Splitting Hairs And Stifling Yawns


Unless you’re a science buff, you’ve probably never heard of Professor Sidney Perkowitz and that’s the way it’s meant to be. Dusty physics professors from Atlanta’s Emory University aren’t meant for the limelight. It’s like your dad trying to dance. He just shouldn’t. But this Georgia academic is trying to be a big-time Hollywood film critic and it’s threatening to make him look a bit silly.

Normally, Professor Perkowitz would be a long way from the red carpet. He’s currently working on the physics of experimental condensed matter and has written two books on foam: Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos and Universal Foam: Exploring the Science of Nature’s Most Mysterious Substance. Brangelina this is not.

But Perkowitz is cross with Hollywood and its habitual scientific inaccuracy. "If you violate that, you are in trouble," he told The Guardian

Turns out, Perkowitz is fighting for your right to watch a scientifically accurate blockbuster. He is a member of the mildly named Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEE). No, it’s not a casting agency for academic film extras but a body run by the US National Academy of Sciences whose function is to help the entertainment industry portray science with "authenticity". The SEE purports to act as a bridge between "science’s many complexities" and a "wider audience". There is another term for this, of course: PR.

According to the SEE, scientists have "struggled to find an effective conduit through which [to]communicate [their]story". What that story is exactly remains unclear but there are two clear reasons why they’ve flailed so on the communications front. Firstly, they’re academics, not marketers. And secondly, high science isn’t for us plebs to understand. That’s what academics are for.

None of this has stopped the indefatigable Professor Perkowitz. Recently, instead of studying, he has been hanging out at his local cinema. Discover acknowledged that picking the best or worst of anything "will get you a lot of grief" but applauded Perkowitz’s "courage in choosing the best and worst science-based movies of all time" in his book Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World.

He ranked Gattaca (1997) first for its "affectingly human story about the consequences of putting too much faith into DNA, genetic destiny and stereotypes" and The Core (2003) last for its "record-setting amounts of scientific misinformation about basic physics (like elementary magnetism, electricity, and heat)".

The Core might look like just another forgettable science fiction schlockbuster — but Perkowitz seems to have taken it seriously. "The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch," he opined. If only he’d gotten in touch with director Jon Amiel earlier, he could have saved Paramount millions. Funny, I thought The Core flopped because it wasn’t very good.

Perkowitz also condemned Paul Verhoeven’s anti-war satire Starship Troopers (1997), in which murderous humans battle giant bugs. "If you scaled up a real bug to that size, it would collapse under its own weight," he said. If Verhoeven had consulted him, they would have known to scale the bugs down to size. Troopers versus anatomically correct bugs might not be such an exciting battle to watch but at least it would be scientifically accurate.

Ron Howard doesn’t escape censure either. His adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel features an antimatter bomb contained in a glass tube by a magnetic field generated by a small battery. As if! "The amount of antimatter they had was more than we will make in a million years of running a high-energy particle collider," Perkowitz said huffily. "You can’t contain it using an iPod battery." It makes you wonder how Tom Hanks could have allowed himself to be associated with such a shonky plotline.

The problem is, Perkowitz and the SEE don’t want movies to contain bonkers science fiction at all. They want to see science fact on screen. They advised the makers of The Watchmen and TV series Heroes to this end. "I am not offended if they make one big scientific blunder in a given film," Perkowitz said. "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." Like, say, a car driven at 53 kilometres per hour?

Of course Perkowitz’s big mistake is to expect fictitious works to be realistic at all. The eminent professor hasn’t grasped that a science fact film would be a shit film. It would be what I used to watch in geography at school: educational, informative, and pretty dull. Plate Techtonics III: The Subvergence Zone would make The Core seem like Avatar. Science fact has its place — but it’s not on the big screen.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.