation, in contrast to Total Recall, where terraforming Mars takes about three minutes. Sigourney Weaver also kicks way more ass than old Arnie. And thats a scientific fact.

    Ithika, when it comes to A.I. it is quite a good film, but I would recommend that you at one point “freeze” the film (pressing stop on your remote or, if you’re ina cinema getting up and walking out of the theatre). You’ll get the freeze referance when you see the movie. Everything Spielberg did after that point in the film is unforgivable.

  92. says


    2001 didn’t have sound in space either. (or visible lasers as far as I can remember)

    You are absolutely right about AI. If he had stopped it right there, it would have been a really good movie. The tacked on ending is crap. It’s like the voiceover at the beginning of Dark City.

  93. Grumpy says

    It was an HBO miniseries, but it had a feature film budget:

    From the Earth to the Moon

    Especially episode 10, “Galileo Was Right,” which depicts the crew of Apollo 15 being trained in geology.

  94. meridian says

    “Angels and Insects” was quite good (someone upthread mentioned this). I also liked “Jurassic Park,” which actually inspired an experiment with insect-in-amber DNA. The DNA was too degraded to do what was done in the movie, but still, it’s one of the few really plausible film premises relating to science, in my opinion.

    “Solaris” (the original Tarkovsky film, not the Clooney-fest) was interesting in terms of what can happen to the human mind in space.

    “Blade Runner,” on the other hand, really blew it with the voice-controlled zoom-in video picture that contains more detail the closer you get to it. I think he also saw around a corner. Where can I get a camera like that?!

  95. says

    Now if only more mathematicians looked like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhall

    Hey, my ex-girlfriend almost went for pure mathematics when deciding on what college to take, and she’s hotter than Gwyneth Paltrow. Seriously.

    But then she went for a degree in physical education. The jocks win again.

  96. 601 says

    “The Andromeda Strain,” since that is where I got my nicknumber:

    Error 601, too much data coming in too fast

    How about “Medicine Man” and for PZ “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

  97. says

    Firefly/Serentiy and Aliens are great.
    They give a believable gritty vision of the future, nothing is flashy and over the top.

    Not a movie or American ;) but I love Dr Who. The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) had it on a continious loop throughout my childhood and its still going.
    Through wits, dumb luck and science the good Dr evaded the clutches of many a evil bobbled headed alien through out time and space.
    Like Star Trek it is far from perfect but it got science out there and definatly peaked my interest.
    I still want a Sonic Screwdriver…ohh and K-9, the TARDIS would go astray either.

  98. says

    I vote for the Seinfeld episode in which George pretends to be a marine biologist to get laid, and then ends up saving a dolphin.

    Oh, wait, that was a TV show. But you get the point…pretending to be a marine biologist and all.

  99. Ginger Yellow says


    2001 didn’t have sound in space either. (or visible lasers as far as I can remember)”

    Well, I suppose that depends on whether you count the monolith he falls into as “space”. Plus points for the spinning pseudo-gravity chamber though (another Ken Adams classic).

  100. Sakurai says

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, and there was probably plenty of questionable stuff in there, but I enjoyed the movie Evolution for the fact that the last creature to evolve wasn’t the super-smart humanoids that seemed to be developing, but a simple starfish-like creature, because that was what was most fit given the selection criterion (ability to surive a huge explosion). Of course it was so big, I doubt it really would have been able to stand up the way it did, what with gravity and all.

  101. Ginger Yellow says

    “It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, and there was probably plenty of questionable stuff in there, but I enjoyed the movie Evolution…”

    Probably? I mean, I enjoyed it like I do most silly films, but it probably spread more disinformation about evolution than the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis put together. It even had Lamarckism for FSM’s sake.

  102. Sparkle Motion says

    The Dish! Not really sci-fi, but as previous posters have pointed out, it’s got scientists as real, interesting, and varied human beings. And it’s damn funny, too.

    I always did like the fantastical yet vaguely-believable TV shows such as Doctor Who, Star Trek, Stargate and so on – go the hero(ine) scientists.

