Any science teacher will tell you that students are baffled when told that there’s no sound in space. “What about when the asteroid blows up in Armageddon?” Nope, there’s no sound in a vacuum. “Even when the Death Star exploded in Star Wars?” Sorry, no sound there either. 2001: A Space Odyssey had it right. Eerie silence would be the soundtrack to any realistic space scene.

Such are the misunderstandings that permeate our culture when people get science lessons from movies. Most of the time, no harm is done, but when people start taking tips on genetic engineering or climate change catastrophes from popular movies, it can cause confusion when real scientists attempt to influence policy.

Cafe Scientifique
A Free Event! June 17, 6:30, MaRS Auditorium

Famous “movie science” misconceptions

Rain Man: Watching Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise chew up the scenery in this 1988 film is highly entertaining, but Hoffman’s character gave rise to a whole raft of stereotypes about autism that scientists are still battling. Not all people on the autistic spectrum exhibit savant like skills like Hoffman’s toothpick-counter.

The Day After Tomorrow: The realities of climate change are hard to predict, yet this over-the-top climate-armageddon blockbuster from 2004 scared school kids across the world by convincing them the world could become inhabitable within a few weeks.

The Core: After the core of the Earth stops spinning, the Earth’s magnetic field collapses. Chaos ensues: birds forget how to see with their eyes and start flying into buildings all over the world. In fact, the Earth’s magnetic field has reversed polarity dozens of times in the past. Birds and other animals are certainly prepared to deal with this if it happens again.

Finding Nemo: Poor Dory the goldfish can only remember things for up to seven seconds. In reality, goldfish can remember patterns in their environment for months at a time. (Still a good movie, though).

Goldfinger: There’s an iconic scene in this early Bond film where James Bond (Sean Connery) lies strapped to a table with a laser-beam moving towards his body.  The laser-beam is a bright line of red light, but in reality you’d only see a dot where the laser hit the table. Lasers are invisible until they bounce off something.

Jurassic Park: If only it were so easy to clone things. The “dinosaur-from-mosquito” myth has become so prevalent many biology teachers spend the first week of class talking about the complexities of DNA and what it can be used for and what it can’t. Firmly in the “can’t” category: cloning extinct dinosaurs.

The Fly: The stereotype of the scientist willing to sacrifice his safety and/or moral compass for the greater good pops up in many movies (Frankenstein, Metropolis, Dr. Strangelove, Spiderman, Dead Ringers). These scientists are also always 1. Male; 2. White; 3. Angry and 4. Socially inept. Breaking news: not all scientists fit this description!

Have any examples you’d like to add to the list? Add comments below.

A free event brought to you by MaRS and the Ontario Science Centre

Cafe Scientifique

Join us on Friday June 17 at MaRS at 6:30 PM in the Auditorium as a panel of experts show their favorite pseudo-science clips and unpack the effect they have on the public’s scientific literacy: (link to event listing June 17):

  • Dan Falk (Science Journalist, Broadcaster, and Author)
  • Mark Langer (Professor Film Studies, Carleton University)
  • Yasaman Soudagar (Dept. Of Physics, University of Toronto)
  • Natasha Eloi (Space Network)

The event is a special edition of the Ontario Science Centre’s popular Café Scientifique series (www.cafescientifique.ca)

Arrive early! Seating is first come, first served

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…