Screen Junkies: Science and Jurassic World

So the episode I mentioned is out! It’s a lot of fun, and there’s so very much that we talked about that they could not fit into the episode. See below. It is all about Jurassic World – a huge box-office hit. movie_science_screen_shotIf you have not seen it yet, and don’t want specific spoilers, watch out for where I write the word spoilers in capitals, and read no further. If you don’t even want my overall take on things without specifics, read only up to where I link to the video. Also, the video has spoilers. I’ll embed the video here, and I have some more thoughts that I’ll put below.

One point I brought up a bit (you can see the beginning of it in my early remarks) is the whole business of the poor portrayal of science and scientists overall in the film, as opposed to in the original Jurassic Park movie. In the original, putting quibbles over scientific feasibility aside (it’s not a documentary, remember!), you have the “dangers of science” on one side, but you also have the “wonders of science” on the other. This includes that early scene or two that still delight me (and many scientists I know – and a whole bunch who were partly inspired by the movie to go into science!) of how genuinely moved the two scientist characters (played by Laura Dern and Sam Neil) are to see walking living dinosaurs, the subject of their life’s work. Right in front of them. Even if you’re not a scientist, you immediately relate to that feeling. It helps root the movie, as does that fact that pretty much all the characters are fleshed […] Click to continue reading this post

Space Travel Thoughts…

opinions_about_space_travelOn Wednesday (if I recall correctly – last week is a blur) I spoke on camera to producer Peter Savodnik about challenges involved in mounting space missions to colonise distant planets. It was a fun and short shoot -Peter kept it relaxed and conversational- and it will be part of film that will be released by an online property I’m sure you know well some time in the coming year (I think). I will give you more details when they emerge.

One theme that I kept bringing up that you might find interesting (thoughts welcome): Space is a big place. It takes a long time to get from one place to another – even if you are moving close to the speed of light (and we’ve no foreseeable technology to get us even close to that any time soon). That makes the journey itself a huge challenge, and that is often the part that is most neglected in popular (fictional) films about space travel, and so it also affects our perception of how things must be in the real world of space travel. Result: an under-appreciation of (and possibly false expectations about) the whole business of the journey itself.

Of course, in fiction, much of this business is avoided by inventing propulsion systems that use physics that we’ve no good reason to believe actually exists to shorten the journey – warp drive, hyperspace jumps, wormholes, and the like. That’s all fun, sure, (and I spoke about such things and their place -or lack thereof- in the real world of near future travel) but I think that there can be some really creative challenges for fiction films by focusing on the long […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Science at Screen Junkies!

screen_junkies_interstellarAs promised on Tuesday, below you will find my Screen Junkies interview where I chat with Hal Rudnick about some of the science in Interstellar. We covered a lot of topics and went into a lot of detail, but a lot of that is on the cutting room floor in order to make a svelte (but relatively generous) ten minute cut. I hope you enjoy it. (See my earlier thoughts on why I think scientists need […] Click to continue reading this post

Hanging out at Screen Junkies!

hal_rudnick_clifford_johnsonJust finished another enjoyable hour of chatting about movies and science with the Screen Junkies guys! You’ll recall the fun results of the last two (see here on Time Travel and here on Guardians of the Galaxy). We were talking about… wait for it… Interstellar! Their legions of fans have been shouting at them to do something about the science in Interstellar for weeks now, and they heard them, and called me in to chat. In the course of an hour we talked about a lot of fun things, but remember – they’ll cut it all down to 5 minutes or so, and so we won’t get to a lot of things. I do not know what bits will be used… (It will be different from my spoiler-free recent Interstellar discussion.)

In my previous visits there I’d never got to see the famous Screen Junkies wall in front of which they have conducted so many fun interviews (see their site […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Thoughts

After emerging from a spectacular 70mm viewing of Interstellar at the Arclight Dome last night, I was grinning from ear to ear, which is unusual these days after seeing a film in this subject area (science fiction, space travel, the future of humanity, etc). (And by science fiction here I mean proper science fiction, not space opera or space adventure. There’s a lot of that and some of it is fun and makes me grin too, like this Summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy. But that’s not at all the same sort of thing.)

I’m not going to go into any details, since I am very tired of the practice of talking about films to the extent that you say so much of what happens that it is impossible for someone to enjoy watching the film unfold in front of them without knowing what comes next, the way I like my films best. So I’m not going to ruin things for you.

Everybody keeps asking me “what did you think of the science?” since they know that there’s a lot of stuff in there that relates to my subject area and interests. Many seem to want me to pronounce on what’s “good” and whats “bad” about the science, as though I’ve (like many scientists in the public sphere seem to have done) elected myself some sort of guardian of scientific ideas. Let me say two things. The first is that this is a science fiction film, not a science documentary. I’m already hearing all sort of humourless declarations about this and that and the other being wrong and how shameful it is, as happened with Gravity last year. Done right, such discussions can be an opportunity to teach a bit about science ideas, but most often it just comes across as being a smartass, which is a bit tedious, and leads me to my second point.

