The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, September 27, 2010

That iffy skiffy science ...

Over the past few years I've got a lot of mileage (quite literally - one presentation of it was used to finagle funding for a trip to Australia by a science fiction academic speaking at the same conference) out of a talk I first gave to a Communicating Science class at Glasgow University. One of the points I make in that talk is how rare good science is in - not written SF, which, I argue, is largely kept honest by the sharp teeth of the well-read, ravening hordes of SF fandom - but SF in other media.

Especially (as you know, Professor) the movies.

The biological, and specifically evolutionary, element of this endlessly replicating, spawning, proliferating nonsense gets a well-deserved dissection on groovy skiffy website io9. The smack-down also swipes one example from written SF - one I used myself in that lecture, as it happens. (Via the great PZ, who knows what he's talking about.)

Hollywood, it's safe to say, won't reform its ways any time soon. So what can a good science communicator do? There are only so many times you can re-run Gattaca, after all. One innovative approach is taken by the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics, along with sociology institute Cesagen, in Cardiff: at their initiative, Cardiff sciSCREEN, they hang serious discussions off popular and classic movies without trying to use the scientific content of the movies as educational tools - for example, using the recent blockbuster Inception 'to explore the psychology of lucid dreaming, business ethics and intellectual property, representations of urban environments, and the ownership of mental states'.

Next up: Der Golem, a Halloween special followed by a 'discussion featuring academics with interests in the Gothic, in the philosophy of vitalism, and in folklore, myth, and Jewishness and Judaism on film.'

Way to go!

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You might be interested in David Kirby's work - he's done a fair amount on science communication and film, some of which has looked at the roles of scientific advisors on movies and TV series. I vaguely remember him pointing out that it's not so much that movie-makers are ignorant of science; rather the science is very much subordinate to their dramatic imperatives.

(Full disclosure: I'm currently a postgrad at CHSTM, though in a slightly different field to David.)

So-far I've just read the first on, on star trek. Their biology is pants and, judging from the photo, their geology is just as bad.
But consider the aesthetic of the scene. The science just doesn'y matter to them.

It's sweet that anyone cares about this.

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