20th Century Fox
A scene from the "The Day After Tomorrow," in which Earth undergoes sudden and dramatic climate shifts. It was all good fiction when the film came out in 2004, but now scientists are finding eerie truths to the possibilities of sudden temperature swings.
updated 12/28/2010 12:36:54 PM ET 2010-12-28T17:36:54

Sprinkling some science into Hollywood blockbusters can go a long way toward inspiring the next generation of physicists, astronomers and biologists, such scientists agree.

That was one key message from a panel of scientists, filmmakers and media experts at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union this month.

The movie science doesn't even have to be entirely accurate, some of the panelists added when asked to consider the role and impact of science in cinema. As long as it plants a seed of curiosity in viewers, it may spur them to investigate scientific issues on their own — and perhaps consider a career in science down the road.

If the movie is good, that is.

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"It's not an educational medium, it's an emotional medium," said Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "Kids get turned on by the emotion."

Shostak has advised Hollywood on a number of feature films, including "Contact."      

Hollywood inspiration
Movies can have a tremendous influence on young people with open, malleable minds, the panelists said.

Bruce Rubin, screenwriter of the comet-strike disaster movie "Deep Impact," recalled seeing a 1951 film with a similar theme, "When Worlds Collide," as a child. When he and his friend Billy got out of the theater, Rubin said, they stood on a street corner for four hours talking about the movie, which showed humanity's race to build an escape rocket ship before a rogue star and planet destroyed Earth. [10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

"That movie completely turned my head around," Rubin said.

That movies can make such a powerful impression should come as no surprise, said fellow panelist Arvind Singhal, a professor of communication at the University of Texas, El Paso. Singhal cited several studies showing that people, especially children, often model their behavior on what they see on the big (or small) screen.

"The 'reel' can create the 'real,'" Singhal said.

Panel moderator Sidney Perkowitz, a physics professor at Emory University in Atlanta and author of the book "Hollywood Science" (Columbia University Press, 2007), backed up that sentiment, referencing the 2004 climate-change disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow."

"It actually changed people's minds about global warming," Perkowitz said.

The impact of feature films dwarfs that of most other genres, he added. "The Day After Tomorrow" grossed $544 million in international ticket sales. Al Gore's Oscar-winning global-warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," raked in just $49 million.

Attention to detail may not be necessary
Science shows up in many Hollywood films. According to Perkowitz, 22 of the 60 top-grossing movies of all time are science-fiction or superhero flicks, including history’s No. 1 box office hit, "Avatar."

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Some movies work hard to get the science right. But many make errors ranging from the understandable to the egregious, panelists said. As an example, Shostak brought up "Avatar." In the film, humans travel to a fictional extrasolar moon, Pandora, to mine a precious mineral said to be worth $20 million per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

According to Shostak, that's not valuable enough to justify traveling so far. Pandora is said to be in the Alpha Centauri star system, more than 4 light-years from Earth, or about 24 trillion miles (40 trillion kilometers). Spaceship fuel costs would chew through any potential profits, and fast.

"The basic premise of this film is bonkers," he said. Flying to Pandora for the mineral is "equivalent to ordering a book from Amazon and paying $60,000 for shipping."

Though accuracy is preferable, even error-filled films can have a positive impact, Shostak said. As a kid, he saw many sci-fi movies that took lots of liberties with the science.

"It didn't matter," he said. "They got you hooked emotionally."

Getting a kid hooked, he added, may lead that kid to read up on science and scientific issues. And that might be the first step in creating a future scientist.

Sometimes the error itself can inspire discussion and learning, others said.

"Even if a film or media product is not very accurate, that becomes a teaching moment," Singhal said. "So there's room for everything."

Rubin dissented somewhat, saying he thinks scientific accuracy in films is quite important. Kids today aren't reading much, he said, so they glean a large portion of what they know about the world from TV, movies and video games. Since these media deliver the foundation of many children's worldview, it's better if that foundation were based on solid information.

Science can make for good stories
The potential to get science into the movies — and therefore into more people's heads — is vast, panelists said, because science is full of lots of good stories. And good stories make good movies.

"There's so much out there in the world of science that would make great storytelling," Rubin said.

Panelist John Amiel, who directed the Charles Darwin biopic "Creation" and the Earth-science disaster flick "The Core," agreed.

Movies would do well, Amiel said, to show "the huge, endlessly exciting mystery that's inherent in all scientific exploration."

Mike Wall is a Senior Writer for SPACE.com, a sister site of LiveScience.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: The accuracy of 10 disaster flicks

  • 20Th Century Fox

    Film director M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" terrified movie audiences with the tale of a mysterious toxin that causes loss of speech, physical disorientation and death. But if anyone is worried that plants will suddenly evolve a defense mechanism that allows them to communicate with each other and target despoilers of the environment, biologists say you can rest easy. "The Happening" is just one example showing how science can be twisted for the sake of a story well told. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn how science fared in nine other disaster movies.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • 1974: 'Earthquake' shakes audiences

    Universal Pictures

    Movie fans who flocked to see Los Angeles destroyed in 1974's "Earthquake" got to feel the temblor themselves. Theaters were equipped with giant speakers that pumped out sound waves designed to give viewers a sensation of being in the disaster. According to critics, the special effect was a moderate success. And the quake scenes earned some respect from geologists as well. The film's faults include the notion that earthquakes can be predicted 24 hours in advance — they can't. And when earthquakes strike, they shake violently for a few minutes at most, not nine minutes as depicted on the big screen.

