By Evette (Evie) Clayton
So, you could say I’m a bit of a nerd. I don’t really take much seriously, but if there is something I do take seriously, it’s science. That’s not to say I can’t take a joke, man, I LOVE science jokes….
I even love SciFi movies that break a few rules here and there, take a few steps in the direction of not-really-possible (who doesn’t like hearing David Tennant describe the non-linear progression of time using such phrases as “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”). But, sometimes things just go too far.
To my mind, you’re going to far when, instead of, say, ignoring a few implausiblities—like there being new stable elements that have yet to be discovered—you’re just plain ignorant of basic scientific concepts.
The reason I preface this post with the admission of the fact that I am a bit of a nerd, is for the following anecdote….
To this day, I consider one of the most traumatic experiences of my life something which occurred just last year. Whilst holidaying in New Zealand I found myself in the movie room of a backpackers. The movie was already part the way though.
It didn’t look too bad (or at least it looked like it had reasonable entertainment value), I sat down in front of Brendan Fraser and some miscellaneous child-actors. The movie was Journey to The Centre of the Earth.
It was part of the way into the film when I position myself in a beanbag, book in hand, in case the movie turned out to be boring.
I found myself getting a little annoyed at the dodgy science in the movie (most of which, I admit I have blocked from my memory, due to the trauma it induced), quietly as I could—which many of you will know is not necessarily exactly “quiet”—I sat and fumed as the film got more and more inaccurate in its representation of scientific concepts; the culmination of which was one particular scene. (There may actually have been steam extruding from my ears at this point; I’m sure I was red in the face with anger).
In this scene there are some rocks across a very deep divide. They are suspended mid-air. This is okay. Tell me there is some kind of made up force field, or some other kind of imaginary/magic explanation for their levitation, and it’s okay, I’ll dismiss this as fantasy. But that’s not how it was explained; they “used science”.
Apparently, the rocks were supported by a magnetic force. Okay, right, so the rocks just happen to be aligned in such a way that the repulsion between like-forces is causing them to levitate.
It’s not likely that it would really happen like that in nature, but that’s okay, it’s a movie. What happened next made it not okay. The characters, needing to cross the divide, began jumping between rocks, causing them to tip and sway. I don’t know if you’ve ever played with the repulsive forces between magnets, but it’s actually quite difficult to align magnets so that they’re repelling one another, move them in one direction or another, and they will have the forces required to flip them around, and snap together from the attractive forces.
So, tipping and swaying wouldn’t happen with these magnetically levitating rocks; it just wouldn’t work that way. I was seething. But it gets worse… one of the miscellaneous child-actor characters becomes quite overbalanced; his magnetic levitating rock begins to tip quite a lot (my heart beats faster from the rage; my eye twitches), as the misc. child-actor clings to it, the rock turns, more and more until it flips completely—and so do I—I ran from the room, crying “IT’S VIOLATING ME IN MY PHYSICS!”
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that not all people are going to have this reaction. Many people will think that this is a perfectly reasonable demonstration of the science; that this is how magnetic fields work.
But where do you draw the line? Where does fiction end, and the rage-inducing world of broken science start? I’ve pondered this long and hard, both in my own meandering thoughts and for this blog post, and I’ve come up with nothing.
One man, Sidney Perkowitz, an American professor, has suggested that films should be allowed one major blunder in the physics portrayed. Others argue that this would only cause more misconceptions, if there is one error amongst accurate representations, how would people know which bit is bull-plop?
Well, in any case, it appears that a line does need to be drawn. Barnett et. al. discuss in their paper the misconceptions students develop, after watching the film The Core, despite being educated directly in concepts about the Earth. Children from the study are quoted as saying things like
“[The character] Dr. Keyes, who was a geology professor, was able to explain much of the science and it all sounded right to me and he figured out the problem and others believed him. So I think much of the science early in the movie was correct….”
Awesome, so the actor was believable, that means the science was correct?
I will admit now, I have not been able to bring myself to actually watch The Core. You’d think it would be relevant, given the topic of this post, but I think that given the reaction I have described in the above anecdote, you’ll see why I am a little apprehensive about actually viewing this movie.
The long of the short is that 5th grade students who had been learning Earth science managed to re-write their actual understanding with the garb that The Core spewed upon them.**
**(Author’s note: I am aware I am in little position to call The Core garb, without viewing it, however I am using the fallacies from Journey to The Centre of The Earth as a basic approximation of the broken science).
I think the message here, is that movies ought to shape up if they want to use science as a backdrop. It is all well and good to use green gloopy aliens in your film if it is obviously fiction, but when using “realistic” science, like zombie-apocalypse-causing viruses, or discussing the magnetic field of the Earth there should be some obligation to not make it so believable if you’re going to break the science.
One question remains: as proponents of science and indeed the accurate communications of that science, how can we make this happen?
Reference: Barnett, M., Wagner, H., Gatling, A., Anderson, J., Houle, M., & Kafka, A. (2006). The Impact of Science Fiction Film on Student Understanding of Science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(2), 179-191. [PDF]