Sidney Perkowitz September 17 2017

Real physics on screen


People who are not physicists but just regular people are drawn to physics because of the sweep and grandeur of its concepts.

After all there are few topics bigger than the birth and death of the universe. But there are barriers to appreciating these big ideas. Physics depends heavily on math, not a favorite subject for most people. Then there is the strangeness of the two dominant physics theories, quantum mechanics and relativity, which successfully explain much of nature but make no sense in terms of everyday experience. Finally there are the physicists themselves, who don’t seem all that understandable either. What kind of person actually likes doing math or working long hours in a lab?

Are physicists really out-of-touch nerds driven by logic and lacking in emotional intelligence, like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory?

All this makes it hard to present physics and physicists to those who want to experience the subject more deeply. Big-budget Hollywood science fiction films use computer generated imagery (CGI) to show spectacular physics scenarios like traveling through a wormhole, but are less interested in providing a realistic view of physics. That’s where independent and experimental filmmakers come in. Typically driven by personal vision rather than by corporate concerns about appealing to the right demographic, and in any case lacking the budget for expensive special effects, they are free to focus on physics concepts and the true texture of the science and its practice. Several films in the Labocine collection look more deeply into physics and physicists.

To see how human emotion enters into the supposedly objective world of physics research, watch the story told in Conservation (2008, Ian Harnarine). John Volt (played by David Carson), a physics professor at a second tier university, is tired of teaching and needs some significant research results to advance his career. Then he learns that his latest research paper has been fast-tracked for publication because it’s a true breakthrough, showing for the first time a violation of the principle of conservation of energy. Volt imagines that this will lead to fame, glory and tenure. But when evidence mounts that he stole the idea and doesn’t deserve the recognition, his dream is in danger of vanishing. He does not react well, but I’ll let you discover what happens next including surprise twists at the end.

Conservation (Ian Harnarine, 2008)

The dramatic fictional ending isn’t likely to happen in the real physics world but Conservation touches on a true issue, how to allocate credit for important scientific research. This famously showed up in the question of whether the English physical chemist Rosalind Franklin received appropriate recognition for her X-ray analysis of the structure of DNA. The distribution of credit can intervene between eminent scientists or between a senior and a junior scientist. The former is now happening in legal wars over patenting the discovery of the CRISPR gene editing method, which will determine who benefits from the billions of dollars of investment CRISPR is generating. The latter, according to some observers, victimized Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who first observed and analyzed radio pulsars as a graduate student but was excluded from the resulting Nobel Prize in 1974.

As Conservation shows, credit doesn’t get handed out until the research is published, as scientists have done since the first research journals appeared in the late 17th century. By now publication is a well-defined process that the animated documentary film The Researcher’s Article (2014, Charlotte Arene) entertainingly describes. Beginning with the revelation that even really big discoveries are typically published in a short format (the discovery of the Higgs boson was covered in just two pages), it goes on to describe the frustrations, the joys and the great importance to a scientist of getting a paper published.

Behind the scenes with Charlotte Arene and her stopmotion for The Researcher's Article

With voice-over by one of the scientists involved in a real experiment about the physics of liquid flow in a confined space, we go from the initial enthusiastic idea “let’s publish,” to disappointing turn-downs when the paper is submitted to the prestigious journals Science and Nature, to its revision followed by acceptance at Physical Review Letters, a moment marked by an animated popping champagne bottle. This might seem a dry topic, but as the champagne celebration shows, the clever animations illustrating the process engage us while giving a sense of the time and effort it took to produce those precious five published pages – and a sense of how this process is essential to build the structure of science that supports the next step forward.

One point The Researcher’s Article makes is that a physics research paper typically contains equations, graphs and illustrations along with text, a combination that forms the fabric of physics. In science fiction films or The Big Bang Theory a blackboard filled with impenetrable equations and symbols is a sure sign that some serious physics is going on. This isn’t entirely wrong. Physicists arguing their theoretical ideas or planning experiments like to do so with chalk on a blackboard; or, as you’ve seen if you have ever attended a physics conference, by writing on whatever bit of paper is handy to make a point to a colleague.  

That’s the premise behind the experimental film Writing, that the combination of words, equations and figures scrawled on paper is important because new physics often begins there. We can’t directly probe physicists’ thoughts but we can see their raw ideas emerge at the tip of a pen. Writing uses close-ups, some of them extreme to show the underlying paper fibers, to display physicist’s jottings on lined and unlined paper, napkins and newspaper pages. Some small parts of the jottings that are shown carry big meanings: the Greek letter psi (Ψ) that represents the quantum wave function, two-dimensional coordinate axes labelled x1 and x2 sketched on newspaper over the image of a face, a crude drawing that resembles the gravity well around a star, the words “epistemic” and “knowledge,” a graph that might represent the expansion of the universe in time, and fragments of various equations.

Even to a physicist, these snippets removed from context are not enough to track back in detail to their originating ideas. But what Writing does show is how much meaning in physics is packed not into words but into symbols, figures and equations that form their own special language. Unfortunately that’s what makes physics inaccessible for many; but for those willing to learn the language and how to manipulate it, it unlocks a whole scientific realm. That’s a part of real physics that never seems to show up in Hollywood films.

Writing (Geraldine Cox, 2013)

About the Author

Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor Emeritus of Physics at Emory University, is the author or editor of Hollywood Science, Hollywood Chemistry and other writings about science in film and other popular science topics. His latest books, forthcoming in 2018, are Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon and A Very Short Introduction to Physics.