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Sci-Tech: The Movie

Fifteen films that try to cross-pollinate art and science

3 min read

If you're anything like me, you'll have found yourself--all too often--either getting annoyed or sadly shaking your head in disbelief at television shows and movies that try to include science or technology in the mix.

The reason for dismay? Science and technology are typically dealt with in a very superficial way by Hollywood, dropped into scripts as window dressing or convenient grease to move along a humdrum plot. Accurate depictions of technology are rare, and saying something meaningful about science or engineering is even rarer. This is a shame, because technology and science are powerful forces in today's global culture, and they have fundamentally changed our relationship with the world around us--and will continue to drive change long into the future. An informed artist's perspective could help us better understand where we all stand as human beings in this shifting relationship.

Since 1997, the New York City�based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has been trying to bridge the gap between technology and art by giving grants and awarding prizes to moviemakers who have intelligently incorporated science and technology into their work. (For an interview with Shane Carruth, who won a Sloan prize for his feature-length movie Primer , see ”From Math to Movies,” IEEE Spectrum, November 2004, and, in the interests of full disclosure, you should know I unsuccessfully applied to a similar Sloan project for a book research grant last year.)

Because most of the work concerned is in the form of short films made by students, it has been difficult for the general public to see them, which is why the Sloan Foundation and the Museum of the Moving Image (also in New York City) have teamed up to showcase some of the best productions. They maintain a Web site, Sloan Science Cinémathèque, at, that focuses on science in film. The site, intended for users who have broadband Internet connections, hosts short movies, trailers for full-length movies, interviews, and articles on related topics. The site, which was launched last August, was upgraded in March with new films and other goodies, such as a 30â''minute video of a panel discussion with Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard and the movies' producer, Brian Grazer.

As it happens, this panel provides a good example of my one caveat regarding the site: everything in the fields of science, engineering, and technology tends to get lumped under the single umbrella term ”science.” For example, despite Apollo 13's being centered on a purely engineering problem--an explosion aboard a spacecraft--and the fact that most of the characters portrayed in the movie are engineers, the discussion about the film is couched in terms of the issues involved with presenting ”science” and ”science problems” to a movie audience. It may sound like semantics, but in an otherwise terrific effort to improve the public's understanding of science and technology, this lack of distinction can, ironically, present a distorted image of science--and do a disservice to engineers in the bargain.

Photo: Museum of the Moving Image


Teen angst is reflected by the uncertain fate of Skylab.

This nit aside, the Sloan Foundation and the Museum of the Moving Image are to be commended, not just for opening the door to substantive dialogue between the worlds of science, technology, and film, but also for making the fruits of that dialogue so accessible. Fifteen short films are available on the site to watch for free, ranging in length from 7 to 29 minutes. My favorites are The Monster and the Peanut , about a man who believes he can find the reason for his daughter's death if only he can figure out how to model traffic flow [see photo, "A Driven Man"], and Skylab , in which a boy spends a summer worrying that the sky will literally fall on his head [see photo, "The End of The World?"]. Another notable film is Gray Matter , an unflinching look at a coroner's investigation into a child's death. Be warned, though: the film includes a grisly and graphic scene of an autopsy that makes this depiction of a forensic investigator's work very different from television shows like ”C.S.I.” and its spin-offs. (That said, ”C.S.I.” does generally work hard to get the science right; see ”Inside Hollywood,” Spectrum, December 2005.)

The only movie I really didn't like was Paprika, an animated tale that aims to depict Nobel Prize�winner Albert Szent-Györgyi's identification of Vitamin C as ascorbic acid. In the film, the secret of Vitamin C is told to Szent-Györgyi by a homunculus that, one day, just happens to magically emerge from a red pepper. Isn't the idea of revealed wisdom delivered by supernatural entities, though, inherently antithetical to science?

Still, the obvious creativity of all the featured filmmakers suggests that there will be something for nearly every taste on the site. I urge even the most cold-bloodedly analytical engineer to check out these artistic offerings--who knows, they may even give you a new perspective on your work. Just don't start talking to the red pepper people.

To Probe Further

For more about the interface between science, technology, and film, check out David Kushner's Web-only column, ”The Science of Hollywood,” at .

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