    And recently I bought a bumper DVD set of 50s B-grade sci-fi movies. The science itself in the movies is appalling and so are the effects and acting, but I’ve noticed that in most of them, scientists are characters respected and admired by others, which you don’t get a lot of today.

  103. Sakurai says

    Well, I stand corrected! Sorry – it has been several years, and all I could remember was the ending, lots of cool looking creatures, and Orlando Jones screaming as a bug bit him in the rear.

  104. says

    Yes, The Day After Tomorrow was incredibly bad. However, it got one thing right, which is the seemingly paradoxical idea that global warming can lead to a much colder Northern Europe. Great Britain in particular is much warmer than other areas at the same latitude, due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. For reasons that I don’t completely understand, the circulation of the Gulf Stream is sensitive to the level of salinity of the Atlantic Ocean. So global warming can lead to a melting of the Greenland icecap, which will lead to a huge influx of fresh water into the Atlantic, which will lead to a drastic decrease in the salinity, which will lead to the shutting down of the Gulf Stream, which will lead to a much colder Great Britain.

    Dennis Quaid’s character in The Day After Tomorrow explains these basic facts at the beginning of the movie, which I thought was pretty impression. Unfortunately, after paying its dues to scientific accuracy, the movie feels free to spout nonsense for the next hour and a half. The cooling of Northern Europe will lead to colder winters, but it won’t lead to helicopters dropping from the sky from their fuel lines freezing, nor will it lead to the Statue of Liberty being encased in snow.

  105. Kyle Rogoff says

    Personally, I enjoyed eXistenZ, which is a very underappreciated movie.

    This isn’t really movie, but the new Sci-Fi Channel Eureka show I like, if only for how silly it is.

  106. says

    There’s a BBC sitcom on atm called Supernova, about an isolated bunch of astronomers in the Australian outback.

    Some of the science is obvious bollocks, but how can you not love a menopausal radio-astronomer with a toyboy and camel-racing physicists?

  107. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I have to go with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.

    The first “Alien” is good to, if one accepts cryogenic sleep. While “Star Trek” series are quite good within their fictional univeres (asides from some gaffes), the movies largely stink.

    “Jurassic Park” is another stinker. I think mathematicians loathe its faulty portrayal of chaos theory as “shit happens” in all systems instead of that some systems may show chaos.

    “Contact” doesn’t cut it either, portraying the conflict with religion but at the same time blowing it up beyond reasonable proportion and keeping the mysticism, probably for the benefit of a US audience.

  108. George says

    “What movie do you think does something admirable (though not necessarily accurate) regarding science? Bonus points for answering whether the chosen movie is any good generally….”

    Anything portraying a scientist in a way that would make a young person want to grow up to be one, e.g., Madame Curie. Wasn’t there a Thomas Edison movie?

  109. says

    Matt T: Simplest way to look at it is “qualitatively different outcomes can result from small changes in initial conditions”. By itself it has no application to the world; like any branch of mathematics one has to use it as a tool (with correspondance rules) to build a factual theory. Here is where the hype is – many claimed cases of chaos aren’t known to be such because there is no reliable factual model of them which makes use of CT. Classical mechanics has a few examples – the double pendulum, for instance.

    As for the topic, well, if we’re adding non-fiction, the film version of Breaking the Code (about Turing) is pretty good, though it is a play, not a documentary, so takes some liberties.

  110. thwaite says

    Hi Daryl,
    The Day After Tomorrow turns out to be bad science as well as bad cinema. The idea that Europe is kept anomalously warm because of the Gulf Stream is certainly ubiquitous, but it’s seriously criticized – hell it’s wrong – by this current American Scientist article. It’s not ocean currents but winds that keep the eastern shores of all mid-latitude large seas and oceans warmer than their west shores – prevailing winds (west to east) extend the moderate marine temperatures to the otherwise more extreme-temp’d landmass, for the Atlantic and Pacific. Notice that in the Pacific the ocean current heads straight east to CA/OR so there’s no current taking warm water north to Vancouver – but it’s nonetheless warm like England. Well-written article as well as a persuasive analysis.

