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Good Movies, Bad Science

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2007
Michael A. Greenwood

Hollywood churns out movies bursting with heart-pounding action and jaw-dropping special effects. Whether the characters are human, like Keanu Reeves, or superhuman, like Superman, their on-screen exploits are designed to awe audiences.

But the mind-boggling feats are possible only because they wildly bend the basic laws of physics.

A steady diet of faster and flashier special effects is taking a toll on the public’s understanding of what is — and what is not — scientifically possible, according to Costas J. Efthimiou, a professor of physics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who has studied the way science is portrayed in film.

He points to a memorable scene from the popular action movie Speed. Reeves and Sandra Bullock must accelerate a bus packed with passengers (and explosives) to 70 mph to clear a 50-ft gap in the freeway. The bus makes the miracle jump and continues — only slightly worse for wear — on its breakneck trip.

“The bus would never have made it,” Efthimiou said. “It would just dive down.”

Many younger students don’t fully appreciate that special effects are just that. They see these scenes at an early age and do not learn in school that such feats are impossible.

Although such movies may be contributing to a decline in scientific literacy in the US, Efthimiou thinks that they also can be part of the solution.

He has designed a course that teaches physics based on scenes from popular movies. He found that traditional teaching methods left his students bored and him frustrated, so he created a course called “Physics in Films.” He is in the process of writing a textbook to go with it.

Students watch movies such as Aeon Flux and The Chronicles of Riddick and then apply scientific principles to scenes from the movies.

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