7 Movies That Will Make You Appreciate Real Science

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 12/10/2015 4:35PM
Category: Pop Culture

Science tends to work differently in movies than in real-life. Heroes can walk away from explosions instead of being killed by the resulting shockwave. Asteroids can be destroyed by untrained miners. Animal testing creates monsters. The egregious misuse of science in the name of entertainment turns science fans off film -- but not when it’s done like this. As a special present from us to you this holiday season, here are 7 movies that let real science shine. 


The Martian (2015)

We’ve talked about The Martian before, but the film really does make a mission to Mars seem just a few years away. Based on the book of the same name, The Martian follows astronaut Mark Watney as he struggles to survive on the Red Planet. Every action he takes to survive, as well as the actions of NASA and his rescue crew in getting him home, are scientifically accurate. The way Watney grows potatoes in Martian soil is accurate. The orbital mechanics used to slingshot a spacecraft around Earth were accurate. The film even features a habitat and transport rovers that NASA is developing. As written by Andy Weir, The Martian is a compelling thought exercise. As directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian is an inspiring peek into the next decade of space travel. 

Sunshine (2007)

When was the last time you saw a physicist accurately portrayed on film? Scientists, particularly physicists, are often portrayed as dweeby harbingers of doom (Brent Spiner in Independence Day), obsessively creepy (Brad Dourif in Alien Resurrection) or, worst of all, lacking common sense (everyone in Prometheus). Danny Boyle’s science fiction film Sunshine does not have any of those scientists. In a movie where physicists go into space to revive a dying sun with a nuclear warhead, Boyle called CERN physicist Dr. Brian Cox to help his actors. Cox made sure that the actors knew what physicists were actually like and how they would react to such a serious situation. Lead actor Cillian Murphy went to CERN to chat with physicists and even called Cox onto the set for extra help. “Cillian would say that he would like me around on certain days so he could talk about his reactions to things,” Cox told Popular Mechanics. While the science involving the death of our sun is purely fictional, the physicists are pure science fact. 


The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Medical science, particularly the spread of viruses, is often butchered on film for the sake of drama. In movies, viruses are the result of unscrupulous testing by fame-seeking scientists who try to cure cancer (I Am Legend), Alzheimer’s Disease (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), or Ebola (28 Days Later), but end up creating monsters (vampires, intelligent apes, and zombies, respectively). None of those scenarios are rooted in science. Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain is. Based on the Michael Crichton book, The Andromeda Strain is a space bacteria that destroys a small town while scientists fight to contain it. It is incurable, infectious, and has a long incubation period, which is realistic because that scenario is the single most plausible cause of an apocalypse. Inspired by Crichton’s own background as a doctor, Wise lets the scientists in the film do what real-life scientists would do -- collect specimens and enclose themselves in an underground facility to decontaminate themselves. These scientists work the way real scientists do, using their equipment to conduct detective work in real-time. While films like Contagion and Outbreak featured similar scenarios, The Andromeda Strain made it feel the most real.


Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan is a good storyteller, but not really a man of science. For his film Interstellar, he pulled out all the stops to make the Gargantua the most realistic black hole ever put on screen. That accuracy was guided by Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, who worked with the visual effects team to create it. Since we’ve never seen a black hole up close, and their intense gravitational forces pull in anything that approaches, Thorne used Einstein’s equations for general relativity to create a model. Accounting for gravitational and Doppler frequencies, Thorne was able to figure out the spin, size, and spread of the black hole’s accretion disks - the circle of matter surrounding the hole. From there, Thorne and the team created a series of black hole simulations, some with more realistic and ragged accretion disks than others. The one chosen for the film has an accretion disk that’s dialed down the spin, Doppler shift, and gravitational shift to give it a lens-flare effect. "The addition of lens flare is absolutely true to the real world characteristics of IMAX lenses," Thorne told i09. "It made the story visually clearer." Thorne wrote The Science of Interstellar to detail the science used in the film. He even published a paper with the visual effects team about his rendering models.


Her (2013)

Artificial Intelligence that’s friendly? Siri has that cornered. A.I. we can be in a relationship with? Completely plausible - and expected by 2029. Spike Jonze wrote and directed Her as a quirky, honest relationship movie. As such, it has a more realistic approach to A.I. interacting with humans. Her’s artificial intelligence doesn’t gain sentience (A.I.), want independence (I, Robot), and try to kill us (The Terminator) like we’ve seen in so many other films; it composes music to highlight the moods of the lonely protagonist. She even nudges him toward pursuing a book deal. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, A.I. Samantha is a powerful, multi-functional personal assistant system that encourages the protagonist to be his best. “I think of A.I. as figuring out how to do the right thing when you don’t know what the right thing is,” Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Alpha (the creators of the A.I. behind Siri) told the WSJ. Her shows us a world where A.I. is not only not trying to kill us, but helping us be our best.


Deep Impact (1998)

While Armageddon is one of the biggest offenders of movie science, its lesser-known competitor Deep Impact offers an accurate lesson in asteroid physics. The disaster film’s premise of a cataclysmic collision between a comet and planet Earth hinges upon the fact that scientists learn about it with far too little lead time to do anything about it. The lackluster tracking methods used in the film are, sadly, accurate, as is the lack of technology to counteract a comet-sized catastrophe. 


Contact (1997)

While we haven’t contacted aliens just yet, the methods of outreach we’re using are accurate in Contact. Since it was written by Carl Sagan, and rooted in the practices of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), that isn’t a surprise. The language used in the film certainly sounds scientific. When lead actor Jodie Foster describes a signal’s frequency as “pi times hydrogen,” for example, she’s actually saying that signals emitted by hydrogen atoms can be multiplied by the number pi - which is true. The entire premise of the film, with Foster detecting radio waves from a faraway star, decoding them via math, and ultimately traveling to that star via wormhole is rooted in solid science (except for traveling via wormhole; we can’t build a machine that does that). Other films have touched on elements of this idea - detecting alien signals from space (The Signal), decoding them via math (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) - but Contact gives it logical life.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)

No surprise here: the fastidiousness of director Stanley Kubrick, combined with the immense scientific knowledge of Arthur C. Clarke and know-how of former NASA scientist Frederick Ordway, created the most staggeringly scientifically accurate film ever made - right down to the details. Space being silent, for instance. Gravity needing to be artificially created inside a spaceship, for another (which required a $3 million prop to create in today’s money). It takes the crew years to get to Jupiter rather than a simple edit, and the transmissions have a 10-minute relay. From HAL 9000’s lethal descent into murder from cold logic, to a privatized space flight industry, the only reason 2001 isn’t a documentary is because we simply haven’t invented all the technology yet. It’s only a matter of time. 

Honorable Mention:


Gravity (2013)

This visually groundbreaking tale of an astronaut’s struggle to come home features more science fiction than fact - but the science behind the special effects is completely accurate. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki realized that the film would have to be lit in a completely different way from any normal film because on Earth light comes from the sun and bounces off everything else in space, especially the Earth. Gravity needed to show light rapidly bouncing off of different surfaces to demonstrate astronauts hurtling through space, so Lubezki needed another way to light the scenes. He invented a "Light Box" with 196 panels and 4096 LEDs to do it. At 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, the box suspended actors and props in a 12-wire system, and moved along pre-programmed tracks to accomplish whatever light effect was needed. That ingenuity was unprecedented - and helped win the film an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. 


Agree with our roundup? Did we miss your favorite scientifically-accurate movie? Let us know in the comments below!

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Posted on: 12/10/15 4:35PM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
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“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

Szabolcs Marka

Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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