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Inspirational Literacy Through Science Books and Films Sidney Perkowitz Physics, Emory University

Why am I interested in all this?: 

Why am I interested in all this? Books – nonfiction pop science Empire of Light (1996) Universal Foam (2000) Digital People (2004) Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World (2007, in progress) Stage works – fictional and fictionalized Friedmann’s Balloon (2002, 2005) Albert and Isadora (2002, 2003) Glory Enough: Rosalind Franklin and DNA (2005) Various articles, essays and media appearances …and I teach science to scientists and nonscientists at Emory

What are our goals in conveying science at a popular level? : 

What are our goals in conveying science at a popular level? We ought to teach some science – whether it be concepts, facts, or the process We ought to teach about scientists – who they are, what motivates them, what they do We ought to convey this in a gripping and entertaining way that can inspire interest in science and its issues, and can even inspire scientific careers

How can we do this?: 

How can we do this? Through nonfiction and fiction books, of course; but we shouldn’t ignore the power of other media too [Science fiction] movies are, naturally, weak just where the science fiction novels…are strong - on science. But in place of an intellectual workout, they can supply something the novels can never provide - sensuous elaboration. In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster” Commentary, Oct. 1965 …film floods into a viewer’s system of responses much more engulfingly than a book can. In a film, most of the work of transmutation from words to effect has already been done for the viewer. Stanley Kauffmann, “Divining Divinity” The New Republic, June 19, 2006

But aren’t movies less reliable and accurate than books?: 

But aren’t movies less reliable and accurate than books? Science fiction films tend to hype science beyond reality, often through spectacular special effects. But even the wildest science fiction films contain nuggets of real science, and involve scientists as characters, though typically as stereotypes. When well done, these films generate awe and amazement, and show the human impact of science.* Science fiction films have the power to inspire and to offer entry points into science. There are also scientist biopics and documentaries or semi-documentaries about real science, many of them accurate and thoughtful works. * The list of the 100 best American films compiled in 1998 by AFI includes seven science fiction films.

Science fiction films can be overwrought : 

Science fiction films can be overwrought Popular science and science fiction books rise or fall on the quality of their ideas. For fiction, plot and characters matter too, though characterization is often a weak point of science fiction. Science fiction films depend heavily on spectacle and special effects, often to the detriment of other qualities. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow (2004): 

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) Climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) risks his life in Antarctica, to get data that confirm the coming of a new Ice Age due to global warming. He fights a government hostile to his findings, and his warnings save many lives. Then he treks 200 miles on foot through Antarctic-like conditions to rescue his son.

There is lots of raw material…: 

There is lots of raw material… A search under “science fiction” on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) yields over 1,400 films since 1902, and searches using key words “science” and “scientist” give over 500 films since 1920. …and it has enormous impact Nine of the top 20 all time highest grossing films are science fiction, which means millions upon millions of people have seen these movies


PHYS 380R/FILM 373 – Science in Film Course Introduction Le Voyage dans la Lune, Destination Moon When Worlds Collide – Planet-Killers and Rogue Stars When Worlds Collide, Night of the Comet, Armageddon, Deep Impact Worlds Gone Mad – (Un)Natural Disasters and Environmental Crises Soylent Green, Volcano, Waterworld, Day After Tomorrow, An Inconvenient Truth The Third Horseman – Plagues, Pandemics and Viral Catastrophes Panic in the Streets, The Omega Man, The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak


PHYS 380R/FILM 373 – Science in Film Alien Encounters – The Invader Complex and The Messiah Complex The Thing From Another World, War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), E. T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Day the Earth Stood Still The Movie Scientist – Knights and Madmen in White Coats Metropolis, Frankenstein, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Strangelove, The Boys from Brazil, Contact, The Day After Tomorrow Smashing Atoms – A-Bomb Nightmares: Cinema for the Atomic Age Godzilla, War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), On the Beach (1959, 2000), The Day after Trinity, Sum of All Fears, The China Syndrome, Chain Reaction, Fat Man and Little Boy


PHYS 380R/FILM 373 – Science in Film Send in the Clones – Cinema for the Genomic Age Jurassic Park, The Sixth Day, Boys From Brazil, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Gattaca Of Men and Machines – A. I. and Synthetic Souls: Robots and Cyborgs A.I., Electric Dreams, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus, Forbidden Planet, Westworld, RoboCop, I, Robot, Terminator Reel Science – the Scientist Biopic Madame Curie, Gorillas in the Mist, Infinity, A Beautiful Mind, Kinsey

Cloning and genetic manipulation: 

