Science goes to Hollywood– favorite movie scenes, 1

November 11, 2010 • 12:10 am

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.

13 thoughts on “Science goes to Hollywood– favorite movie scenes, 1

  1. War of the Worlds (1953)? It has some wonderful special effects for its day, but whenever a scientist speaks, he indulges in some wild speculation, and there is a nauseating religious overlay. The best part in that regard is the minister getting zapped as he advances (up a literal valley IIRC) on the aliens reciting the 23rd Psalm.

  2. In “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, Eros says “A ray of light is made up of MANY atoms!” Mind you, that is one of the most sensible lines in the entire movie.

  3. Journey to the center of the Earth is my favorite Jules Vernes book. And I also enjoyed the movie a lot.

    I’d quote “2001: A space odyssey” as one of the rare hard SF films, excluding maybe the final part of the movie.

    A TV series which featured usually pretty hard science (well, compared to what we are usually fed on TV) was the 2000 series “The Invisible Man”. Maybe it didn’t make too much sense biologically, inserting a gland in the brain that produces an invisible-making substance, but from the physics point of view, it wasn’t too bad. Especially now that we have all these new meta-materials bending light coming out.

  4. One particularly discordant thing about the original War of the Worlds film is the dialogue right at the end which says (or paraphrases) these lines from the book:

    “..slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

    This falsely gives the whole film (and by association the book) apparent religious overtones.

    But this is really out of context. Wells is clearly using ‘God’ as a synonym for nature, as Darwin once did (and later said he regretted it) – although Wells does more so in this part of the book (references to the Angel of Death and Sennacherib).

    In the next paragraphs Wells explains that the reason the invaders die was they had not co-evolved (by Darwinian natural selection) with the microbes that humans and other life on earth are accustom too:

    “these germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things–taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many–those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance–our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

    1. Paul– Thanks for this. It’s exactly the point I was going to make about the 1953 War of the Worlds.


  5. Jerry Lewis in the Nutty Professor – “Oxygen… is a gas.”

    Am I allowed to mention the Quatermass films? I read somewhere that the three films cover the three main alien stories -1/ We go to space & bring them back (the Quatermass Xperiment) 2/ They come & invade earth (Quatermass 2) 3/ They were always here (Quatermass and the Pit).

  6. How about “The Andromeda Strain” (the original 1971 film and not the 2008 miniseries)?

    The film touches on clinical microbiology, lab instrumentation (mass spectrometry, electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, radio-isotope tracing, etc), clinical diagnosis, etc.

    The lab animal “deaths” in the movie were faked using CO2 gas. Once the animals stopped moving, they stopped filming and a technicial revived them immediately.

  7. I thought “Lorenzo’s Oil” did a pretty fair job of representing scientific research and discovery. And Joss Whedon’s “Serenity” got a few things right that almost no sci-fi space movies do…like no sound in a vacuum. Plus–rollicking fun.

  8. Contact?!—uggh.

    This shouldn’t be difficult, people. What has time travel, sleek spaceships, nuclear warheads, mutants, frontal lobotomies performed by chimpanzees (still freaks me out), gorilla guerrillas, subterranean ruins, the wrecked Statue of Liberty, all with open contempt of religion and Linda Harrison barely concealed in some animal skin?

  9. I also love the cheesiness of ‘The Journey to the Center of the Earth’ – even the fact that one of its stars is Pat Boone – who is not exactly known now as a science advocate (I wonder if those rubber Dimetrodons were what turned him off evolution?)

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