Science Debunks the Movies

Adam Weiner has found an innovative way to challenge his science students to think differently about the media they watch—he uses movies to demonstrate how impossible most of the stunts and scenarios we see in entertainment are.

For years, this high school science teacher has been doing projects in which he takes scenes from movies and than challenges his students to analyze and "debunk" them. The outcome is a classroom full of kids who are enjoying the notion of seeing if what they are watching could really happen, while they apply scientific principles and mathematical formulas.

In fact, the results have been so positive, Adam has just released a book called Don’t Try This at Home! The Physics of Hollywood Movies. With coverage from major publications, like Popular Science magazine, it appears his scientific detective work has struck a tuning fork with many others who have wondered if (using Mission Impossible 2 as an example) Tom Cruise could really drive his motorcycle into a high flying jump and take on the bad guy in a mid-air collision.

But for all the fun they have in the classroom, this physics teacher’s real reason for bringing movies under the microscope was to help give people a better understanding of the real world versus the imagined one in media.

"I think it does a couple of things," muses Adam during a telephone interview at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California. "[Media] can mislead the public. If you are not going into it knowing what you are going to see is a fantasy, you can get false expectations about what science can do. When you watch things like stunts in action movies, you can get unrealistic ideas of what can and can’t happen in situations like that."

He explains that students are quick to build savvy perceptions about how manipulated or wrong the things they view in media are. "It’s amazing how interested and engaged students get when you show them a movie scene. It may be a regular science concept, but as soon as they see a film scene they are interested," explains Adam.

Another misplaced perception promoted in popular culture this physics teacher is concerned about, is the idea that scientists can solve any problem in a small amount of time, and remove natural consequences for poor lifestyle choices.

"I do think as a society in general we expect difficult problems to be solved rapidly. When some threatening thing occurs that could be dealt with scientifically, people expect scientists to just fix it," he says, adding, "We are comfortable and affluent, and we expect things to be easy."

Laughing, he recalls a news story from a few years ago that reported about a pill that would raise a person’s metabolic rate and simulate exercise. "When the newscaster returned, after the story, his first comment was ‘Wow! I wouldn’t have to exercise!’"

In Adam’s book, are many examples from popular films that are enlightening to explore. For instance, the deep freeze in The Day After Tomorrow, which purports that cold air could be sucked from the upper reaches of the atmosphere and freeze the earth, is truly a lot of hot air. Sparing the scientific details (which you can find in the book), the coldest we could expect would be about 32 degrees—a far cry from the 100 below in the movie.

With all the talk of asteroids heading toward Earth, a look back at the 1998 movie Armageddon reveals we may need to come up with a better plan should the real event ever occur. The idea in the film is to nuke the huge rock and break it into bits. In reality, our largest nuclear bomb is one-hundred-millionth of the energy required to save the planet. Definitely time to head back to the drawing board…

And what movies have gotten it right? One of the best, according to Adam, was way back in 1968.

"2001: A Space Odyssey did a great job of getting accurate physics," he explains. "For instance, the artificial gravity in the large space station. It’s the centripetal force that simulates gravity. The other thing that’s usually wrong in space movies is sound. Sound can’t be transmitted in a vacuum, so explosions in space wouldn’t make noise. In 2001 all scenes in space are in dead silence. The contrast between sound and noise is incredible."

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 also scores high marks on the science report card.

As for Tom Cruise and the motorcycle… it’s best summarized as Mission Impossible.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…