SIDNEY PERKOWITZ, a serious-minded professor of physics at Emory University, has done some serious counting up: Since 1902, he reckons, the movie industry has produced about 1,400 science-fiction films ("more than one a month"). In "Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World" (Columbia University Press: 256 pp., $24.95), he surveys this prodigious output.
Perkowitz grew up in the 1950s, the "golden era" of science fiction. In the new Atomic Age, nothing was too outlandish to contemplate and anything seemed possible -- invaders from Mars, rogue planets whizzing toward Earth, giant ants, rampaging carrots. He denies that all this cinematic fulminating is what drew him into physics, but it did turn him into a film buff.
Unlike many of his peers, Perkowitz is pleasantly tolerant of Hollywood's excursions into science, although he cautions readers that "[l]abs seen on movie screens display more blinking lights and spectacular computer displays than in real life."
In entertaining synopses, he covers all the bases: from that first 14-minute extravaganza of 1902, Georges Melies' "Le Voyage dans la Lune," up to 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow" -- of whose global-warming message he heartily approves (while taking issue with the speed at which the Northern Hemisphere is smothered in ice). Along the way, he offers painless and informative doses of the kinds of science that have most preoccupied Hollywood: extraterrestrials, Earth-bound comets, erupting volcanoes, plagues, mutants and disagreeable runaway computers. There's an appendix on popcorn.