Science in the (Classic) Movies

Here’s something to help you get 2014 started off right: for all of January, Turner Classic Movies is turning its Friday Night Spotlight on “Science in the Movies.” Every Friday night they’ll be playing no fewer than four classic films (we interpret “classic” a bit loosely in some cases) with some kind of scientific theme. I happen to know this because I’ll be the one introducing each film. Not live, of course; I already recorded all the introductions back in October. I don’t think my introductions contain any especially insightful nuggets of scientific wisdom or cinematic insight, but it was a fun departure from my usual thing.

And the movies are quite a bit of fun, too. The full schedule is here. (That’s the entire TCM schedule for the month; skip to Friday nights to find the science movies.) There are quite a few undisputed classics in there, from The Bride of Frankenstein to Solaris. And only one or two real stinkers (It Happens Every Spring was … not so good.)

I managed to watch or re-watch (almost) all of the films, and discovered a few gems I hadn’t heard of. The Man in the White Suit, starring a young Alec Guiness, was a lot of fun. And the biographical films, like Pasteur, were more enjoyable than I expected; back in the day Hollywood really knew how to make a good biopic.


But probably my favorite discovery was For All Mankind, a documentary I had never known about. It’s about the Apollo program, and is constructed exclusively from actual NASA footage and interviews with the astronauts. It wasn’t that long ago, but it’s easy to forget what it was like to never have actually visited the Moon. Hearing the astronaut’s voices, and seeing some rare and thrilling footage of the real thing in action, really brings home the drama and excitement of the time. It’s showing this Friday, catch it if you can.

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23 Responses to Science in the (Classic) Movies

  1. Jim Kakalios says:

    OH, man, I wish I still got TCM! What an awesome gig for you – I’m thrilled! And THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT is one of my all time favorite science films. Alec Guiness is perfect as the chemist Sidney Sheldon, who, (Mild Spoilers) when he accidentdly blows up his lab, looks at the smoking crater and calmly states: “That shouldn’t have happened.”

  2. Carroll Robinson says:

    You have no idea how weird it is to realize that there are generations now who have never known the world mankind had never visited the moon, let alone venture into space. I still have to correct myself from comparing the preposterous with flying to the moon– space travel was stuff of dreams and fiction in my youth, never achieved by mankind, and it is a jolt to realize that for many now this is a given What I remember most is that going to the moon, doing somethinbeen done before, was never questioned back then, simply because we decided to do it. And a also because people really believed in the ability of science-it is ironic that today, when we owe so much of our everyday life to science , there is such a huge attempt to discredit it or just be in denial about it for expedience’s sake

  3. Carroll Robinson says:

    Correction. There was a lot of discussion about should or shouldn’t we go into space–The thing that I remember the most was it wasn’t could we or couldn’t we , but should we or shouldn’t we C

  4. Chip Brock says:

    This is great!

    Madame Curie, being the best of them all.

    I teach general education courses on history of physics and art and particle physics and cosmology and I usually show it one evening during the semester. It’s remarkably faithful to the subject in many ways.

    I bring Kleenex. For me.

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  6. adam says:

    for some unexplained reason cox in las vegas removed tcm from the lineup and have yet to replace it with anything – though i fear it will be either a home shopping network or another country western channel.
    it hurts every time i look at and see whats showing on tcm (seems tvguide weren’t told of its removal).

  7. Robert Gibson says:

    It’s interesting that TCM in Canada sometimes substitutes what is shown in the U.S., probably since they don’t own the rights to a particular film here. For example, this Friday, instead of “A Beautiful Mind”, they’re showing “Dive Bomber”, which is described as “A military surgeon teams with a ranking navy flyer to develop a high-altitude suit which will protect pilots from blacking out when they go into a steep dive.” Good to see they’re keeping to the theme.

  8. Anton Szautner says:

    I saw you in a quick sort of preview appearance a several weeks back and was startled: ‘hey! I know that guy!…what the heck is Sean doing on TCM!??!’

    Tonight I saw you introduce some movies.

    Very nice!

    It is most reassuring to see that a scientist is permitted a bit of opinion in a venue like that…even if the motion pictures (or documentary) at his disposal to choose from are so dated. It doesn’t matter: what you manage to say during the movie breaks is enough to help move people to understand what they are missing in their constant quest for fantasy.

