If you’ve seen the Michael Bay movie Armageddon you know what bad Science in cinema looks like. Asteroid headed for Earth? Send oil-drillers to nuke it. It might therefore come as a shock to learn that NASA uses the film as part of their training and interview procedures. No, seriously.
But don’t panic. The reason NASA owns a copy of Armageddon is because it's a test. Armageddon contains 168 scientific impossibilities and NASA employees are challenged to spot as many as they can.
That’s actually impressive when you think about it. Armageddon is 151 minutes long, which means every 54 seconds someone says or does something which utterly disregards reality. Armageddon may in fact be the least Scientifically accurate movie of all time, and I absolutely love it.
A lot of people might be surprised to learn I have a huge tolerance for Sci-fi movies that get their Science wrong, given how much I advocate Scientific accuracy in real life. The reason is quite simple: Science fiction is just that…fiction.
The job of a movie is to tell a story, entertain, make us think etc. etc. I’d have a problem with a politician manipulating scientific facts, or a doctor doing so because that’s the real world, but a sci-fi movie? It’s a movie. It doesn’t have to be accurate. If people are trying to learn their Science from watching movies then that says more about the quality of Science education than it does about Hollywood.
We still have lots of misconceptions but as Scientific literacy increases (and I think it is) movies are beginning to reflect that. And, just to fight Armageddon’s corner even more, after its release, public awareness of NEOs was heightened because although the film gets the details wrong, the message is right: a NEO could wipe out life on Earth and we need to be ready for it.
In fact, there was such public outcry that the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics (May 21 1998) finally began addressing the issue of space-research and funding in response. There is a slim chance Armageddon may genuinely have contributed to saving the world.
Let’s also not forget how many of today’s Scientists started out as Sci-fi fans. I myself was hooked on Star Wars long before I got hooked on Science. And Return of the Jedi (one of my all-time favourite movies) claims that a group of space teddy-bears can overthrow a military empire who own a plasma-cannon the size of a planet. I know Star Wars and Armageddon get stuff painfully wrong. I don’t care.
These movies don’t pretend to be scientifically accurate. Their purpose is to thrill and entertain. It’s just an added bonus that they encourage speculative thinking…which is often the first steps many people take to becoming a Scientist.
So this isn’t going to be a sneering article about how movies get Science badly wrong. I mean seriously, are there actually people out there who think that after watching Back to the Future they can time travel by driving at 88mph? Come on. People aren’t stupid. I don’t see anything wrong with “shutting your brain off” when watching a Michael Bay film. The problem comes if you continue to shut your brain off during real life. That's when it does matter.
I’m genuinely not one of those people who scoffs and criticises a movie for bad Science (ok, not usually). But I do get really excited when a movie portrays Science right! So I want to take a moment to celebrate and champion some of the Sci-fi books/movies/TV series which help promote Science or get their facts right.
10. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Although it's a brilliant movie I’m not sure if Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity counts as Science fiction.
Science fiction usually implies fictional Science; that is, a scientific principle/technology which doesn’t yet exist but could theoretically do so. Gravity doesn’t have anything like that because the whole thing is set in the real world. All of the technology in the film exists and everything that happens is more-or-less plausible. But it’s set in space, so let’s go with it. Whatever category it falls into, it’s 9.81 meters per squared second of awesome.
There are a few artistic licenses used (the Hubble space telescope is not at the same altitude as the ISS for instance) but for the most part the only problems with the film are niggles. Niel DeGrasse Tyson did an interesting video with Cinema Sins counting the Physics problems he notices and really, they’re pretty minor.
It’s the little touches which make the film’s accuracy speak volumes though, things like fireballs being perfectly spherical in space, book pages not falling into place, having to spin yourself clockwise to counteract an anticlockwise rotation etc. etc. In this respect Gravity was a powerful educational tool (I use it to demonstrate Newton’s 1st Law of motion and illustrate the importance of centripetal/fugal interactions). It's also, in this writer's opinion, a really well-plotted thriller in which the story is established almost instantly and the tension doesn't stop until the final minute of the film.
