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It's not the most exacting science

Cinematic depictions don't always match the reality of scientific work. What's all this 'mad' business, anyway?

October 20, 2002|Vincent H. Resh | Special to The Times

Each year, along with various biology classes, I teach a freshman course at UC Berkeley called "Science and the Movies." Unlike a science-fiction film course, we study how science and scientists are portrayed in cinema. And unlike what most scientists tend to comment about science-based movies -- whether what is depicted is technically accurate -- we concentrate on examining the accuracy of the portrayals themselves.

On the first day of class, I begin by asking students for adjectives they'd use to describe a scientist. Immediately, more than 80% say "mad" -- as in the archetypal "mad scientist." Other descriptions include "nerdy," "power-hungry," "naive." Only far down the list might "idealistic" and "self-sacrificing" appear.

Having been raised watching "The Story of Louis Pasteur," "Madame Curie" and "Arrowsmith," I did not have these negative images in my memories of why I wanted to become a scientist. But assuming my students hold the same views as the general public, what does this negative depiction say about scientists and their work? If movies are indeed a celluloid embodiment of our culture's dreams (and nightmares), a projection of the drives and beliefs of its audience onto the screen, what do movies tell us about how we collectively perceive science?

Analysis of such movies, especially ones with scientists as main characters, reveals one inescapable fact: Science scares us. When cinema steps into the laboratory, it reflects our anxieties about how the power of science -- and our perceived lack of control over its consequences -- can affect our lives. Was there anyone who watched "Jurassic Park," "Outbreak" or "Deep Blue Sea" who afterward didn't feel a twinge of "could they really be thinking about doing this?" Even this summer's hit "Spider-Man" played into our fears -- in this case, fooling around with genetics.

To be sure, people have always been afraid of science's possibilities. From condemnations against Galileo to the rise of technology-shunning Luddites, scientific development has been questioned, criticized and damned. New discoveries, and their technological applications, have caused equal parts wonder and dread.

Take the granddaddy of all popular science films, "Frankenstein," which presented a conflict that has appeared in almost every science movie since: the quest for forbidden knowledge and the gradual unveiling of the Maybe We Have Gone Too Far syndrome. From Pandora's box in Greek mythology to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, tampering with nature's secrets -- otherwise known as "the danger of playing God" -- is one of Western civilization's most enduring themes.

"Frankenstein" also introduced the scientist-out-of-control role through a popular misconception. The monster, brought back to life with the electrical power of lightning, is not actually called Frankenstein -- that's the doctor's name. But this subtle name transfer (as in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein") equates the monster's blind brutality with the scientist's relentless quest for forbidden knowledge.

Later, as movie story lines grew more sophisticated, other issues were explored. "Island of Lost Souls" (and its remakes as "The Island of Dr. Moreau") was an early warning of animal rights violations and vivisectionism. In the 1950s, with the United States clutched in an atomic arms race and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still in memory, fears of radioactive catastrophes materialized on film.

Who's to blame in creating these calamities? Who else? The scientists. However, it can get worse when scientists and the government team up (such as in "Splash" or "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"). With the government's backing, it seems that a solitary researcher somehow becomes transformed into part of a sinister swarm of faceless technocrats, indistinguishable from military agents. In other words: villains.

Perhaps no person has ratcheted up fears about scientists-gone-awry more than bestselling author Michael Crichton. The common Crichton theme is the scientist engaging in destructive folly -- myopic lab coats foolishly toying with things beyond their control. In Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain," the deadly organism is eliminated despite the scientists' (some of whom were depicted as coming from Berkeley!) futile efforts, while in "Jurassic Park," the scientists become victims of their own creations.

Crichton takes genetic engineering, currently the doomsday movie topic most in vogue, to unsurpassed heights in "Jurassic Park." He also introduces updated (if erroneous) scientist stereotypes: the flippant hipster (Jeff Goldblum as the chaos theorist) and -- politically incorrect although it may seem -- the hyper-intelligent Asian (B.D. Wong, playing the role with geeky intensity), who, even to today's multiethnic audiences, is meant to personify the brainy discoverer.

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