Science in popular culture

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.

This problem is discussed by the Karl W. Giberson in No Science, Please where he reviews The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins. Here is an extract from his thoughtful review:

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.

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30 responses to “Science in popular culture

  1. There is a movie on Darwin being made the moment, I believe.

    I would have thought of Malkovich for Galileo (nothing against de Niro as an actor).

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  2. More about the Darwin movie, probably old news to most of you… Its apparently to be titled ‘Creation’. Good grief… Here’s one recent blog on it:

    http://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/creation-movie-about-charles-darwin-starts-filming/

    While tracking this down, I ran into a review of an older TV biography of Darwin:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0216517/

    It reviews well, BAFTA awards, etc. Can’t remember having seen it.

    I think there is a tendency to over-dramatise historical figures and to play up particular aspects of their lives to a greater role that they may have had in the real person’s life, because they make for good drama. I can’t help wondering if this will be the case for the Darwin movie. I haven’t read a biography of the man’s personal life, so I’m not well placed to comment.

    Personally, like you, I’d like to to see shows/movies using current science settings that are realistic and scientists that aren’t weirdly typecast. Its nice to see historical biographies of the “greats”, but the issues they faced, etc., are different to today and belong in their times. Anyway, I’d better hit the sack…

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  3. Anthony Hopkins would make a great Darwin. Well, I guess that makes sense – Anthony Hopkins would make a great anyone.

    I’d also like to see a drama series or movie set in a realistic scientific institute. Part of the problem is probably that it’s easy to simplify a hospital or the like into something that people will understand (even if it ends up bearing almost no resemblance to a real hospital) because most people have actually been in one. A research lab, on the other hand, will be as alien to most as the work carried out.

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  4. Heraclides – try Janet Browne’s biography: Charles Darwin: voyaging & Charles Darwin: the power of place. She does a pretty good job of looking at the personal side of his life as well as ‘Darwin-the-scientist’. His autobiography gives you a view of his inner workings as well (I loved his view on ‘popular novels’!)

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  5. Any preference on the two? I’ll have a nosey in the libraries (money is tight and all that, buying books is a bit of a no-no, which isn’t fun!)

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  6. Just peeked into Amazon and realised they are a pair… over 1200 pages of reading in total. *Gulp*

    I’ll have a look out for them anyway. They review very well on Amazon.

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  7. I know the tight money problem. However, I have found that the local library is very open to making purchases of these sort of books. I often make recommendations (we are allowed 2 per month). It costs me only $1 for the reservation and I get satisfaction out of the knowledge that the book is then available for others.

    Disadvantage – it won’t reside on my bookshelf for long. But beggars can’t be choosers.

    I see both these books are in the Hamilton library – I will certainly get them out soon.

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  8. Ken,

    Thought occurred to me from reading your post: are retired scientists usually given access rights to the local university library once they retire? I’d like to think so, it’d give people a chance to dabble on a pet project in a semi-retired fashion. Emeritus professors I suspect get their perks: I’m thinking of “lesser” mortals 🙂

    Turns out the local public library has both volumes, so that’s good. I prefer books on my shelf (I already have a fair number), but with economic times and the personal budget reining in spending isn’t a bad idea…

    Alison: Thanks for the tip, looks good. Not sure how fast I’ll get into it. I tend to read well off science when I’m really busy. Just finished an old Pratchett and have another of his waiting.

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  9. Since this is the most recent thread on the blog, and less busy, I thought I would go off topic for a moment.

    A question for the materialists. If life, in its basic form, was actually designed, wouldn’t you want to know that?

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  10. Didn’t I answer that same question somewhere else?

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  11. Didn’t I answer that same question somewhere else?

    Perhaps, but I forgot where I posted that. How to get back there…

    But it is a valid question, don’t you think…

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  12. @ James:

    Forget about labeling people, James. It doesn’t matter what people call themselves (or what you call them – you have already disgraced yourself with the ‘atheist’ smear of science). Your ‘materialist’ label is just as inappropriate.

    Of course if life was designed (whatever that means) scientists and science supporters would like to know this – and they would investigate and find the facts from the empirical evidence. Surely that is what they are doing now?

    The simple fact is that science doesn’t exclude ID. But there just isn’t any evidence for it (at this stage?). If the Wedge people would only get off their bums and do some research (or divert their energy away from political struggle) they might (just might) actually find some. There is a Noble prize waiting for them if they do.

    Both Johnson and Nelson acknowledge that they don’t have a scientific basis for ID – and despite the promises in the Wedge Strategy nothing has been found.

    If and when evidence proper is produced for ID I would be one of the first to welcome it – not for puerile ideological reasons, but because I am fascinated by new discoveries in science – no matter how challenging they are. I am sure most pro-science people feel the same.