The second point is something I say a lot and needs to be said a lot more: Scientists don’t own science and its concepts and ideas. We should be careful […] Click to continue reading this post

Interstellar Discoveries

I’m a fan of Chris Nolan’s work so I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar. I’ve also been fascinated by the McConaussance – the transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor of considerable stature in a series of excellent films (Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, etc…), so I’ve been doubly interested in seeing how he works in a film under Nolan’s direction. Same for the always amazing Casey Affleck. All quite exciting to see.

But then to my surprise it turns out there’s another reason to be interested. Kip Thorne. Some years ago, at a party when I last saw him, Kip told me that he had been working on some film or other with a major studio, but I did not know of the details. Then I ran into a mutual friend a couple of months ago who said something a long the lines of “Kip’s movie is coming out soon…”, and I learned that it was something to do with Interstellar! But I did not know any details.

Then I got sent* this Wired story, and then** this story, and I finally got around to looking. The Wired story has a lot of interesting detail, including a special film (that I ought to look at at) with interviews and behind the scenes material (the still to the right is a screen shot from it). still_from_interstellar_wiredThe film will apparently feature a black hole and a wormhole in some way (I don’t want to know more – I like films to unfold in front of me in the theatre). Kip has been working with the visual effects people to get right exactly how such objects really look, an issue that has not really been fully addressed, it seems. He, like a number of us interested in science and film, is keen to help filmmakers really do a good job of representing some of these fascinating objects as accurately as possible. (Not, in my view, in order to stifle filmmakers’ imagination, as it so often seems when you hear scientists out there pontificating about what’s wrong in one film or another, but because the actual science is so very often far more interesting and full of delights and possibility than a visual effects kluge can be…) So apparently he wrote down […] Click to continue reading this post

Screen Junkies Chat: Guardians of the Galaxy

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.13.03 PMYou may recall that back in June I had a chat with Hal Rudnick over at Screen Junkies about science and time travel in various movies (including the recent “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it a lot. Well, some good news: On Tuesday we recorded (along with my Biophysicist colleague Moh El-Naggar) another chat for Screen Junkies, this time talking a bit about the fun movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”! Again, a lot of fun was had… I wish you could hear all of the science (and more) that we went into, but rest assured that they* did a great job of capturing some of it in this eight-minute episode. Have a look. (Embed below the more-click):
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Honest Time Travel?

On Tuesday I hung out with some of the Screen Junkies folks who you may know from the hilarious “Honest Movie Trailers” web series (seriously, if you’ve not seen any of them, please go right now and have a look). We had a fun chat about time travel in movies, and presenter Hal Rudnick and I bonded over various movies old and new. The final version of the show is up on YouTube (embed below), and I’m bummed that I did not get to meet the other guest, Christina Heinlein (JPL), who seems fun – and is a descendant of, yes, that Heinlein. I love the idea that she works at JPL, helping make possible the space exploration that Robert Heinlein helped inspire us all about in his writing. Anyway, enjoy the short piece (I wish you could see a bunch of the other material too… we really had a great chat about the ins and outs of time travel, but a lot of it inevitably ended up not making the cut…)

I could not resist talking about my view of this (perhaps growing) trend of using time travel as a means of resetting movie franchises (see Star Trek, X-Men…). It’s a great way of repairing writing and other filmmaking wrong turns. Feel free to imagine your own version of this – Star Wars anyone? Another pass at […] Click to continue reading this post

Interview about Science and Film

cuatusc_interviewI did an interview last week Tuesday with the channel CU@USC. It is a chat show, and so I did the sitting on the couch thing and so forth. All very amusing…

…And hopefully useful. I am spending many hours each day building awareness for this year’s USC Science Film Competition, an annual project you might remember me starting back in 2011, and stressing over a lot. And then again in 2012. It continues to survive for another year. This is year three, and although it has given me many grey hairs, I fight on, because I think it is of value to get students from all fields, whether scientist or engineer, writer or filmmaker, journalist or artist, to learn to collaborate in the art of telling a story that has science content. (Actually, learning to collaborate to tell a story about any issue of even moderate nuance is an important skill, science or not.) Anyway, the interview material is now up online and so you can have a look here. (The site uses flash, so might not work on some devices.)

I speak about the competition and also my own take on bringing science to film both fact and fiction (which for the latter especially is probably different from many others in that I don’t think it is always productive for a scientist in a film project to be […] Click to continue reading this post

Strange Omission

tardis_earls_courtSo over a quick lunch of sardines, tomatoes from the garden, and homemade bread*, I decided to glance and the bbc news website. It had a thing in the corner listing the top five stories, and one of them was How to build your own TARDIS.

Well, naturally I looked, because I was not aware that the required technology was available to do this yet. (I was sure we’d still have to wait until last year, or at least to 1985…. But anyhoo….) Turns out it is in the Technology section, so even more interesting, right?
Click to continue reading this post

Science on Screen – Primer

Well, that was a hugely fun evening! The Cinefamily screening of Primer was sold out to a packed and enthusiastic audience. (That alone was worth it…) I met Shane Carruth back stage for a few minutes and immediately was impressed. I like people who take the time to think carefully about what they are going to say before saying it, visibly carefully weighing what was just said in the conversation and then adding to it in an interesting way. He’s one of those people. So I knew that the panel discussion was going to be great.

