Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Myth of the Physicist Part 2

How perfect! Just as I want to make a post about the Myth of the Physicist in Hollywood, this trailer pops up over at Bad Astronomy!

The 1950's certainly had a big impact on the way scientists are portrayed in movies, particularly physicists. And those movies were certainly influenced by the early comic books where-in some kind of space monster attacked Earth and when all the military power in the world failed to eliminate it, some physicist would come along and figure out its weakness. (On a side note, now-a-days there are lots and lots of very smart scientists working for the military and the government defense sectors, perhaps because they realized from these comic books that brawn won't always win the war.)

Once again I can draw reference to James Kakalios and his book The Physics of Superheroes, where he talks about reading these old comics as a kid and gaining a great love and respect for the physicists who used logic to defeat the monster. Sometimes the comics featured some real physics!

But I don't want to get off track, so fast forward to modern day Hollywood and the use of the physicist as a magic curtain plot device for creating often unrealistic scenarios.

How did we get here? Again, the biggest answer shining in my face is simply - IT'S HOLLYWOOD, LET IT GO!

My friend Correy, who is working on her PhD in particle physics while also writing sci-fi books on the side, had this to say:

Often having a "good story" in science fiction seems to revolve around someone overcoming impossible scientific odds and inventing/discovering the amazing solution filled with hot scientific buzzwords. Often writers ratchet up the tension in a scene/story by either putting in intense time pressure or great cost of failure--often both. So now your amazing scientific breakthrough has to happen in hours... or minutes... or seconds! With this sort of time constraint, there's no way to possibly show how scientists *actually* work. So you get some idealized version that fits the excitement & contrived plot of the story.

And let's be honest, no one wants to watch scientists work like we actually work in real life. Days sitting in front of a computer, cursing at the screen, wandering over to Facebook, reading some blogs. Or a literature search! Woo, that's exciting. Much more exciting to consider physicists in this idealized, super-human brainy light. If your physicist has to stop and consult a reference work, the tension drops. If your physicist drops a factor of two while working out "the critical equations" (because we're human, and in 10 pages of calculus, you *will* drop a factor of two) then you have to show them going back and checking their work, looking for all those dropped negative signs and missing constants--and the tension drops.

And then there's the physicist vs. scientist vs. engineer. In most fiction, these labels are pretty much interchangeable. In real life, every scientist is incredibly specialized. In fiction, they're all generalists--unless the plot depends on a gap in their knowledge. Your string theorist knows about genetics? You betcha. Your engineer has memorized Schrodinger's equations? But of course!

I guess it could be considered flattering that even though Hollywood may greatly, greatly, even absurdly alter how science actually happens, it does, in some way, give credit to science for making great breakthroughs that solve problems.

Because lets not forget - physics is hard. Science is hard. Not so hard that you can't understand it! Or love it! Or talk with a physicist about what he or she does for a living! But it is hard enough that it takes many many years of studying to become a professional (like many professions). And while physics and science and engineering can't quitegive us things like blue-glow-hearts that give us unlimited energy, I think it might be even more impressive that we can make machines like the Large Hadron Collider, which in many ways I find even more amazing than the stuff from Iron Man. But that may also be because I know a little more about what went into the LHC than most people. Teaching people a little more about physics could both increase their ability to recognize the falsehoods of Hollywood, and have even more awe for the realistic things that modern day scientists are doing. That is one thing, I hope, this blog helps to achieve.

OK, now lets get into the hairy woods.

I find it important to address the way that real physicists do or do not fill out the "I know everything" issue because it both reveals their humanity and shows how not all physicists are like this.

There is a mentality among some physicists that because they have climbed the monumental mountain of physics, they have pretty much passed every other profession on their way up. In reality, those other professions are mountains of their own. It is insulting to suggest that the people who specialize in those other mountains (areas of expertise) simply stopped climbing and landed in their current job instead of continuing onward to a physics degree. And it is simply not true.

Now let me emphasize that the vast majority of physicists I have met are NOTHING LIKE THIS. They are good, humble people who's only flaw is that they always want to know more. They are constantly asking questions and have honed their own skills so that they can be best fit to find the answers. They aren't crystal balls and they can't solve the crisis in the Middle East but they are still very intelligent yet humble people.

To illustrate how it can go both ways - a science writer friend of mine who has had far too many experiences with physicists who assume that they are more fit to write about physics than a train physics writer (and even more egotistical things), also married a physicist. So lets not go building up stereotypes. While we still want to try to talk about physicists in general and some of the commonalities that arise, we must remember that all of that talk can never actually tell you about one individual. People are more complex and varied than that.
But my good friend Dan had a very insightful, and humbling, point to make:

I think there's a lot in common between the way physicists are portrayed in
movies and the way, for example, the discovery channel portrays Steven Hawking
as an ultimate authority in the ads for his new tv special (can't remember what it's called at the moment). It seems like it arises from a combination of public attitudes,
media attitudes, and the attitudes of the physicists themselves. When we see a
story with some scientific angle (anything from a story about the LHC to vaguely tangential science content), the reporting agency will often at some point refer to a
physicist or chemist. This puts pressure to explain things on a group of people
whose egos are largely tied up in exactly that, their ability to put together an
explanation of something (and I'm as guilty of this as anybody else in my
field). This contributes to a public image of physicists as a group with an
answer to everything, often couched in terms which can't be readily evaluated
for their validity.

So there is a pressure that physicists, in fact all scientists, recieve from the media and the general public to be authority figures. And that's not to say that most of the time we should be consulting specialized scientists on many issues where our everyday intuition may fail us. Physicists studying these areas have shed light on things like economics and climate science, even the behavior of birds of prey, revealing underlying mechanisms that we can't see from the surface. Still, science will always have more questions than we have answers to. Scientists are just doing the best they can at their jobs, and I know for a fact that if someone has an overly inflated sense of personal worth or ability, that does not come from their profession, it comes from them. There are people like that every where you look. So I guess all I'm saying is can't we all just get along? Give physicists a chance! Live and let calculate! Go to the movies, you look stressed.

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