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Tom Cruise Wants to Read Your Mind

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Gary Boas

Mar. 16, 2010 — Hollywood has a long, tangled history with science, with filmmakers calling on it to create strange, frequently dystopic worlds and using it to support surreal or otherwise inexplicable premises and plot devices (see, for example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
As often as not, though, the actual science in movies is, well, spotty. Sure, screenwriters will come up with a smattering of big words, and maybe even read the first few paragraphs of a Wikipedia page about a particular concept, but really just enough to make a scene sound, for instance, future-y and frightening. By and large, the science simply doesn’t hold up.

A popular example of this – to optics folks, at least – is the 2002 movie Minority Report. Set in the year 2054, the movie stars Tom Cruise as an officer in “Precrime,” a specialized police department that relies on psychics immersed in a white, opaque liquid to produce evidence against a criminal before he or she has committed the crime. The means by which they do so is explained in a bit of dialog:

“The photon milk acts as both a nutrient supply and a liquid conductor. It enhances the images that each of them receive … We scan by way of optical tomography. White light pinpoints pulse along the entire length of the headgear, and are re-read after absorption through their brain tissue.

“In other words, we see what they see.”

Here, not only do the screenwriters identify an actual technique – optical tomography – and offer an appropriate description of a probe that might be used with it, they also provide a more or less correct explanation of how the method works (it relies on the absorption of near-infrared light, as opposed to white light, but we’ll let that slide; also, photon milk is optional).

Science fiction veers dangerously close to straight-up fantasy, though, with the implications of the final line. In reality, optical tomography generates images of functional activation at centimeter depths in the brain, not grainy movies of whatever happens to be on the subject’s mind. And to my knowledge, researchers working in the field make no claims to soothsaying – nor even to the possibility of soothsaying some four decades from now.

Still, as movie transgressions go, this one is relatively benign. We could find any number of examples otherwise that defy both the laws of physics and logic itself, where – for scientists, anyway –suspension of disbelief is simply not possible. Just look at the Dan Brown adaptation Angels and Demons, in which an antimatter bomb is somehow contained in a glass vial using only the charge from a small battery, or pretty much any movie involving time travel.

Realism, and walking through walls

Aware of the often erroneous ways in which scientific concepts are portrayed by the entertainment community, the National Academy of Sciences launched in 2008 the Science & Entertainment Exchange, which offers access to scientists and engineers when developing storylines and special effects, for example. The Exchange, according to its website, can help to refine concepts in such areas as space travel, multiple dimensions and nanotechnology; offer insight into environmental and ecological concerns, as well as health, medicine and disease; and advise on public policy issues relating to stem cell research, climate change and more.

These connections also benefit the scientific community, which to date has lacked an effective means to convey its story to the general public.

The Science & Entertainment Exchange has already enjoyed several notable successes. One of its first introductions was between Alex McDowell, the production designer for the 2009 movie Watchmen, and University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios, author of the book The Physics of Superheroes. Kakalios consulted on the movie, explaining how Dr. Manhattan might pass through walls, for instance. In return, the movie provided a number of opportunities for science outreach, including a talk at Comic-Con International and a video he produced with the university’s public relations office – Science of Watchmen – for which he won an Emmy.

This and other efforts, including consultations on the TV shows Heroes and Caprica, have surely led to more authentic portrayals of scientific ideas by the entertainment community. But for some scientists it’s not enough. Sidney ­Perkowitz, a professor of physics at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. and a member of the Exchange, has proposed a set of guidelines for science fiction films, which boil down to this: movies should be allowed one transgression of the laws of physics, and that’s it.

“I am not offended if they make one big scientific blunder in a given film," he said recently, according to The Guardian of London. “You can have things move faster than the speed of light if you want. But after that I would like things developed in a coherent way.”

The Science & Entertainment Exchange website offers a wealth of information about the organization, a newsfeed and an excellent blog.
Mar 2010
BoasCruiseDifferent WavelengthsGaryGary BoasGary Boas BlogJamesJames KakaliosKakaliosMinority ReportNational Academy of Sciencesoptical tomographyPerkowitzScience & Entertainment ExchangeSidneySidney PerkowtiztomTom Cruise

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