GET ME A SCIENTIST!
Science is everywhere, and even people who are far away from it realize its role in everyday life. The term is often used loosely: though traditionally “science” refers to subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, today we hear about computer science, behavioral science, the science of speech and so on. Science and everything connected with it has long since been established in arts, literature, movies and TV shows. The jargon is becoming more and more ubiquitous and recognizable. Sure, after a long tirade on any given topic or an explanation of what exactly went wrong with this or that household appliance, or any super-duper device, we still hear that common phrase. “And in English that would mean?” There is a shift in the perception and so in the portrayal of scientists. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Mary Shelley published her iconic novel, Victor Frankenstein and his literary, then film descendants were quite the norm. A disheveled mad scientist rather dominated the genre. Jules Verne introduced some reclusive geniuses and wrote about many futuristic fantastic inventions and adventures. Today, what seemed totally impossible and improbable a century ago is a reality. Walks in open space, landing on the Moon, deep space and deep sea explorations, genetically modified foods, test-tube babies, cloned animals, instant communication and yes, weapons of mass destruction…
Perhaps the greatest change can be seen in numerous movies and TV shows which feature researchers, academics. “Get me a scientist, a geologist!” yells Tommy Lee Jones in “Volcano”, a typical cataclysm/catastrophe/destruction movie. And here she is, portrayed by golden-haired Anne Heche. “Institute of Advanced Science” is a nice humorous touch in “Ocean’s 11”. In the twenty-first century, “The Big Bang Theory” comedy TV show became so popular that it is clear they may never get an Emmy award simply because they ARE the best show ever. The ratings demonstrate that the life of several researchers may be as absorbing and funny to watch as, say, “I Love Lucy” half a century ago. It has an amazing team of actors who create completely plausible characters and manage to stay this side of ridiculous on a weekly basis. Their success is largely due to the normal world note regularly introduced by Kaley Cuoco. She is the one who repeatedly helps her neighbors come back to Earth. Lots of episodes are known by heart for the situations shown, and lots of phrases have long since become everyday quotes. One does not have to be a scientist to appreciate this show! For me, it is also evidence of the wider and wider spreading acceptance of science as part of our daily existence. It is interesting that one of the actresses, Mayim Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. So it is possible to be a highly talented actress, a mother and a researcher at the same time.
One of the films made after Dan Brown’s novels, “Angels and Demons”, starts at a CERN laboratory, and talk of the giant collider is an integral part of the dialogue. Three vials of “anti-matter” stolen by bad guys are of course necessary for the plot development. Robert Langdon, Brown’s protagonist, is a symbologist, while his female partner is a physicist. There is plenty of action, and the heroes manage to cope with all the difficulties. This shows us that those who go in for science and research can also run, jump, race cars and beat up the bad guys when needed. In other words, they are quite human.
“The Martian” is one of the latest examples of this mixed genre. On the one hand it stands close to “Interstellar” and “Gravity”. Matt Damon is a great actor who can carry the otherwise tedious story (141 minutes long!) on his broad back. “I am a scientist”, he says when he gets stranded on Mars. “I can figure out how to survive!” He is a biologist and a botanist, so he starts mixing up the available soils to grow some crops. In essence his story seems to stem from the immortal “Robinson Crusoe”, with the Red Planet serving as the background, rather than a tropical island. Throw in a little Hollywood magic, like NASA being able to establish communications, and the big spaceship going all the way back from half-way to Earth to pick him up. Plus the happy ending, when the hero is saved by his crew and brought back home. And the advances in modern science which allowed me to watch the movie at home, fast forwarding when it rather obviously stretched and floundered. “Jason Bourne” it definitely isn’t, but then neither is any of the Bourne sequels. Speaking of movies, where would we all be were it not for the persistent researchers who continued poking at various uses and modifications for the new art form until they managed to come up with the moving pictures.
At every conference, I can observe researchers from different lands make presentations and endlessly discuss their problems in incomprehensible terms. I also see them eat, drink and dance with abandon at the final conference dinner. Just like us normal folks. Maybe even better. So maybe they know some magic formula for dancing well. After all, dancing is just a form of motion, and motion figures in many branches of science.