Cloning and genetic manipulation Films The Boys from Brazil (1978) Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) Jurassic Park & sequels (1993 - 2001) Gattaca (1997) The 6th Day (2000) Code 46 (2003) The Island (2005) Books Brave New World, A. Huxley (1932) The Boys from Brazil, I. Levin (1976) Jurassic Park, M. Crichton (1990) More Than Human: the Promise of Biological Enhancement, R. Naam (2005) After Dolly: Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning, I. Wilmut, R. Highfield (2006)

Robots, computers, A. I., and cyborgs: 

Robots, computers, A. I., and cyborgs Films Metropolis (1927) The Terminator & sequels (1984 - 2003) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Robocop & sequel (1987, 1990) Colossus (1970) The Matrix & sequels (1999, 2003) Star Wars & sequels (1977 - 2005) A. I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) Star Trek & sequels (1979 - 2002) I, Robot (2004) Blade Runner (1982) Stealth (2005) Books Metropolis, T. von Harbou (1927) The Sentinel, A. C. Clarke (1948, 1968) I, Robot, I. Asimov (1950) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, P. K. Dick (1968) Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, B. Aldiss (1969) The Age of Spiritual Machines, R. Kurzweil (2000) Flesh and Machines, R. Brooks (2003) Digital People, S. Perkowitz (2004)

The nuclear age and its creators: 

The nuclear age and its creators Films The Beginning or the End (1947) Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) On The Beach (1959) Infinity (1996) Dr. Strangelove (1964) Chain Reaction (1996) The China Syndrome (1979) The Saint (1997) The Day After Trinity (1981) The Sum of All Fears (2002) Silkwood (1983) Books On The Beach, N. Shute (1957) Red Alert, P. George (1958) Brighter than a Thousand Suns, R. Jungk (1970) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, R. Rhodes (1986) Chernobyl Record, R. F. Mould (2000) American Prometheus, K. Bird, M. Sherwin (2005)

Scientists in science fiction films tend to be stereotypes: 

Scientists in science fiction films tend to be stereotypes

Some movie scientists are mad, obsessive, or clinically insane… : 

Some movie scientists are mad, obsessive, or clinically insane… …some scientists are evil…


…some are heroic or noble… …and some scientists are nerds

Two realistic fictional film scientists: 

Two realistic fictional film scientists Radio astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact (1997) Mathematician Prof. Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), Good Will Hunting (1997)

Maybe scientists as characters are better left to books, as in “Lab lit”: 

Maybe scientists as characters are better left to books, as in “Lab lit” As defined by scientist-editor-writer Jennifer Rohn (, “lab lit” depicts scientists as central characters…typically taking place in a realistic – as opposed to speculative or future – world…this genre features realistic scientists in the real world whose research underpins the plot. Lab lit “lite” (peripheral): Prodigal Summer (B. Kingsolver) The Speed of Dark (E. Moon) Quite A Year for Plums (B. White) Crow Lake (M. Lawson) These contain a scientist protagonist but the novel is not about his/her research; insights into science can be gained, but only en passant

Lab lit II: 

Lab lit II 30 – 50 “pure” lab lit novels: Cantor’s Dilemma (C. Djerassi) Mendel’s Dwarf (S. Mawer) Intuition (A. Goodman) Long For This World (M. Byers) In these novels, while human interest vitalizes the narrative, the scientist practices science. The reader is effortlessly drawn into a hidden world viewed from a scientist’s eyes. Such a perspective is extremely valuable; sympathy can breed understanding, trust and attraction.

Some winners and losers among science-based films: 

Some winners and losers among science-based films Ten best Metropolis (1927) The Thing from Another World (1951) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953) On the Beach (1959) Blade Runner (1982) Jurassic Park (1993) Gattaca (1997) Contact (1997) A Beautiful Mind (2001) The Day after Tomorrow (2004) Two worst The Core (2003) What the #$*! Do We (K)now (2004) (aka What the Bleep)

Summing up: 

Summing up Books, in the form of nonfiction, science fiction, and literary fiction, can offer thoughtful explorations of science and scientists - Susan Sontag’s “intellectual workout.” Some films present real science, but most science appears in science fiction films. These use the enormous power of image and sound to present imaginary worlds and the human impact of science – Susan Sontag’s “sensuous elaboration” – to huge audiences. Each approach has its place. Books contribute to scientific literacy through accurate presentation of scientific ideas; films enhance scientific inspiration and appreciation. Excesses, inaccuracies and stereotypes in science fiction films must be addressed, but most films have a scientific core that can be exploited to help convey science. One way to use films is to combine them with relevant books. I’ve shown that we can find sets of films and books that cover many areas of science and its impact on society. Libraries are now centers for all kinds of media including books, and so I hope my ideas will suggest approaches that combine resources to increase science literacy, and even better, inspire young people to become scientists. Thank you!

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