Monday, July 30, 2007

Hollywood physics - is it all science fiction?

Are Hollywood movies contributing to scientific illiteracy? Costas Efthimiou and Ralph Llewellyn, two physicists at the University of Central Florida, US, certainly seem to think so.

Efthimiou and Llewellyn just published a paper called Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited fun but limited science literacy, which highlights some glaring physical impossibilities in several popular films.

They say blockbuster films like Speed, Superman II, Spider-Man, The Core and the X-Men all break the laws of physics routinely. And, while this is hardly surprising, since most are "science fiction" movies, they suggest it could ultimately be damaging for some viewers. Especially younger ones who simply accept what they see as just a slightly modified version of reality.

Take, for example, The Core (trailer here, see image, left) a film in which the outer core of the Earth has stopped rotating due to military experiments. Members of a scientific team descend 1000 km into the Earth's interior, to help restore its rotation no less! And yet, they still walk and move normally. This is clearly impossible, Efthimiou and Llewellyn point out, since the force of gravity nearer the centre of the Earth would considerably less than that at its surface.

This blunder is just one of many described in the paper, which is an altogether amusing read. There's also a woeful misrepresentation of Newtonian physics in Spider-Man, when the Green Goblin holds Mary Jane in one hand and a tramway cable in the other (trailer here). And, in The Chronicles of Riddick (trailer here), there's a choice moment when Vin Diesel swings through 700ºC sunshine by dousing himself in water.

It might be amusing for people with a science background, but Efthimiou and Llewellyn aren’t too impressed. "Hollywood is thus reinforcing (or even creating) incorrect scientific attitudes that can have negative results for society," they write.

But it is all bad news? Perhaps not. The pair says that such mistakes can also be used to teach students abut the fundamental principles of physics. Indeed, Efthimiou and Llewellyn run a course together at Central Florida called Physics in Films that discusses these topics.

Hollywood might have a habit of breaking the laws of physics, but that doesn't mean students can't learn from their mistakes.

Belle Dumé, New Scientist contributor

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