I have often thought that the public understanding of science would be vastly improved if there was a better portrayal of scientists and the scientific process in the popular culture, particularly TV. I have a vision of a realistic TV soap opera based at a scientific institute, rather than a police station, hospital, medical centre or street. Not a Dr Who. But realistic in the sense that characters have the drama and problems of normal life (as in Coronation Street or Shortland Street) but are professionally engaged in the process of doing realistic science.
Having worked on a reasonable sized science campus I am aware that such places have the same sorts of scandals, sex and violence, as any other place. (Yes we even had at least one murder). I’m sure such a drama or soap opera could be made that would succeed in ratings. But it would also help to overcome the misunderstanding of science that seems to be rife in the popular culture.
Literature—plays, essays, screenplays for movies, novels, nonfiction—has to be about something. “Literature” has no natural content any more than sentences have natural meaning. So why isn’t there more “science” in literature? Science transforms both our world and our worldview, and yet a solid work of literature is more likely to be about an alcoholic than a scientist. Why are movies with science themes—movies like Contact and Lorenzo’s Oil—so rare? Yes, of course, there are plenty of thrillers that incorporate science in the vein of Jurassic Park, often with dire warnings about the dangers of scientific hubris. At the other extreme are those pious biopics of yore: Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), for example. But why so few meaty films with first-rate talent devoted to the “insatiable hunger” E. O. Wilson invokes?
Imagine, for example, Robert de Niro as Galileo—arrogant, brilliant, bewitched by his emerging place in history—being summoned by the Inquisition to appear in Rome. Picture Galileo’s enemies—small, slimy characters that look like Steve Buscemi— convincing the Pope that he had been lampooned in Galileo’s play about the motion of the heavens. Imagine the Pope—Al Pacino—finally agreeing after much agonizing to put his old friend on trial.
Picture Darwin, played by Anthony Hopkins. Here is a proper and subdued Victorian, who considered becoming a priest, wrestling with an emerging conviction that the traditional idea of creation must be abandoned. His wife Emma—played by any of those beautiful but not sexy British actresses, some of whom are even named Emma—is distraught, as her beloved Charles slowly loses his Christian convictions. She is haunted by visions of spending eternity without her husband. When their daughter Annie dies at age ten, Charles finally abandons his now-shaky childhood faith, the denouement of what is surely one of the most symbolic religious struggles in Western history. PBS dramatized Darwin’s deconversion in a series on evolution and, although it was just a vignette in a documentary and lacked Anthony Hopkins, it was riveting.
James A. Connor’s Kepler’s Witch is a biography of the great astronomer set against the backdrop of Europe’s witch-hunting craze and the Thirty Years’ War. It is another extraordinary tale begging to be told. Picture Johnny Depp in the role of the clumsy, inarticulate, but brilliant astronomer, demolishing trumped-up accusations of witchcraft made against his mother while slowly coming to believe that the planetary orbits were very different from what had been taught for centuries.
Why is it that Hollywood can bring to life historical characters like John Adams, Queen Elizabeth, Howard Hughes, and even Truman Capote, while equally fascinating figures from science get, at most, low-budget PBS treatments? Richard Feynman’s contribution to Oxford anthology suggests one answer: “It is odd” he writes, “but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics. I believe that is probably because we respect the arts more than the sciences.” The context—missing in the anthology excerpt—is that when he was lecturing to general audiences about physics, introducers would often note that Feynman—alongside his scientific pursuits—loved to play the bongo drums. Whether that contrast suggests, as Feynman himself thought, that “we respect the arts more than the sciences” is open to question. Indeed, it might well be that introducers of Feynman the physicist regarded him with something approaching awe and hoped to “humanize” him in the eyes of the audience. But even an exaggerated respect can result in the partitioning off of science from the common conversation of the culture.