What's Wrong with This Picture? Educating Via Analyses of Science in Movies and TV

Article excerpt

The arrival of a new ice age in a matter of weeks? Setting the Earth's core rotating with a few nuclear bombs? Fault zones that gape open to swallow people, speeding trains, and even small towns? "Get real," say earth scientists decrying the recent movies The Day after Tomorrow and The Core and the TV min]series 10.5. For years, scientists have worried that inaccurate science on both big and small screens misinforms viewers who may not distinguish what's fiction and what's fact. However, some scientists see opportunities in even the most outlandish films and television shows. To dispel popular misconceptions about science, educators are teasing out shreds of scientific truth hidden within the fiction, and scientists are using unredeemably inaccurate rate scenes as ways to attract public attention to genuine scientific concepts.

Some scientists propose that more-accurate depictions of research and more-favorable portrayals of scientists in film and on TV may lead young people to study science. The boost in interest in forensics careers that has followed the hit TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and a few similar British series offers these science advocates hope that their scheme might just work.

LIGHTS! CAMERA! WEIRDNESS! The media hype generated by a blockbuster movie provides a great opportunity to reach a wide audience and talk about nonfiction earth science, says Andrew J. Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. This summer, he took advantage of The Day After Tomorrow, which has raked in more than a half billion dollars worldwide.

That blockbuster followed a long tradition of inaccurate cinematic depictions of science. In Georges Melies' 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon, six adventurers travel in a capsule fired from a large cannon. After their lunar landing, the explorers are kidnapped by disgruntled moon inhabitants, escape to their capsule, nudge it off the moon's edge, and fall back to Earth. where they splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

Just a few problems: No cannon can fire a projectile into space, and even if it could, the explorers inside would die from the fantastic acceleration that would be required. Also, Melies depicted the moon as having Earthlike gravity, early in the movie and then conveniently ignored this gravitational pull later, so that the explorers could return home. The list of technical critiques could be much lengthier, but you get the picture.

In the century since Melies' 14-minute film debuted, special effects have improved substantially, but scientific accuracy often has remained low on the priority list. The premise of last summer's The Day after Tomorrow, is that global warming suddenly interferes with the ocean's thermohaline circulation that brings warmer water to the North Atlantic and warms Europe. The sudden collapse of the thermohaline circulation brings on a new ice age in a matter of weeks.

"The special effects are quite good; I was riveted," Weaver says. However, he dismisses the idea that modern-day global warming can trigger an ice age.

To counter the inaccuracies underlying The Day after Tomorrow, Weaver and his colleague Claude Hillaire-Marcel of the University of Quebec in Montreal used computer models to analyze today's climate in terms of what's known about global cooling in the past.

Without a doubt, abrupt climate change has occurred--but it was abrupt in terms of decades, not weeks. For example, a few times during Earth's history, the onset of cooling seems to have been triggered by immense surges of glacial meltwater into the North Atlantic (SN: 11/2/02,p.324). When the ice sheet covering northeastern Canada collapsed, about 8,200 years ago, more than 163,000 cubic kilometers of trapped water drained into the North Atlantic in a matter of months. That influx raised .sea level by as much as 50 centimeters, shut down thermohaline circulation, and, in a decade or so. …