HARRISONBURG, Va. – If the Academy Awards had a category for good science in science-fiction flicks, would any movie take home the Oscar?
Probably not, said Christopher Rose, an assistant professor of biology at James Madison University, who teaches a general science course, “Biology in the Movies,” that trains students to analyze the science – good and bad – they see in films.
“For the most part, movies do not give a very realistic picture of how science is done or why,” he said. “It’s not a question of movies purposefully misconstruing information.
“It’s a question of movies asking you to believe a scientific event or the product of a scientific process without any explanation.”
There are exceptions, and Rose uses those in his class to explore science fact and science fiction in movies.
He selected films for students to view and discuss in the class that “give one character the chance to explain the scientific process to other characters.”
‘Good science’ in film.
For instance, in the 1978 film, The Boys from Brazil, a top scientist explains the technique of cloning to a Nazi hunter investigating the rumor of an attempt to clone Hitler.
Other films include the 1958 version of The Fly and its 1986 remake, Jurassic Park, Inherit the Wind, Quest for Fire, Gattaca, Blade Runner and Contact.
“Bad science” movies, Rose said, ask the audience to believe something that violates scientific principles, as in the 1954 sci-fi flick, Them!, about attacks by gigantic ants.
“I used the film to talk about animal size and design,” he said. “If an ant became that big, it wouldn’t be able to move about as the insect we know. Very large or small size imposes functional constraints upon organisms.”
And, bad science in movies can perpetuate science misconceptions, he said.
Concepts are abused.
“I know through teaching biology courses that certain science concepts are abused in movies, and those beliefs never get straightened out,” said Rose.
“Mutation is an example. Mutation is a change in DNA, not an animal or an insect being hit by rays and turning into a monster.”
Which is not to say science-related movies can’t be both explanatory and engaging. In the popular Jurassic Park, for example, the process of recreating life from DNA is explained to the characters.
“The movie conveys the hows and the whys of the scientific process,” Rose said.
Movie plots can also be driven by the accepted scientific ideas of the times, he said. The classic horror film, Frankenstein, which Rose discusses at length in his class, deals with the creation of life based on scientific theory of its time.
“In the early 1800s, one widely held theory was that life was spontaneously generated from dead matter. The first experiments with electricity were also taking place around the same time.
“It’s not surprising that Mary Shelley (author of the 1818 novel) came up with the idea of a doctor who sewed dead body parts together and then used electricity to induce life,” said Rose.
In the mid-1980s when author Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park about the cloning of dinosaurs, “Scientists were dealing with the discovery of numerous genes and the roles they play in the development of animals,” said Rose.
“Some scientists became overly enthusiastic about the potential of this research, and the idea took hold that, if you had an animal’s DNA, that was all the information you needed to ‘build’ the animal.
Not that simple.
“However, the development of any organism requires much more information than simply knowing the structure of its DNA.”
Rose asks his students to question what they are asked to believe when it comes to science – and not just in the movies.
“I first want to bring all students to a level where they can add to the discussion by giving them basic understanding of the science involved,” he said.
“I want them to think about the implications of a scientific technique for science and for society.
“To do that, they don’t need to understand all of the nuances of the technology, but they do have to go beyond the basics to understand how it is done and why.”