9. Star Trek (Movies & several TV series)
I’m being serious here. I know a lot of Star Trek was ridiculous. You can’t really reverse the polarity of the dilithium crystals or beam anyone up, but if you watch Star Trek, either in its TV serial format or the movies, what is very clear is how bang on it gets the philosophy of Science.
The Enterprise’s mission is not to conquer or make money. The opening of every episode goes “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” If that isn’t a good description of Scientific motivation I don’t know what is.
In the world of Star Trek the Earth is finally united and money has been abolished. People no longer work for profit or power, but to explore the Universe together as one species among many. Star Trek is about Scientists: people who want to seek out new worlds, to go where nobody else has gone. Yes, fine, the show has a lot of nonsense but what it does show is what humanity could achieve if it took Science seriously. It shows a world united by the desire to learn and connect with the rest of the Universe.
Also, consider the two main characters. The second-most senior person on the ship is Spock…the Science officer. They have a freaking Science officer! There’s a reason so many geeks idolise Spock. He represents something important to us: a Scientist being given respect, being consulted, being given a chance to get involved in decision making. He was a person who ignored emotion and tried to appeal to reason and logic. He wasn’t emotionless (Scientists do feel emotions I promise) but he could bypass his gut-instincts and think problems through with clarity.
And then let's not forget that the star of the show, James T. Kirk (in the original series) was a former Science geek who graduated in the top 5% of his class at Starfleet Academy. The new Chris Pine version, if I’m honest, does a bit of a disservice to the character by making him a sleazy school tearaway. Kirk was always proud of his education and was not a "shoot first, think later" kind of guy. He was well read, well-cultured and understood basic engineering. He just also happened to be a bit of a cocky rogue who was able to talk to women (believe it or not, a lot of Scientists can do this too).
It’s also worth mentioning that although Star Trek makes a lot of stuff up, it very rarely violates a law of Physics. There are instances which are beyond acceptability (radio-waves travelling faster than light, as one of my students recently pointed out to me) but for the most part it gets things pretty close. Teleportation is a real thing. Faster-than-light travel is theoretically possible (currently being investigated by Harold White of NASA) and the list goes on.
It’s silly, it’s camp, it’s crazy and, yes, sadly it’s sometimes unforgivably misogynistic but Star Trek shows what the world would look like if it were run by Scientists and it’s a very, very optimistic world.
8. Avatar (dir. James Cameron)
Again, I’m being serious. While Avatar is probably the most fantastical thing on this list, I think people are too quick to dismiss it. James Cameron (who minored in Physics at University) is a passionate Science enthusiast and dedicated a decade of his life to astro- and marine biology. It’s no surprise that the fictional world of Pandora was made with remarkable attention to biological and geological detail.
After writing the story, Cameron enlisted a small army of Scientists to add clarification to the movie’s backdrop. A lot of it is never mentioned on screen but the world-building of Avatar is unparalleled. There’s not much in the film which doesn’t have a good grounding. The creatures on the planet are based on the insect and marine ecosystems of Earth, the spaceships are designed with genuine features needed to engage in interstellar travel and even the idea of growing an avatar isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.
As the script was fleshed out, a companion book was written alongside it (I own a copy, obviously) which goes into detail about how everything in the Avatar universe works. Everything from the chemical composition of the ground, to the alloy structure of Unobtanium – which is a genuine term used to describe room-temperature superconductors, so laugh all you want, it’s actually the correct term - is carefully thought out. If you wonder why the Na'vi are blue with red blood, there's an answer. How do the avatar mental-link ups work? They've thought of that too.
In fact, the only obvious Scientific problem is why the female Na’vi have breasts seeing as they aren’t mammals. In response to this question, Cameron answered “because this is a movie for humans.”
7. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Lawrence Krauss has publicly described the Physics in this movie as “lousy” and fair enough it does have some ridiculous bits, but I think there’s a lot of good to say about Interstellar. Aside from the fact that it’s written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film’s main Science advisor was Kip Thorne (one of the world’s three leading experts on Black Hole physics, the other two being Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind).
In fact, the Black Hole in Interstellar (pictured above) was so well designed and graphically realised that Thorne actually published a research article on how he was able to create the most accurate Black Hole depiction in history.
The film’s real strength, for me however, is the way it makes physics an integral part of the story because the premise of the film actually requires an understanding of General Relativity. Several scenes are dedicated to discussing (teaching the audience) about the effects of time dilation in order to tell a genuinely unique and unconventional story. Some literary critics have said things like “there are only six stories”, even if that were true (it’s not) Interstellar would make a good case for being a seventh. The story actually doesn’t exist if you take out Relativity and that, to me, is an incredible achievement.
There are some bits which are schmaltzy, like the bit about love transcending dimensions, but the film still says something powerful. Set in a world where lunar conspiracy is taught as fact and the space program has died, it reminds us that exploring the Universe is important because, one way or another, Earth is not eternal. If the human race wants to survive, it’s not an exaggeration to say we need to eventually leave our planet to do so.
Interstellar also showcases Scientists as real people who fall in love, feel anger, fear, betrayal and even vengeance. It’s a story about people trying to make good decisions while also being true to their humanity. Yes, Interstellar has its flaws but it’s a very human film, with very real emotions, that makes theoretical physics relevant.
6. Anathem (Neal Stephenson)
Sci-fi guru and God, Neal Stephenson studied Geography with a minor in physics at University and, as the son of a biochemist and an engineer, Science runs pretty deep in his family. One of his earlier books Cryptonomicon spends a good 50% of the text teaching the reader about how computers were invented and how equations can solve daily puzzles – the story is almost incidental.
For this reason some people find his work a bit difficult (which I fully accept), but if you can stomach it, I recommend you give Anathem a go. It’s a novel set in a parallel Universe where society has been badly broken. The scientifically literate spend their lives inside locked cities while the uneducated roam the world outside. The main characters are Scientist-philosophers and it shows how Scientifically literate people view the world, as well as being a cracking adventure story.
The reason it made my top ten list was because the storyline itself is about quantum mechanics. And I don’t just mean the main characters discuss it or mention it, I mean the storyline itself becomes a meditation on the different interpretations of QM and grasping the basics of the theory is essential to understanding the finale. Never before or since have I encountered a book which made advanced physics an integral part of the storyline, rather than its setting.
It's a dense book, written in a semi-fictional language with technical appendices to explain the math and it stands at over 800 pages long, but if you've got a steely resolve and you aren't afraid of a difficult read it won't let you down.
5. Europa Report (dir. Sebastian Cordero)
I won’t say much about this one because it’s genuinely better if you go in not knowing what to expect. I will say, however, that it’s a criminally unheard-of film. Space.com described it as “one of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of space direction since 2001” and it is well-deserved praise.
It’s a found-footage story about a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to find evidence of primitive alien life. Europa is indeed our best shot at discovering alien life so this is a far more reasonable premise than you might imagine.
Mixing special effects with genuine footage of space travel, the film’s real strength is not just in how accurately the space physics is depicted but in how the Scientists are portrayed as real people who are commited to discovery.
To give away any more would be spoiling the fun and I suggest you don’t look up a synopsis or even google-image search it. The excitement of the film is in not knowing what's going to happen and the film’s ending is a powerful depiction of what it is to be a Scientist, asking every one of us the same question: how far would you go for knowledge?
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick/author Arthur C. Clarke)
Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Sentinel was adapted into a film and full-length novel at the same time by both Stanley Kubrick and Clarke himself. 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has become one of the most revered cinematic experiences of all time. The novel is largely forgotten.