    Much much more of this is necessary, of course. In the meantime, may I say:
    well done!

  9. Anton Szautner says:

    Alas, ‘For All Mankind” – for all the great footage depicted – is such a hodgepodge mess of audio not correlated with the imagery that it can turn knowledgeable aficionados apoplectic with rage. Don’t ever attempt to argue with them its just a ‘Hollywood’ effort…the deed was concocted by one who ought to have known better. History – especially an episode as seminal as the Apollo missions – deserves far better, and the proper documentary for it has yet to be produced.

  10. It Happens Every Spring is my favorite movie ever. At least you have to admit it’s among the best of its genre (science/baseball movies).

  11. Sean Carroll says:

    John, you weren’t outraged that the characters showed not even a smidgen of remorse about cheating?

  12. No. Only Vernon a.k.a. Kelly (played by Ray Milland) knew he was cheating, and he did it for the love of a good woman. And he wins the last game of the World Series even after running out of methylethylpropylbutyl.

  13. BobC says:

    Great movie introductions!

    Some details from my own time behind a camera:
    – First, minor wardrobe items (though I suspect TCM selected everything):
    1. That dark suit is absolutely perfect for you. Great tailoring, sharp under the lights, and you look comfortable wearing it.
    2. The shirt collar has short points and flares wide, meaning it is intended to be worn casually unbuttoned, or with a bow-tie. Get a shirt with either longer collar points, or a narrower angle between them, for wear with a conventional tie.
    – Second, camera related items:
    1. Switching cameras can be hard for the person in front of the camera (the ‘talent’). I’m a little surprised TCM chose to switch cameras as they did, and also didn’t choose to edit out the occasional awkward transition. The main reason to switch cameras is to quickly change both the background and the visible aspect of the talent (for any of several reasons). The alternative is for the talent to walk about, a more gradual transition, but asks the talent to walk and talk simultaneously, which is difficult for some. Did TCM try this with you? I suspect you would pull it off quite easily. Camera transitions while walking also tend to look more natural (though a bit harder for the camera person and director).
    2. Spend some time on your own in front of a video camera under various lighting situations to learn both your best angles and the angles to be avoided. Being aware of your relationship to the camera in terms of pose, distance, angle, and lighting makes a huge difference, both in your relationship with the camera (and the audience) and your confidence (or appearance thereof). For some, time behind the camera is also helpful. For this specific TCM case, don’t tip your chin too far down under the lighting they were using, since you lose your facial highlights (they really needed a stronger side-light).

    Highlighting science in film, and films about science, is increasingly important in our media-drowned society. TCM could have easily picked a trained talking-head for the job of presenter, perhaps a science correspondent. That they picked you speaks volumes, not only about your camera-friendliness, or about your credentials as a physicist, but about that all-too-rare role of a prominent researcher who is also a very effective public communicator.

    The TCM folks certainly viewed your many video interviews and recorded talks. But these roles in front of the camera are very different from being a presenter or an interviewer, where you have a job in front of the camera with specific responsibilities.

    The only video of yours I recall that is comparable in this sense is your Preposterous Universe Episode 1 (PUE1) interview. In the comments to your blog post on 30May2013, I used passive-aggressive backhanded compliments and suggested you avoid becoming “another talking-head”.

    I was completely, totally wrong, and I apologize. I had failed to distinguish someone learning a new skill (via the “out of the frying pan” technique) from perceived minor problems with the resulting product (which I didn’t even bother to raise – sorry again).

    In PUE1, your lighting was better than TCM. Your familiarity with the words you were saying was also greater. The TCM shots clearly show that you do better with more control, but that you are very effective either way.

    The camera really likes you, and you do well in front of it. Take as much responsibility as you can get in front of the camera (and behind, for that matter), and we’ll all be glad to see what you do with it.

    Thanks! A great way to kick off 2014.