  111. Umilik says

    I don’t think that most audiences are capable of making a distinction between movies portraying bad or good science. Or even care. And I am not sure that’s the real issue. Living in a society that has become so hostile toward science I think any interest that can be generated is a good thing. (ok, I would have to mention the Island of Dr Moreau, the worst of all stinkers, as an exception to that rule). I have had discussions with students on cloning extinct species based on movies such as jurassic park. I also think the interest in tv shows like CSI is a good thing.

    On a more personal note, PZ, are you not married ? Does your spouse/partner know you’re ogling women clad in tight outfits ? Ha, no 72 virgins for you !

  112. Torbjörn Larsson says


    PZ is a biologist. He is *supposed* to study biological deviants. Me, I study dynamical bodies in motion from time to time. Different areas, same objects.

  113. xebecs says

    Serenity is my favorite science fiction movie ever, but more for the humanism than for the science, whatever its merits.

    Contact is tricky, but I’m a very big fan. Arroway sticks with science whenever there are scientific tools available to address the issues. When she returns from her mission and can’t explain it scientifically, she resigns herself to that fact — she does not insist that everyone accept her truth without proof. She probably goes on to a scientific effort to understand what happened.

    As for the business about “prove that your father loved you”, I’ve heard that one before, accompanied by the thesis that faith is better than science because it can “prove” things that science can’t. My answer is this: I can prove it to my own satisfaction, but I don’t expect anyone else to accept my proof if they see evidence to the contrary — that is their choice. I am not building science or technology or public policy on the proof.

    But you know what? If there were a way to prove that my father (or anyone else I care about) love[s|d] me, I would be quite happy to hear it. Proof is better than faith, period.

  114. Jerry says

    My favorite science film would be the the made for TV (PBS) version of the play Copenhagen about the 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg at Bohr’s home in Copenhagen. This is a film about scientist as real people and combines physics, politics, morality, humanity and friendship in a story told from different perspectives. Another movie that may be more familure is Never Cry Wolf, the film version of the book by naturalist Farely Mowat. This is a positive picture of a scientist at work and even contains a capsulated view of how science is done (observation, hypothesis, experiment). Farely is sent to the Artic to study declines in caribou population presumably caused by wolves. But he finds no evidence of this, so what are the wolves eating? When he sees a wolf kill and eat a mouse he estimates the weight of the wolf and the density of rodents in the area and speculates the wolves are living on rodents. To test his hypothesis that a large mammal can subsist on rodents he resolves to eat nothing but mice himself. The movie also has great photography and acting. Highly recommended. Other films of interest are Primer, a low budget movie about a two people creating a high tech start up company and accidentally discovering a time travel device, and Proof a film version of the play about a mathimatician who fears she may have inheriated her father’s mental illness. Both films depict their characters as real people and not nerds or eccentrics or out of touch ivory towerist. I also have fond memories of 1980 TV miniseries, Oppenheimer, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer. A rare portrayal of a real science and very well done. Somebody ask about movies about Madame Curie and Thomas Edison. That would be Madame Curie (1943 with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon), Young Tom Edison (1940 with Mickey Rooney), and Edison the Man (also 1940 with Spencer Tracy). Madame Curie has a reverence for knowledge and scientific endeavor not found in any film today. The Edison films are intended as inspiring biographies that gloss over the dark side of Edison but are worth seeing none the less. We could also include Things to Come, from a screen play by H. G. Wells, that has the most positive image of science and scientists of any movie. In the future scientists around the world unite to save mankind and create a utopia after the politicians destroy civilization. On the flip side for a movie about the pipe smoking, square jawed scientist of the 1950’s I recommend The Lost Skeleton of Cadaver, a black and white parody of 50’s sic fi movies. Two quotes from the Movie:

    Dr. Roger Fleming: “Ranger Brad, I’m a scientist, I don’t believe in anything.”

