In its November issue, Discover Magazine called on an Emory University physics professor, Sidney Perkowitz, to name the best and worst science movies of all time. The Discover article doesn't reveal all of Perkowitz's picks; for that, you have to buy his book, "Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World." Discover does, however, name his five best and five worst science movies, which is probably enough to start a good, heated argument.
Perkowitz's best movies are "Gattaca," "Metropolis," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (the movie that gave us the line, "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!"), "On the Beach," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Contact." His worst: "The Core," "What the #$*! Do We Know!?," "Chain Reaction," "Volcano" and "The 6th Day."
Admittedly, the "worst list" initially rekindled my reservations about the wisdom of placing the word "Hollywood" in the same breath with "science." Any engineer who has ever watched action movies knows Hollywood has little understanding of technology, let alone science. In typical action movies, cars explode for no good reason and heroes routinely fall off tall buildings without injury. In one non-stop action film, "The Rock," actor Nicolas Cage is trapped in his car by an over-inflated air bag and escapes certain death by what else? pulling out a pistol and shooting his air bag. Scenes like that one are enough to make engineers swear off movies forever.
Worse, movie portrayals of engineers have never been very flattering. The movies "Falling Down," "Mosquito Coast" and "The Aviator," for example, all feed the popular perception of engineers as eccentric at best and anti-social at worst.
So, yes, I'm a bit skeptical when it comes to movie science.
But I did like "Apollo 13," "The Right Stuff" and Carl Sagan's science classic "Contact." I also liked "A Beautiful Mind," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Hunt for Red October" and "Jurassic Park." I'm looking forward to a re-make of another old Michael Crichton movie, "West World," which is due out in 2009. (Several of these movies also appear on an American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) web page that ranks the best engineering films.)
And I do have a favorite engineering movie: "October Sky," the story of former NASA Engineer Homer Hickam. The movie, which details Hickam's effort to learn rocket science while growing up in Coalwood, WV, should be required viewing for all American high school physics students. It may be Hollywood's only movie that portrays a bright young science student as a normal child. The movie and the book it was based on have become so popular they've spawned an official Homer Hickam website and an annual October Sky Festival in Coalwood.
I'm sure there are other great science and engineering movies and I invite readers to tell us about them. Drop us an e-mail and give us your vote for best and worst science/engineering movies. We'll post the results here in a later issue.