Appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in support of their book Science(ish): The Peculiar Science Behind the Movies, based on the podcast of the same name, on the early afternoon of Tuesday 21st August Doctor Michael Brooks and presenter Rick Edwards were interviewed by Bob McDevitt at an event entitled Big Screen Science about the representation of science in movies, or lack thereof.
Edwards the better known of the pair from his television work, he is not unqualified to discuss the subject, possessing a “dimly recalled natural sciences degree from Cambridge,” while as a consultant for New Scientist Brooks does not find his opinions unchallenged by his co-host: “We both believe that’s we’re right all the time,” he said, to which Edwards added “Particularly you.”
The podcast now in its third season, Edwards explained that their aim was to discuss the films rather than destroy them: “We look at the big ideas, not the minutiae of how they execute those ideas. They need leeway to tell the story.” Considering entertainment as a valid way to communicate science to the masses, Edwards used Interstellar as an example of a film where only a fraction of the audience would have watched a documentary about black holes.
Brooks offered a caveat, pointing out that science advisor on a film tended to act as a sounding board rather than having veto over the director: “Kip Thorne is a great astrophysicist but even he couldn’t stop Christopher Nolan putting in the line ‘love is the only thing that transcends barriers of time and space,’ which for me was the breaking point of the movie.”
Talking about the real possibility of space travel, through warp drives or generation ships or other exotic means, Edwards was enthusiastic about the possibilities of black holes: “If we could understand black holes we could get clues about how the universe works which might open the stars to us.”
Moving onto one of their favourite films, Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca, released when the Human Genome Project was in full swing and promising breakthroughs in personalised medical intervention, the world of designer babies envisioned in the film has not materialised, and as the narrative made clear there is more to life than genetics.
“The complexity of DNA cannot really be underestimated,” Edwards said. “We don’t even know how many genes there are because we can’t define what a gene is. There are very few things with a monogenetic link – hairy knuckles, cleft chin and ear wax.”
Brooks talking of another favourite, Jurassic Park, he sadly told the audience that as DNA degrades over time, and even faster when encased in amber, “We are never going to have dinosaurs back; it’s a lovely idea, it just doesn’t pan out.”
Staying on the subject, Edwards said a more useful approach was to activate dormant genes in living species, showing a slide of a chicken skull and an alligator skull, and between them a chicken embryo where the genes which inhibited the growth of teeth had been deactivated, leading to a “dinochick,” though he said he did not believe the organism had resulted in a live birth.
Talking of the woolly mammoth, a more recent species where it is believed some specimens died only four thousand years ago, Edwards said it might be possible to engineer an elephant to reintroduce the mammoth but Brooks failed to see the point: “It would be so sad to bring them back just to lose them again because we failed to provide the proper environment.” Edwards agreed, adding “And you know sooner or later one of them will be taken down by an American dentist.”
Edwards considering the autonomous cars of Knight Rider and the fact that the lead tech of Knight Industries was always a woman, Brooks spoke of the female protagonists of Contact and Arrival with their themes of language, what it means to be human and the social implications of alien contact in both films and the positive role models presented in them.
The most recent major film depicting an all-female scientist team having had its cinema release cancelled, Brooks felt the perceived failure of the film would have an effect. “The problem was not with Annihilation but with the female led roles after it which will not get funded.” The film criticised for being difficult to understand he countered, “I would rather films were too clever than too dumb.”
Edwards bringing up an example of the opposite extreme, despite the failings of the film he said “Climate change is so slow it’s hard to depict dramatically which is why Day After Tomorrow does what it does,” but said he believed that while it was received poorly worldwide, in America where there is much more scepticism towards climate change it had helped to open eyes.
A transatlantic divide once apparent in the differences towards the representation of science in science fiction, Brooks talked of the strong relationship between the BBC and the Royal Society in the sixties and seventies, citing astrophysicist Fred Hoyle’s A for Andromeda as a result of this, but felt the difference was now diminishing and recognised that veracity was sometimes necessarily sidelined: “You’ve got to have a compelling story. If the science helps, great, if it has to be twisted, so be it.”