A bit of a shame I suppose, but when you compare the two it’s hardly surprising. The novel is a pretty standard hard-sci-fi read, but the film is a majestic, visually assaulting meditation on humanity, technology and God, which gave us the very concept of modern special effects.
Arthur C. Clarke studied Physics and Mathematics at UCL, so it’s no surprise the Science in 2001 holds up extremely well. It was one of the first major Hollywood films to address the fact that space is silent, that there is a time delay between Earth and spaceships, and it rather famously creates artificial gravity in its ships by spinning them, throwing the passengers toward the walls as if toward the floor. It’s also quite prophetic, predicting the existence of space stations, the internet, video conferencing, voice-recognition computers and the basics of A.I.
I know people who can't stand the film and I do understand why. The pace is very slow and there's very little dialogue but, to me, this reflects the grandeur of space and the sheer emptiness of astronomical exploration.
It’s an ambitious film, fusing philosophy with Science and is easily one of the largest-scale films in history (I can only think of a handful of other films which rival it for scope). It’s a film about humanity and our place in the cosmos. It’s inscrutable, eminently re-watchable and filled with clever Science.
3. The Martian (Andy Weir)
After a powerful dust storm hits a research base on Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded and has to use his scientific knowledge to survive. There is some debate as to whether such a dust storm could really happen (I’ve heard arguments on both sides) but even if we decide this bit couldn’t, it’s not difficult to imagine some other reason for Watney to be stranded. Besides, it's just the McGuffin. The story really gets going when Watney realises he’s alone and has to rely on his wits and the scraps of technology he’s been left with.
The story is very simple: bad things happen to Watney and he must use Science to overcome them. And therein lies the brilliance. In the film adapataion by Ridley Scott, there's a rather famous bit where Watney explains “I’m going to Science the s**t out of this”, a quotation so popular even Obama himself repeated it (without the swear word).
The book spends much of its time explaining to the reader how knowledge of botany and chemistry can be used in a survival situation as well as making Science seem pretty badass. Personally, I feel like if I was stranded on another planet, I’d stand a decent chance now.
The sheer creativity of Andy Weir (a computer engineer) in coming up with ways for Watney’s life to constantly fall into danger are matched by the equally clever ways he survives. Every time you think he’s painted himself into a corner, he reveals a trap-hatch you never thought of.
But it’s not just that the story is all about using Science, it’s the fact that Watney is a fantastic character (portrayed perfectly by Matt Damon in the film). He’s charismatic, witty, sarcastic, confident and optimistic. It’s really nice to see a Scientist being portrayed this way, alongside the more conventional math-nerds (because let’s be honest they exist too).
A lot of engineering and Science is about puzzle solving. It’s about coming up with clever ways to change the world and discover what’s going on. Reading this book is the closest thing you can get to reading a botany/chemistry/astrophysics textbook without it being an actual textbook.
2. Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle)
I saw Sunshine on release with a friend because we were both Danny Boyle fans and it was immediately the kind of film you wanted to discuss. It manages to be everything a good sci-fi story should be: it’s philosophical, it’s speculative, it shows you an unseen world and makes you ask questions about “what if this happened…” I loved the movie from the outset, finding it an edge-of-the-seat thriller as well as a deeply moving character study. Sunshine, like 2001, is best described as artful, rather than just “a good movie”.
But the reason I’ve included Sunshine isn’t its beauty, it’s tight-as-a-drum script by Alex Garland, its surreal visuals or beautiful score. It’s because the way it portrays Science is everything I believe in and try to achieve in my job as a teacher.
Brian Cox (yes, him) was the film’s Scientific advisor and seems to have been listened to for the most part. The premise is that our Sun is deteriorating much sooner than expected (Cox has given a talk on what the reason could be, although it’s never stated in the film) and a group of Scientists must try to re-ignite it. A lot of theoretical physics goes on in the background but it’s never rammed down your throat. There are subtle references to equations and technologies but they don’t bog anything down. More like easter-eggs for nerds.
