Saturday, September 08, 2007

Scientists in Movies (and TV)

I saw Pi last week for the first time since about when it came out in 1998. Back then, I didn't really see what the big deal was, but then, I probably was unable to follow the "plot." This time around, I really don't understand what the big deal was: it's an artsy-fartsy film that is trying way too hard. Everyone knows that Contact (the book) does a better job of hinting at the mystique of number theory—even though it's nominally a book about astronomy and aliens and religion!—and even Kushiel's Avatar does a better job at trying to guess what it would be like to hold the supposedly unholdable Name of God in one's head.

But what really disappointed me about Pi—and thus made all of the number theory and religious mumbo jumbo just silly and contrived—was the utter stereotypical nature of the main character, Max. He's clearly supposed to be the troubled genius, an antisocial outcast rife with self-destructive hallucinations and unthinkable mathematical insight. No. Just, no. Even if mania/insanity/depression/whate-have-you and intelligence are linked or correlated, the movie still screams, "Ooooh, look at me! Isn't this disturrrrrrbing?" No. It's ridiculous. Now get over yourself.

Even most movies which clearly try to be realistic fall short. Take for example the play-based Proof. In it, Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to have proven this really amazing theorem about "prime numbers," but she is also battling various mental issues. While the psychosis in this film still comes across as a bit off, I think it's a good effort; where the movie is utterly painful for me is whenever the characters attempt discussing math. This is the problem the writers face: they can either have the characters speak naturally like real scientists or mathematicians would—and thus have essentially no one in the audience understand any of the jargon-laden sentences, or they can have the characters repeat definitions to one another that they would have realisitically known since they were six years old and have the conversation come across and stilted and forced. Most movies I can think of choose the latter path; they'd rather hold the audience by the hand and let them feel like they can follow the conversation rather than have a realistic exchange in which the tone of what is spoken—the jokes, the tension, the insults, the interruptions and half sentences—are the drivers of the plot rather than the actual words.

The only two movies I can think of that take the latter route (and even then, still let the words be the plot driver) are Contact and Real Genius. The particular scene in Contact that doesn't try to painfully explain the details to the audience is the one in which they are taking the Vegan signal and converting it to a TV visual and audio output; the dialog exchanged is reasonably realistic, and the audience doesn't have to understand it all because it all makes sense when the TV is turned on—and part of the humor in the scene is that the nasty miltitary man doesn't understand the conversation either. Contact has its own shortcomings of course—you can seriously not convince anyone who has spent time trying to decipher puzzles lacking instructions that "we can only get three sides to fit together!" doesn't scream "I'm a cube, damn you!!!"—but it is still one of the best movies with scientists as characters I know of.

The other, of course, is Real Genius. The students and scientist-types in it are all obvious caricatures, but they are exagerations of something realistic and along the correct axes. Sure, many of the characters in the movie are the stereotypical "oh no I'm smart and can do math so I must be a total social dork!" but the main character, Chris Knight, is clearly well outside of this box. I couldn't even begin to list the number of movies and TV shows featuring a scientifically intelligent character who is white, male, with glasses, doesn't shower often enough, can't get a girlfriend, can't carry on a "normal" conversation, and is uncomfortable in big groups and pretty people. Of course, this is a travesty because it's through pervasive moves and television that most kids subconsciously learn the cultural stereotypes of many professions and different kinds of people. It is extremely difficult to fight stereotypes once they are planted.

Are there any movies, or even TV shows, out there that I'm missing which depict scientifically minded folk in a realistic—or at least non-condescending—fashion? Even the West Wing, which clearly respects characters with intelligence, treats mathematical intelligence as inferior to the ability to yield verbal rhetoric. I think the main problem is that (good) writers write what they know, and almost by definition very very few writers know what it is like to be or be around real scientists. This, combined with the fact I mentioned above about writers being scared to write conversations their audiences can't actually follow, is why even those writers who want realistic technically-minded characters on screen don't achieve them.


Aaron said...

For some reason, this post reminds me of a CSI:NY episode where the chief inspector (or whatever he's called) walks into a room and finds two detectives scribbling on a blackboard that's completely filled, floor to ceiling, with equations. When the chief asks what they're doing, one of the detectives replies, "Law of cosines..."

I think the cartoonish blackboards that often show up in TV shows and movies bother me even more than the inane pseudo-mathematical dialogue. They're always full, but never crammed, and of course they've never been touched by anything so uncouth as an eraser. The equations are written neatly, in straight lines; they look like the formulas a teacher might write out on the board before class. There are no sketches, or scribbles, or crossouts, or twiddle signs, or vague arrows... nothing to suggest the real spirit of calculation, in all it's messy, careless glory.

Of course, maybe it's inevitable that stage blackboards look staged, because the only way to get a real-looking blackboard is to do some real work on it!

Marc said...

Hi Molly! I have two answers to your question. First, An Inconvenient Truth. It's not deep math, but the argument depends on math, and trying to present it in such a way that everyone gets it. It's a documentary, which means maybe the rules are different. The second is Primer, an obscure indie film from 2004. It's more about scientists and engineers than mathematicians, but I think it works. I won't say much about it, except that if you read about it before you see it, you will likely learn things you would enjoy learning better by watching, so just rent it.

mollishka said...

Hi Marc,

Yeah, the rules are definitely different for documentaries; for one, the premise is education and not entertainment. I've added Primer to my Netflix queue, though; thanks for the suggestion!

Anonymous said...

Hmm I cant remember a thing. But Ive seen almost all the best movies ever.

Daniel E. Harper said...

The Manhattan Project is a decent flick that shows scientists fairly realistically. It's not quite Real Genius good, but it's approximately Wargames good.

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