  • 1995: 'Outbreak' virus-stopper unlikely

    Warner Bros.

    In "Outbreak," an escaped African monkey unleashes a deadly, Ebola-style virus in a northern California town, and scientists race to contain the rapid spread. The plot thickens when a covert plan is uncovered to firebomb the town to keep the wraps on a secretly developed serum to fight an earlier version of the virus in Africa. This serum works on the monkey, but not people who are infected with the new mutant strain. The scientists in the movie hit on the idea that if they captured the monkey, they could obtain the new antibodies and save the world. In real life, experts say, transferring the monkey's antibodies to humans is unlikely to work.

  • 1996: 'Twister' adds new spin to tornado science

    Warner Bros.

    The National Severe Storms Laboratory proudly notes that "Twister" is based on their 1980s attempt to put a 55-gallon drum-sized instrument full of meteorological sensors — called TOTO — in the path of an oncoming tornado. In the movie, two competing teams of storm chasers race around to put their own storm-measuring contraptions in the path of deadly twisters. One is called Dorothy. In contrast with the movie's depiction, TOTO's instruments were not designed to fly up into a twister, and the contraption achieved only minimal success.

  • 1997: 'Dante's Peak' erupts with accuracy -- and faults

    Pacific Western

    Volcanologists consider "Dante's Peak" one of the most accurate scientific disaster movies to hit the big screen, despite a few glaring errors. The tale is inspired by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state and is driven by a debate between a town's safety and economic livelihood. The movie earned kudos for its accurate portrayal of the composite volcano eruption, but was also criticized for including fast-flowing lava. Composite volcanoes have thick, slow-moving lava that rebuilds volcano domes after major eruptions. Other faults in the film include overly acidic lake waters and an excessively large earthquake linked to the eruption.

  • 1998: 'Deep Impact' more realistic than 'Armageddon'

    In the year that Hollywood hurled a comet and asteroid at planet Earth, only the rocky snowball had a credible scientific spin. The comet movie, "Deep Impact," was particularly lauded for the depiction of the comet's energy and consequences of a direct hit. Astronomers took issue with characters who observed the night sky with their lights on and determined the comet's doomsday orbit from a single data point. "Armageddon," the asteroid movie, fared better at the box office but is considered far less scientifically accurate.

  • 2002: '28 Days Later' haunts psyche, not scientists

    In the haunting "28 Days Later," a bicycle courier wakes from a coma, alone, in a hospital bed in a nearly deserted London. Uncaged chimpanzees have liberated the "rage virus" that passes from person to person with a single drop of bodily fluid and rapidly transforms the infected into indiscriminate killers. While it's a frightening prospect, scientists say no virus can spread and produce such symptoms so quickly, and no virus causes disease in everyone it infects. Nevertheless, the film was a huge success and spawned a 2007 sequel, "28 Weeks Later."

  • 2003: 'The Core' attracts interest in Earth's magnetic field

    Paramount Pictures

    In "The Core," Earth's magnetic field rapidly deteriorates, and chaos ensues: Birds crash into buildings, the Golden Gate Bridge collapses, and lightning bolts zap city streets. All could get much worse unless "terranauts" journey to the depths of the planet and jump-start the core with a nuclear bomb. The premise of the movie is grounded in fact: Earth's magnetic field does fluctuate and even reverses every 100,000 years or so. But no human can withstand the crushing pressures 1,700 miles beneath the surface, and scientists say the movie exaggerates the importance of the magnetic field to daily life. Nevertheless, the flick did jack up interest in a controversial theory, published at the time of the movie's release, that says the core is powered by a natural nuclear reactor that could give out in as little as 100 years.

  • 2004: 'Day After Tomorrow' hypes climate science

    20th Century Fox via AP

    Hollywood's doomsday movie "The Day After Tomorrow" used a kernel of climate science to hype awareness about global warming two years before former Vice President Al Gore sobered audiences with "An Inconvenient Truth." Yes, Hollywood's tale is way over the top — but the ocean current that is halted in the movie to trigger the sudden freeze is slowing due to the rapid melt of Arctic ice, studies suggest. The current probably won't completely shut down, and it won't send a tsunami into the streets of New York. However, scientists do say that subtler and slower changes such as melting ice sheets, rising sea levels and stronger storms could wreak similarly catastrophic damage in the long run.

  • 2004: '10.5' causes scientists to guffaw


    Not all scientific disasters happen on the big screen, as illustrated by the implausibly devastating earthquake in the TV miniseries "10.5." The magnitude-10.5 earthquake that splits California in two is pure fiction, experts say, because the faults that underlie the state are too small. Lucy Jones, an earthquake expert at the U.S. Geological Survey, told The Associated Press that "the production is blatantly inconsistent with everything we know about earthquakes." No need to worry, for example, about the earth opening up in an earthquake as shown in this scene from the miniseries.


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