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affecting science, medicine and the environment | MIND

Science Is Stranger Than Anything From Hollywood

September 28, 2000|K.C. COLE

Nice try, Hollywood.

Last week, I went to see the opening of the newly released version of "The Exorcist." I don't much care for scary movies, but this was an offer I couldn't refuse. So I prepared myself to be scared silly by swiveling heads and earth-shaking devils and levitating beds.

And guess what? The scariest thing in the movie is the very realistic depiction of arrogant, know-it-all doctors torturing their young patient with modern medical technology (and oh, the blood!!) while in the end offering nothing better than a prescription for Ritalin. Now that's scary.

As usual, real life trumps fiction. In spades.

No matter what bizarre scenarios Hollywood dreams up, Nature has done it before, and better. Even the most imaginative movie makers can't come close to the terrors and wonders of the real thing.

I mean, take your swiveling heads and levitating bodies--or even Linda Blair's newly inserted spider walk down the stairs. What is that compared to, say, leprosy? The "Elephant Man" disease? Or plague?

Or how's this for a scenario? Virus in African monkeys gets transmitted across species to infect humans on a global scale--wiping out huge segments of the population in some countries? Or how about flesh-eating bacteria? Or human-concocted terrors like genital mutilation?

Not to mention the everyday horrors like the millions of dust mites that share your bed every night; the microscopic monsters that live in your eyelashes.


Of course, horror is only one genre where Hollywood takes second place. When it comes to good old fashioned gee whiz special effects, it can't hold a candle to what's really out there: mysterious bursting objects in space that spew out more light in an instant than an entire galaxy. Black holes that gobble stars whole and bring time to a halt.

"The Matrix" was fun, but at most, its characters were oozing in and out of four dimensions of space. This is child's play for today's physicists, who routinely explore the tangled topologies of 10 or 11. Not to mention two or more of time.

Our entire universe, according to these physicists, may be like the scum on the surface of milk: a membrane floating on a much larger cosmos of many more dimensions. Like the bad guys in "Superman," we would be trapped inside a thin slice, unable to communicate with the "real" world outside.

And then there's the Alice-in-Wonderland world of particle physics, the Lilliputian realm so spooky that even Albert Einstein refused to believe it was real.

Particles communicate like ghosts--telepathically, you might say--across vast distances, even without contact. Particles can be here and there at the same time, exist and not exist simultaneously.

Schrodinger's famous cat--the one that can be alive and dead at the same time--is no longer a fable; physicists have actually measured particles doing pretty much just that.

And don't even get me talking about cosmology. Universes breeding like rabbits out of hats, popping out of nothing at all for no apparent reason, even evolving like species. According to some theories, the flip side of a black hole is a so-called white hole--which is indistinguishable from the "big bang" that created our universe.

In other words, we may all, in some sense, be the progeny of black holes.

And let's not leave out technology. How about micro-machines that can crawl inside your body to diagnose disease, or deliver medicines? Machines that can just about assemble themselves? Particle accelerators that recreate the birth of the universe--thousands of times a second?

Or math, for that matter? What's a Hollywood ghost compared to an imaginary, surreal or transcendental number?

I could go on (and on). T. Rex was dreamed up by evolution long before Steven Spielberg came along, as were time warps and carnivorous plants.

However you cut it, Hollywood isn't half as creative as good old Mother Nature. Science is stranger than fiction.

In the end, reality always writes the better script.


Cole can be reached at

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