[caption id="attachment_13780" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_13782" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Hadrian Belove, Shane Carruth and Clifford Johnson at Cinefamily screening of Primer. (Photo: Charles Constantine)[/caption]

We started off with an introduction from the executive director of Cinefamily, Hadrian Belove, who introduced us and asked me to say a few words before the film began. I kept it brief, and started by congratulating Cinefamily on doing the Science on Screen series, saying that it is an important thing to do (which it is -it is part of a Sloan funded national program; more here) and then went on to say […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Fiction Special

Just as I left for my shooting trip last week, I had a moment of indecision. I wanted to take something to read during airport and airplane downtime, but wanted to travel light. The books I wanted to take felt a bit big in my bag, somehow, largely because I could not decide what I was in the mood for and so was in danger of bringing more than one. Then I remembered that I was behind on New Yorkers, and was taking my iPad anyway. So I made sure the New Yorker was updated on it, and what did I see waiting for me to delve into on the plane? The special issue on Science Fiction!

It is an excellent issue, with contributions from lots of authors, including several short reflective pieces from legendary authors like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, and William Gibson and newer authors like China Miéville and Karen Russell talking about things like how they found their way into fiction and science fiction, and its role as a gateway to the larger literary world. Of course, there are also the usual reflections about the snobbery and separation into high and low culture that existed in the early days (and that still persists today) for literature as well as film and TV when it comes to science fiction (see a related discussion here), many of which are humorously done, and will be familiar to many readers from their childhood…. I strongly recommend getting that issue if you do not already subscribe. It may well still be on magazine stands…

In related news, Ray Bradbury died on Monday, I heard on the radio yesterday. This is […] Click to continue reading this post

I, For One, Welcome Our New Arsenic-Replacing-Phosphorus-In-DNA Overlords

mono_lakeYeah! This is just the sort of thing I’d hoped that we (human beings) would find soon, in order to strengthen the idea that in looking for forms of life elsewhere, we be not just open to the idea that the basic chemistry for that life may be very different from what we are used to on earth (easier said than done), but that it is maybe even probable that this is what we could find first. Now, given the news today (announced by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team in a NASA press conference today and reported on in a paper to appear in Science) we know that it is not just a theoretical construction, but already a reality right here on earth. The researchers have identified a life form with a striking difference. The bacterium (which lives in Mono Lake – see NASA image above right) has DNA (and some other important complex molecules) with a major difference from all other forms we know. phosphorus has been replaced by arsenic!

periodic_tableThis works, by the way, because arsenic is in the same chemical family as phosphorus, being directly below it in the periodic table. Note that this is exactly the sort of thing that has been speculated about a lot in the classic days of science/speculative fiction concerned with alien life, remember? :- Silicon based life forms instead of the Carbon based ones that we know and love on earth. Silicon is again in the same column as […] Click to continue reading this post

I Gotta Get Me One O’ These!

p-2048-1536-a738e2a5-eaa1-450b-9a0a-ed526300dc23.jpegSome of you will recognize the blue box in the picture on the left that I took recently while travelling. I have two things to mention in connection with it, but first let me mention that it is indeed what you think it is, but not really. In other words, it is in London (Earl’s Court), and it is a classic Police box (well, a modern relaunch), but it is not (as far as I am aware) also a disguised remarkable time machine owned by a somewhat eccentric renegade Time Lord. Ok?

Ok, thing number one. I don’t get the BBC America channel, but they kindly were dumping on to On Demand the episodes of the new season of Dr. Who, with the new writer and the new actor, so one day I thought I’d have a look. Just to get myself annoyed, because (sorry fans of its recent years) over the years I usually get ridiculously annoyed at how utterly stupid the show is, with lots of pointless running, and overacting, and cheap, crappy, silly plots and sets and so forth, and get even more annoyed when I remember it is mostly deliberate – we are supposed to enjoy the hokeyness in the spirit of nostalgia for the time many decades ago when it was on a super low budget but was ahead of its time. And I get more annoyed when I think that people abroad are watching this and thinking it is a prime example of great British television. Then I turn it off and ignore it for a year or two, and then do it all again. So anyway, I did that this time, back in the Spring. And guess what? […] Click to continue reading this post

But is it Real? (Part Two)

Ah. Well, I was reserving the title of this post for a followup post to an earlier post about physics research. But, the film I went to last night at the wonderful Vista theatre was so engaging, and so excellently done – on the themes of dreams and memory – that I thought I’d use it.

escher_penrose_stairsChristopher Nolan has done it again! Inception (both written and directed by him) is yet another (remember my discussion of the Dark Knight two years back) example that shows that it is possible to make a big budget Summer Blockbuster that does not treat the audience as idiots. It tells you from the opening frames that you’re going to have to pay attention and think during the film, and that interesting ideas and themes are going to be explored, and it certainly lives up to that promise right through to the end. It is thrilling on all sort of levels, and for those who don’t care about ideas, there’s plenty of stuff blowing up and crashing into stuff to keep them happy.

I am going to say absolutely nothing more about it (more or less) since one of the […] Click to continue reading this post