    Dr. Paul Armstrong: “As a scientist I just wish I could appreciate more things like cabins… bicycles…”

  115. Kagehi says

    You mistake me, Kagehi. I haven’t seen AI, but because I know more about CS and AI than (for example) virology I would have a hard time not being distracted by any nonsense they throw at me. On top of that, any film directed by Spielberg and containing *that kid* will probably blow my schmaltz deflector shields all to heck.

    If it is, in fact, a half-decent movie then I’ll see it at some point. But I always got the impression that it wasn’t much of a movie in the story-telling sense either.

    I have to agree with some of the other posters. The ending sucked. But the biggest problem with is was that it tried to cram what probably would have taken another movie to explain properly into… 10-15 minutes of goofy voice overs that didn’t properly explain jack and some confusing bits of film that its impossible to understand without a proper back story. The other 90% of the movie is great.

    For anyone interested, the website for the promo, with all the details on the puzzles and story line is still here:

    Cloudmakers was the name of the group I was in on Yahoo, that dove into the puzzles, and in one case, actually blew the entire plot out of the water within the first 24 hours of the game. They had to drastically re-write the entire story, add in addition elements and spent months “barely” keeping 24-36 hours ahead of the players after that. They expected small groups or single players, what they got was thousands of people, some of them experts in cryptography, all collecting together to hammer their system, with the result that things where generally solved without a matter of hours of posting. They would post new content at 7-8am, and by 10am, when I usually went to check things out, people where usually discussing “everything” they had posted that day. There was only 2-3 times in the months it ran that I read posts in real time, talking about “solving” some puzzle. At one point we even had a new server we where not supposed to have the password for yet, that was hammered al la the movie Hackers, and the *successful* attempt submitted to Guiness as a new world record. Needless to say, the story writers after that, and all similar games since, “clearly” specified that mass hacking of the password to get into a server would not be acceptable. We nearly brought the server down with it. lol

    The movie would definitely have been more confusing and less interesting without the other story elements.

    Note, for the story itself, you need the “guide”, in the upper left box. “The Trail” was the “working” set of links and associated data needed to tie them to each other, for those just diving in to solving it, not just reading the result. It appears that the pages, where possible, have also been cloned, so you can still see them, though obviously the original sites are now gone.

    Have fun reading it. ;)

  116. says

    Kagehi…cool! I haven’t thought about the cloudmakers in ages! That was a total timesuck for me at work when it was happening. It took awhile for me to stop analyzing movie trailers for clues after that. I did like the movie AI, but as I had spent months playing that online ‘game’ I might be biased. I think if the movie had ended without the robots from the future it would have been better. But I thought Jude Law was excellent in it.

    As far as Contact is concerned, although Jodi Foster is excellent in it and it’s worth seeing for her performance, I would recommend the book over the movie. The entire character of the hunky priest romantic interest isn’t even in the book, and the ending isn’t nearly as cheesy.

    And A Day After Tomorrow will always have a special place in my heart because when I went to see it, during the scene where white Americans are crossing the border *into* Mexico, a hispanic man in the audience shouted out “Heeeey, look, gringo wetbacks!!!” Made my day. Almost as good as when someone shouted “Excellent!!!” when Keanu Reeves made his first appearance on screen in Dracula.

  117. Keith Wolter says

    Splitting hairs now, but the difference for me between “Alien” and “Contact” was that the former was sci-fi, while the latter was fiction, with a focus on science. I loved Alien and Aliens (and, perhaps unlike anyone else, thought Alien3 was OK, though that fourth one sucked, royally) but they weren’t movies about science to me; more adventure movies with a somewhat scientifically plausible background. I guess I read the original question to be more about science, and less about good entertainment.

  118. brightmoon says

    I’m suprised no one has mentioned The Core as a terrible science movie

    yeah it was risible …but i kinda liked the idea of scientists being the heroes for once instead of the mad-geniuses-who-caused-the-problem