  14. Sean Carroll says:

    BobC– Thanks for the tips, and the apology is appreciated. I had essentially no control over lighting etc; I think the TCM people are constrained by needing a system that will work for someone who may never have done this before, and who has to get through 40 or more separate bits (one intro and one outro per film, four films per night, four or five Fridays in one month) in a single day. It was the first time I had ever read directly from a teleprompter, which was an interesting experience. Amusing wardrobe note: the vast majority of my clothes are white/black/gray/blue. But the camera doesn’t like pure white, and at the last minute they told me not to wear blue because I’d be in front of a blue screen. I actually had to go buy a couple of new shirts. And in the end they didn’t use the blue screen to put me in front of any interesting virtual landscape.

    The “Preposterous Universe” webisode experiment was fun, but won’t be going forward. I love doing science, and explaining science, but interviewing other people so that they can talk about science really isn’t my bag.

  15. BobC says:

    Have you watched any of Charlie Rose’s science roundtables? While Charlie served as the Master of Ceremonies and as the public’s lay representative, he always had an illustrious and capable researcher/educator next to him as interlocutor.

    I’d really love to see you in such a role in any of your many areas of interest, especially athiesm/humanism, cosmology, and the Insane Clown Posse. Except I don’t think you’ll need any help from Charlie Rose (or Violent J).

    While you may not want to interview scientists outside your areas of interest, it may be interesting to interview students entering your area, such as high school science fair participants, poster presenters at conferences, and freshly-minted PhDs with interesting theses.

    I’ve seen ad-hoc videos of science fair participants and poster presenters spewing their spiel, and relatively few were flattering of either the presenter or the presentation, though all were interesting.

    What if you selected your favorite posters at each conference you attend, and on the last day host a session for brief interviews with each of them? Just two chairs and the poster on a stage (or in a hotel room), with perhaps 15-20 minutes each, for 4-6 posters. (Or standing, or as a forum, or whatever works best.)

    The goal of the interview would be two-fold: To highlight interesting posters, and to add context and perspective to connect them to your Preposterous Universe audience and the public in general.

    Something like that may fit quite well under the Preposterous Universe brand, kindling your interest and leveraging your talents.

    And the participants would have a video they could show their parents!

  16. mark drago says:

    Dr Carroll: saw you introduction to “Madame Curie” the other night. Thought: this guy looks familiar…Matthew Broderick’s brother? Bravo!

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  21. Hi Sean – okay, this is “off topic” but I found no link for submitting general questions, and the blog entry of interest was “closed for comments” (best I could tell), so I am trying “my question” here, with apologies.

    I recently caught your talk at the Royal Institute (Youtube, RI Channel) where you referenced your blog entry “Energy Is Not Conserved.” I read that entry with interest, and found that it stirred an ancient (for me) question which I’ve never seen addressed.

    The question is “Why is it we have no scientific term ‘energymatter’ as we have for ‘spacetime,’ post Einstein?” The reason, I believe is that we have a singular sense of energy in “theoretical physics” but a variety of meanings for “energy” in applied physics (kinetic, electromagnetic, heat, etc.). I think Feynman said a few words on this, but I don’t recall he ever spoke on the specific taxonomic issue(s) in science regarding energy and its naming.

    Another thought just came to me – following Energy Is Not Conserved . . . If energy is in deed not conserved, what are the consequent effects for matter, or do you see no type of energy-matter equivalency here?

    It seems this is likely written up somewhere already, but I’ve just never come across it. Any pointers you might have to offer are much appreciated! Also, thanks for your work . . .

  22. Larry says:

    Man in the White Suite… On camera during your introduction, you claim Alec Guiness suspended himself 5o feet off the ground using only a single piano wire in the 15 second segment of the film as he supposedly walks down the face of the brick building. Surly as a Theoretical Physicist you understand that is not possible. Even in 1951 when the film was made they knew enough to use a camera rotated 90 degrees as the actor simply walked vertically on a horizontal stage simulating the impossible feat.

  23. Larry says:

    Man in the White Suit… On camera during your introduction, you claim Alec Guiness suspended himself 5o feet off the ground using only a single piano wire in the 15 second segment of the film as he supposedly walks down the face of the brick building. Surely as a Theoretical Physicist you understand that is not possible. Even in 1951 when the film was made they knew enough to use a camera rotated 90 degrees as the actor simply walked vertically on a horizontal stage simulating the impossible feat.