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Oscars 2015: 'Interstellar,' 'The Imitation Game' Put Science in the Spotlight

The Oscar buzz is helping to make scientific subjects ranging from cryptography to wormholes and the "Theory of Everything" anything but ho-hum.

The Oscar buzz is at a high hum for Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, and this year, some of that buzz is helping to make scientific subjects ranging from World War II cryptography to wormholes and the "Theory of Everything" anything but ho-hum.

The nominees include:

  • "The Imitation Game," which tells the story of code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing, his critical role in winning the war against the Nazis, and his tragic personal life. The film picked up eight Oscar nominations.
  • "The Theory of Everything," based on Jane Hawking's book about her famous first husband, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and his struggles to find the meaning of the universe while dealing with a debilitating disease. The movie is up for five Oscars.
  • "Interstellar," director Christopher Nolan's eye-popping sci-fi epic about an environmental crisis on Earth and how space-traveling humans try to fight it. It's been nominated for five Academy Awards.

When you add in less serious fare, such as "Guardians of the Galaxy" (two Oscar nods) and "Big Hero 6" (which is up for the animated-feature award), that equals enough science fiction and science fact to merit an Academy Awards category of its own.

Does it matter that the historical truth in the sci-biopics, and the scientific principles behind "Interstellar," get a little stretched during the Hollywoodification process? Not necessarily, says Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute who has consulted on movies ranging from "Contact" to the Keanu Reeves remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

"If you had told me 20 years ago that computer scientists and cosmologists would be the heroes of a Hollywood film, I would have felt like someone had tasered me. I wouldn't have believed it," he told NBC News. "Filmmakers aren't trying to teach anybody computer science or cosmology, nor would they be very good at that. They're just trying to portray the fact that science is actually interesting and important, and what could be better than that?"

If the scientific angle is plausible, and the story grabs the viewer, the fact that a movie motivates some folks to dive into down-to-earth science is a valuable bonus.

"Many scientists go into the field of science, particularly in astronomy ... because they saw some movie when they were a kid," Shostak said last November when "Interstellar" came out. "Movies have a big effect on young people in terms of shaping their interest."

With that in mind, here are some pointers to the science underlying the tales of Turing, Hawking and the wormhole trekkers of "Interstellar":

'Imitation Game': The human factor

"The Imitation Game" focuses on the British effort to crack the secret codes that were used by the Germans to communicate via radio — codes that were created with the help of a typewriter-like device known as the Enigma machine. Turing masterminded the creation of a primitive computer to run through all the possible permutations, but it turns out that even math whizzes and their machines needed a little help from the human factor.

During a Google Hangout about Hollywood science, Columbia neuroscientist Sean Escola said the same situation holds true for today's code-breakers, who rely on phishing and other real-life stratagems as well as brute-force computing.

"The sheer number of 159 million million million is probably more than the fastest computers could do as well — but what turns out is that the Germans made mistakes," Escola said.

For more about the past and present of code-breaking, get a reality check on crypto history and the outlook for quantum cryptography.

'Theory of Everything': The story continues

"The Theory of Everything" is more of a love story than a science story, but the film still manages to work in aspects of Stephen Hawking's decades-long effort to unravel the principles underlying the Big Bang, black holes and the existence of the universe — in short, to "know the mind of God."

The movie doesn't take the narrative of Hawking's scientific studies much beyond the mid-1990s, but his quest to know the mind of God is still under way. In a book titled "The Grand Design," Hawking says that a strain of superstring theory known as M-theory offers the best chance of explaining how the universe works. Moreover, he says M-theory might work so well that there'd be no need for God.

Hawking has been known to change his mind, however, on subjects ranging from the fate of information trapped in a black hole to the state of his domestic situation. Now he says he's working on a new theory of cosmic origins that takes gravitational waves from the Big Bang into account.

For more about Hawking's status as a star scientist and a movie star, check out these tales about Hawking's theory of everything and Hollywood's "Theory of Everything."

'Interstellar': Fact meets fiction

Unlike "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything," Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" is totally fictional. Nevertheless, the science is arguably more central to the movie's plot than the science in the two fact-based movies. To lay down a foundation of plausibility, Nolan turned to Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, who worked out how black holes and wormholes should actually behave.

The results polarized science-savvy audiences, perhaps in part because so much was made of the film's theoretical grounding. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University who literally wrote the book on Star Trek physics, said "Interstellar" was "one of the worst movies ever made." But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is no pushover when it comes to scientific verisimilitude, told NBC News that he enjoyed the film and found Thorne's movie tie-in book to be "immensely readable."

If nothing else, "Interstellar" was one of the few movies in Hollywood history to feature relativistic time dilation, extradimensional space-time geometry ... and Matthew McConaughey keeping his shirt on.

For more on the science of "Interstellar," check out this relatively spoiler-free reality check on movie physics and this spoiler-laden explainer for the movie's big plot points.