Hollywood physics

2007-08-15

in Daily updates, Films and movies, Geek stuff, Rants, Science

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Deficiencies in movie physics can be good fun to dissect and mock, but a recent paper suggests that they are less benign. “Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun but Limited Science Literacy” suggests that the absurdities that abound in popular films actually weaken the people’s ability to understand how the world works. The paper concludes that:

Hollywood is reinforcing (or even creating) incorrect scientific attitudes that can have negative results for the society. This is a good reason to recommend that all citizens be taught critical thinking and be required to develop basic science and quantitative literacy.

Specific issues discussed in the paper include projectile motion, Newton’s laws, impulse, buoyancy, and angular momentum. Certainly, some films underplay the dangers of high falls and similar phenomena – as well as playing up the dangers of things like automobiles spontaneously exploding.

Personally, I would prefer a world in which movies portrayed all the sciences in realistic and accessible ways. Unfortunately, such films are in perpetual danger of being ignored in favour of flashy absurdities like the The Core or the egregious recent Star Wars films.

Reading these entertaining reviews is a good after-the-fact vaccine.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom August 15, 2007 at 9:33 pm

Movies have left me completely confused about the deadliness of firearms.

Sometimes, a person who is shot once with a pistol (especially by James Bond), dies almost instantly, even when shot in the gut.

Sometimes, a person shot can perform a makeshift operation using pliers, extract the bullet, and go on to engage in vigorous hand-to-hand combat for many days.

R.K. August 16, 2007 at 9:15 am

The Intuitor pages are much more entertaining than that academic paper.

Also, the latter doesn’t even try to prove that bad physics actually causes bad societal effects. It just demonstrates that bad physics exists in movies and then asserts that it causes that harm. While the hypothesis is plausible, this paper does not really support it.

Milan August 16, 2007 at 9:20 am

On the shooting issue, it has long been clear that the level of harm done by a weapon varies according to factors like your nationality and seniority within military organizations, criminal gangs, or super villainous organizations.

A German sub full of Germans will be crushed by the first depth charge. The same model, once taken over by Americans, will simply spray some steam around the bridge when this occurs. Obviously, the democratic spirit of the Americans serves to strengthen the hull.

Similarly, it follows that the general in charge of a rogue military unit will take a lot more punishment to kill. Underlings may be eliminates with a solid kick or two, but he will require an elaborate fight sequence. Clearly, generals are promoted on the basis of personal toughness, stamina, and ability to survive anything short of being thrown into a steel-smelting furnace.

. April 6, 2009 at 7:47 pm

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