The best thing about the movie though is what Cox and Garland wanted to achieve. To depict the spirit of Science as a human endeavour, rather than something cold and clinical.
There are quite a few inaccuracies in Sunshine it has to be said. Brian Cox expressed minor annoyance at scenes which reinforce misconceptions about space e.g. bodies freezing instantly or (at one point) a tiny bit of sound. These moments are done for dramatic effect, but Cox has said he was willing to let these things slide because the point of the film wasn’t to get the minute details of astrophysics right, it was to show the glory of Science as a worthy, necessary and rewarding human undertaking. And it does that perfectly.
Alex Garland has described Sunshine as a love-letter to Science, which is the best way to think of it. The most exciting scenes, the most emotionally charged ones, are the ones where the main characters debate evidence, using reason and argument to make their point. They talk and think like Scientists. The whole premise of the film is that without Science the human race will be completely screwed (obviously something I agree with) and it still does something more.
As a Scientist I often hear people saying that I am lacking in “spirituality”. That Science is a heartless enterprise. Sunshine is one of the few works of fiction I know which shows how untrue this is. Sunshine is a film about the spirituality of Science and the profound experiences humans can get through understanding and playing a part in the Universe's drama. For that reason alone, Sunshine deserves a place near the top spot. As a Scientist I feel priviledged to see the beauty of reality and I spend my life trying to show other people what I see. Sunshine is doing the same thing, only much better and with a bigger budget.
1. Contact (Carl Sagan)
Every other entry on this list falls into the category of “gets the Science mostly right, with one or two minor concessions”. Even the really technical ones like The Martian and Gravity which are set firmly in the real world make the occasional fudge.
You might think it would be impossible to tell a gripping story while getting the Science perfect, since the result would just be a non-fiction. There is, however, one book which achieves it . Carl Sagan’s Contact (adapted for the screen by Robert Zemeckis) is, scientifically speaking, flawless.
Isaac Asimov once described Carl Sagan as the cleverest person he’d ever met. Isaac Asimov. The author/editor of over 500 books on topics ranging from Biochemistry to the history of the bible thought Carl Sagan was the more intelligent guy.
Carl Sagan is one of my personal heroes and one of the finest Science popularisers the world has ever had the pleasure of experiencing. A genuinely brilliant Scientist whose work on astrophysics, evolutionary psychology and planetary Science changed the way we view ourselves and our planet. Carl Sagan also played a role in pretty much every major space exploration program of the last 50 years. So when he decided to write a novel it’s no surprise the result was Scientifically perfect. Nothing goes astray.
The novel tells the story of mankind’s first potential contact with alien life, told through the eyes of Ellie Arroway, the astronomer who detects the signal. The book and film are both powerfully plausible explorations of how such a contact would be achieved and how earth-politics and human short-sightedness could interfere with the process.
Once again, the story is the Science itself. It’s not about “the aliens are going to attack us, we need to find their weakness and fight back”, the story’s dramatic tension comes from: will we be technologically able to answer the aliens, what are they like, what do they want from us and what will happen when we meet? The story is the exploration and discovery.
While the film is superb (Jodie Foster is perfectly cast as Arroway) it does occasionally veer a little toward sentimentality and cliche while the book remains sober from start to finish. The characters are well drawn, the story is thrilling, the Science is 100% sound and Sagan’s prose is as majestic as his non-fiction.
It is a heart-breaking, mind-expanding and spirit-soaring exploration of what it feels like to be a Scientist in a world that wants the products of Science (technology, medicine and knowledge) but isn’t prepared to engage with the methods of skepticism and critical thinking.
It is, ultimately, a celebration of Science, Scientists and the Scientific method. Whatever you think of the book or film as a work of fiction is besides the point. The Science is perfect. And for that reason it has to be the number one. Any time someone claims you can’t always get the facts right in order to make a good book or movie, point them in the direction of Contact.
Star Trek: Wired
Europa Report: Space
The Martian: Amazon
I love science, let me tell you why.