by Greg Mayer
Continuing our consideration of science in the movies, here’s the first of my selections. It’s from 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring James Mason as the uber-spelunker Prof. Oliver Lindenbrook, who, in the scene beginning at 1:55, has just returned to Edinburgh from the center of the Earth. (This is, by the way, how my typical undergraduate lecture begins– I am led in by colorfully-garbed, mace-wielding administrators, while hundreds of formally dressed students chant my name, demanding that I speak. Later, of course, they sing songs in my honor, acclaiming me “master of all natural history”.)
Lindenbrook’s key statement is:
“If they are meant as praise for a successful scientist, I must disclaim that honor. No, a scientist who cannot prove what he has accomplished has accomplished nothing. I have no records, no shred of evidence; I will never embarrass this distinguished university by asking that it take my word.”
I show this clip to my class on science and pseudoscience, a general education class on such things as UFOs, cold reading, creationism, and cryptozoology. It expresses very nicely something I stress in the class: that scientific claims are based on publicly available evidence. Having lost his notes, his specimens, and his artifacts during his escape from the center of the Earth via a volcano, Lindenbrook has nothing but his recollections, and this is mere testimony, an anecdote– nothing he can show to fellow scientists to examine for themselves. He does not have scientific evidence; and as the Royal Society puts it, nullius in verba. The one off-note here is the use of the word “prove”: colloquially this may be acceptable, and scientists do use it, but, strictly, proof is something reserved to logic and mathematics, not the empirical sciences.
Besides this, my favorite scene, I like the movie as a whole as well, although its scientific content is not especially plausible ( giant reptiles living on the shore of a sea inside a lighted cavern at the Earth’s center?). There are some wonderfully semi-cheesy early special effects: lizards with sails attached to their backs to make them look like Dimetrodons, for example. (The lizards, by the way were not ordinary green iguanas, but rare West Indian rock iguanas, Cyclura.) But the scene above captures a real and important aspect of science. In my own specialty of zoogeography, I’ve had debates with colleagues about where particular species of animals are found; but we all know that “take my word for it” just doesn’t cut it.
Among the readers’ favorites in the comments on the previous movie science post, there have been a number of interesting suggestions, some new to me, but also including some of my other favorites, like Contact and War of the Worlds. I’ll try to say more about these in a later post. In the meantime, keep commenting on your favorites.