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  13. I see that James has decided to disrupt a thread that was peacefully having an existence outside his rants and trolling…

    There is an interesting book I ran into in the library a while back: Media, risk, and science by Stuart Allan. (ISBN: 0335206638; Call Number: Q225 .AD285). Its a pretty easy read and interesting. I didn’t get far into it before it got recalled but it seems right on topic & you might enjoy it.

    I also recall reading an article describing the portrayal of scientists in Hollywood on the WWW. I had a quick look, but I can’t relocate it yet. I did run into this book review: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14280-9/hollywood-science (Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World by Sidney Perkowitz)

    There is somewhere out there a website (probably several) listing “science” movies and rating the scenes by the correctness and goofs.

    Hoping I’m not rattling on, but I’ve poked my nose this path before! 😉

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  14. Weird, my last post disappeared. I’ll try again later.

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  15. @ Heraclides:

    Got caught up in spam for some reason I can’t comprehend.

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  16. Stranger still, that one made it. I’m going to keep my own copy of this one before sending it…! :-/

    I see that James has decided to disrupt a thread that was having a peaceful existence without him…

    I tried tracking down an article I read about science in Hollywood movies, but can’t find it yet. I did run into this book review, though: Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World by Sidney Perkowitz

    There are websites out there listing movies with “science” scenes and rating them by their correctness. Fun to read!

    One book you might be interested in is: Media, risk, and science by Stuart Allan (ISBN: 0335206638; Call Number: Q225 .AD285). From memory includes some stuff on the issue in your article, although its mainly focused on other issues.

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  17. Don’t worry, I thought it might be a browser glitch or the ‘net throwing a wobbly. Now you have two different takes on it! Hehe 🙂

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  18. (Feel free to delete one if you want (perhaps the first as it has a spurious link from a blog parsing issue) & the “extra” posts referring to it if you prefer a “tidy” blog…)

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  19. Ok, I’ll leave this thread alone…

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  20. “Ok, I’ll leave this thread alone…”

    Abandoning your usual tactic of thread derailment with dopey, ponderous questions?

    Wow. What a concept. Help yourself to a cookie.

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  21. @15: Some blog software filters posts with more than one link into the spam “folder”. In my case there was only one link really, but ‘W-W-W’ got interpreted as a second link. (Hypens added to try avoid it converting it to a link!) This might be what happened. Who knows!

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  22. Some of you might enjoy this:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7214/full/455734b.html

    Nature 455, 734-735 (9 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/455734b; Published online 8 October 2008

    Jascha Hoffman
    Science at the movies

    (You’ll need access to Nature to get the full version, or wait for it to turn up in the library.)

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  23. Ken:

    You could try Bonekickers next week: Prime TV @ 8:30 pm, Tuesday. Based around a team of archeologists. They’ve managed not to stereotype (so far anyway). By way of example, one member of the team gets a politician’s autograph: on her bust 🙂

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  24. Haven’t managed to watch Bonekickers yet – although my partner is recommending it to me and managed to record it last night. So look forward to viewing it.

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  25. Let me know what you think of it. The plot lines are a little thriller/conspiracy, of course, but I think the people are better represented than usual. Doesn’t surprise me that much as the Brits are more into getting the characters right. In my opinion, anyway.

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  26. Watched it last night and enjoyed it though felt it got pretty unrealistic at times. I suspect, though, it will grow on me (provided they don’t get into any supernatural rubbish) so will keep watching it.

    Currently, I am also enjoying The Big Bang TV2 Wednesdays – which could be seen as portraying a negative image of nerds and obsessive compulsion. But I do enjoy the culture clash and the fact that some of the scientific descriptions given are accurate, if hilarious.

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  27. The supernatural stuff always annoys me, too. (Forgot about that. Its a bit of a mish-mash: its a pity that they can’t work more on the drama and less on the “idiot” side of it.)

    Haven’t been watching The Big Bang at all for some reason. Probably because I didn’t start at the beginning.

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  28. Spotted this at the bottom of an article:

    Tennant also returns to the small screen this month in a BBC drama Einstein and Eddington, where he plays a British astrophysicist who was an early supporter of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

    Might be worth looking out for? Andy Serkis plays Einstein. There are only two reviews at Amazon.com, but both were in favour of it (5 stars out of 5).

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  29. BBC refers to the programme here. It’s worth keeping an eye on. I know it’s possible for UK viewers to download programmes after they have been screened. I guess our hope is that someone puts it up on YouTube or Google. I am also keeping an eye out for “The Story of Maths” which screened on BBC 4 recently.

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  30. Now this should have been a story-line for Bonekickers:

    Scientists say Copernicus’ remains found
    By comparing DNA from a skeleton they have found with that of hair
    retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer’s books

    (From the RSNZ newsletter.)

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