Posted in biology, communication and networking, education, physics

When to break the rules of physics in film, and when not to

There’s no shortage of movies that play fast and loose with the laws of nature. One scientist is on a mission to fix these flaws, but will it really improve scientific literacy?

From SEED Magazine

One of the highlights of this year’s AAAS meeting (at least to someone following online) was a session called “Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: The Science of Superheroes.” At its core was a panel moderated by Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, or SXE, an organization that aims to “bridge the gap” between fiction and non-fiction. Writers and directors get help on source material from scientists, who in turn have an opportunity to connect their areas of expertise with general audiences. 

Of the panelists, the one who made the biggest impression outside the science community was Sidney Perkowitz, a physics professor at Emory and a member of SXE. In an effort to bolster the public’s understanding of science and respect for scientists, Perkowitz has developed a highly quotable rule of thumb for their depiction in cinema: “one big scientific blunder in a given film.”

Of course, this rule could be seen as an example of science’s public relations problem. From an insiders’ perspective, this is a professional defending his turf from exploitation and perversion. But from an outsider’s perspective, this is an egghead who only deigns to come down from the ivory tower to throw a wet blanket over the entire concept of fiction. You mean Spiderman catching Mary Jane a second before she hits the pavement would do as much damage as just letting her fall? Where’s the fun in that?

Ouellette gives a recap of the panel at her group blog, Cocktail Party Physics, where she says Perkowitz’s position has been blown out of proportion somewhat. The main idea is consistency and plausibility of the premise, rather than breaking out a protractor every time someone fires a gun, as these guys might. Singled out were the giant bugs of Starship Troopers who would collapse under their own weight, and the instant ice age of The Day After Tomorrow.

Science fiction fans will recognize this as a variant of the “hard versus soft” debate…(continue)



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.