Thursday, September 22, 2005

Moments of truth

I've been thinking about the portrayal of scientists in movies. Sure, we all know the stereotypes:
  • Wise and gentle sage (e.g., Sam Jaffe in The Day the Earth Stood Still)
  • Nerdy magician who spouts technobabble and maybe comes up with the brilliant idea that saves the day (e.g., Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters)
  • Harmless absent-minded nebbish guy who lives in a fog (e.g., Ian McKellen in The Shadow)
  • Driven obsessed genius who, perhaps unwittingly, unleashes terrible forces (William Hurt in Altered States -- or almost anybody playing Dr. Frankenstein)
  • Evil ruthless madman intent on destroying/conquering/transforming the world (Lawrence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow -- or for that matter, Dr. Evil)
The stereotypes do not bother me. For heaven's sake, these are movies -- and most of the ones I've listed are pretty good movies, too. The Hollywood portrayal of soldiers or cops or doctors or housewives is doubtless no better. And when movies try to avoid the stereotypes, all too often they fail to convince us that the characters are scientists at all. (As an example, as I've mentioned before, this pretty much sums up my reaction to Darryl Hannah as an astrophysicist in Roxanne. Great movie, lovely actress, but . . . well, no. Just no.)

What intrigues me is when, somehow, the movie-makers seem to get it right. I may only be talking about a single moment -- a flash, only a few seconds -- which can make me think, "Yes. That's right. That is how they would act. That's how it would be."

In George Pal's 1953 version of War of the Worlds, the hero (played by Gene Barry) is a famous physicist from a thinly disguised Caltech. This is not a great film, but it is a better-than-average 1950's science fiction movie and quite watchable. (For the record, I also liked Spielberg's recent treatment of the story, which was in many ways closer to H. G. Wells's original story.) One of my favorite things in the movie is a quick moment near the beginning, when Gene Barry first examines the giant object that has fallen onto a remote area of California. He happens to have a geiger detector in his truck, and he learns that the "meteorite" is radioactive. And his reaction is to smile a little. "Difficult to account for a reaction like that," he remarks.

And to my mind, that reaction is exactly right. There is a sense of wonder and delight, a deep happiness that the Universe has produced something so wacky and interesting. Later, things become deadly serious, and the acting gets a bit ponderous. But just for a second, you get a glimpse of what makes this guy a scientist. Perfect.

The moment in Jurassic Park (1993) when the paleontologist Sam Neill (and the audience) first see the dinosaurs is, for me, one of the most magical moments in any film. And Neill's reaction is just wonderful, I think. First, he just stares with an open mouth at the giant brachiosaur munching on the trees. He babbles a little incoherently. Then he hears that the Park has a T. Rex, and this is just too much for him. He collapses on the ground and almost passes out. And then he sees some sauropods and hadrosaurs over by the lake. "They're moving in herds," he says. "They do move in herds." In that moment, you can glimpse the wonder and fulfillment he is feeling -- fulfillment because he has spent his whole life thinking of dinosaurs, dreaming of dinosaurs, trying to use bits of fossil bone to imagine them as the living creatures they were, and suddenly there they are in front of him.

I confess that this scene regularly brings tears to my eyes.

There are a handful of decent "biopics" about great scientists. An old classic is Madame Curie (1943), with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon as Marie and Pierre. I caught this on TV a few months ago, and was surprised by how good it was. (OK, sure, I do have a long-standing thing about Greer Garson; but seriously, it's quite a movie.) On the surface, Marie and Pierre try to be so cool and rational, but in fact they are driven by passion: an intellectual passion for scientific discovery, and finally something more romantic for each other. Their relationship is wonderfully drawn, and the science -- especially the dramatization of the experiments that led them to predict the existence of radium -- is not too bad, really.

There is a cool scene in the altogether fascinating movie A Beautiful Mind (2001) where Russell Crowe, playing John Nash, is in a bar with his friends, trying to hit up girls and get laid. And he analyzes the situation using game theory and comes up with an insight that foreshadows his great work in equilibria. I think that this is one of the best scenes in any movie depicting a character having a brilliant abstract idea. But that is a subject that is not much covered in movies.

(I do have a parallel case, though. Robert Harris's novel Enigma is about the British codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. It was made into a pretty good movie in 2001 with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. There is a scene in which the protagonist, a fictional mathematician and protege of Alan Turing, figures out how to "crack" the U-Boat Enigma cipher, which is terrific in the book and not bad in the movie. The key moment of insight is convincingly brilliant and is explained beautifully.)

One of my favorite movies is Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966). Paul Newman plays an American physicist working on missile defense who apparently defects and goes behind the Iron Curtain. But the defection is a ruse. The American project is stuck on a theoretical problem that, he believes, has been solved by an East German scientist. And my favorite scene in the movie is a scene between Newman and the East German professor in the professor's blackboard-lined office. Newman tries to get the information he needs by drawing the other man into a scientific argument. (The equations they write are either trivial or nonsensical, as usual, but it is a cool scene nonetheless.)

I'm not sure that this scene would really count as "Hollywood getting it right about what it's like to be a scientist", except for one personal experience. There is a Russian mathematician who was one of the pioneers in my field of quantum information theory, two decades before it became a recognized subject. I had first learned of his work in graduate school and based much of my Ph.D. thesis on it. For years, the Russian was a distant presence in the back of my mind. I read his papers with keen interest. When I heard through mutual acquaintances that he thought one of my ideas "very clever", I felt a frisson of pride and amazement that the great man even knew what I was up to. The Russian and I often wound up working on the same things -- indeed, we nearly simultaneously published independent solutions of one long-standing problem.

Yet the Russian and I never met till a summer workshop in Cambridge. By that time we were both again working on the same really hard problem (still unsolved today). So on the day we met, we went into an empty lecture hall -- the one in which Andrew Wiles had recently announced the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem -- and the two of us spent an hour or so alone exchanging information about our progress. I would explain something I'd discovered, he would describe some of his unpublished calculations, and so on, back and forth. And I suddenly thought, Oh my Lord, I am in that scene from Torn Curtain. Except that we weren't talking about miliary secrets, my colleague from Russia is a really nice and helpful fellow, neither of us was trying to deceive or outwit the other one, I'm nothing like Paul Newman, and Julie Andrews was not waiting downstairs to escape with me back to the West. But aside from those details, yeah, it was pretty much the same, exactly.

It seems to me, looking over this quick list, that what I am looking for is some portrayal of the inner passion that drives a scientist to do science -- what Einstein called "the holy curiosity" about the world, the intense excitement of discovery, the deep love of pattern, the exciting give and take with other sharp minds. Why else does someone become a scientist? And aren't those passions and experiences essential elements of a truly drawn character?


Blogger Alison said...

Nice post. It's interesting - I saw one of those moments during the past season of NUMB3RS... not that I really have the first clue of what it's like to be a math genius. There was a scene, though, where Peter MacNicol and some of the other fictional faculty were having lunch and discussing some arcane mathmatical problem (largely irrelevent to the plot). It wasn't so much the writing, as MacNicol's performance that made me suddenly think "that sounds like Ben."

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, um, did your encounter with the Russian scientist end with him looking at you and saying "You have given me nothing" as happened in Torn Curtain?

1:12 AM  

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