At the weekend I went to see the new Ghostbusters film directed by Paul Feig. It’s being criticised in a strangely aggressive way by a lot of people online. I have a suspicion why, but I won’t get too bogged down in that.
So let’s just put my cards on the table from the start: I absolutely loved it. I’m a big fan of the original, so obviously my expectations were demanding, but I thought the remake stood up very favourably. I found it funny and unpredictable, full of well-rounded characters, good acting and a few surprisingly touching moments. A sequel’s pretty unlikely given the fan reaction, but I would pay to see it in an undead heartbeat.
Obviously my blog isn’t about movie reviews though, so why bring it up? Well, it gave me a lot to think about, particularly regarding the way fictional Scientists are portrayed in the media. Last week I wrote about Science being accurately depicted in Sci-fi media and I have to say Ghostbusters was a pleasant surprise on this front as well.
The main characters are Scientists and although there’s a bit of “techno-babble to make the plot work”, a lot of the Science is pretty decent. It’s peppered with little touches like having genuine quantum mechanics equations in the background, characters getting the names of particles right and references to proposed technologies which provide subtle nods for the sci-geeks in the audience.
So let’s also address the elephant in the room.
Yes. The working title was originally going to be Ghostbusters 3: This time they're women! So, yeah, the ghostbusters are girls now. Horror! Run for the hills!!
As I’ve said before we need a big push on female Scientists in movies and making sure they aren’t just pretty damsels for the hero men to rescue. Ghostbusters hits another home run here because all the main characters are bold, non-sexualised and consistently funny. In fact, one of the film’s running gags is to have Chris Hemsworth as a gorgeous but stupid, gratuitously shirtless slice of man-candy who gets possessed and needs rescuing. Honestly, if there was something strange in the neighborhood I'd definitely be fine calling the new ghostbusters.
Now, before I get slaughtered I know there’s a lot of made up stuff in the film alongside the genuine science. The way I see it though, a film about people hunting ghosts with laser-hoses obviously isn’t going for hard-nosed accuracy, so it’s just an added bonus when they manage to get some real Science in there. Besides, it’s rather hard to have a Ghostbusters movie if you don’t allow the existence of ghosts. The really nice thing about the script is the way it handles scientific skepticism toward mystical claims.
Ley-lines, ectoplasm and…well…ghosts themselves are not currently accepted by the Scientific community. I’ll be open about it, I don’t believe in ghosts. But that doesn’t mean I outright reject their existence. I’m open to the possibility that ghosts could be real, but you need to give me some evidence first. After all, a Scientist is prepared to believe anything - no matter how ridiculous - if there’s evidence.
Ghostbusters acknowledges this in the first act through Kirsten Wiig’s protagonist. She’s a skeptic who doesn’t believe in ghosts and thinks discussing them is pointless because they’re non-falsifiable. She gives a pretty good speech about the importance of testing a claim and refuses to believe in the supernatural...even though she desperately and secretly wants to. This subtlety of optimistic skepticism is lost so often it’s painful. So Ghostbusters deserves a round of applause for distinguishing between “wanting to believe” and “actually believing”!
What’s even better is that as soon as she witnesses a real life ghost she changes her mind. Scientists aren’t afraid to admit when they get something wrong and Wiig’s character isn’t punished for being skeptical. Nor is Melissa McCarthy’s character obnoxious when her hunch is proven right. She doesn’t shout “I told you so!” in Wiig’s face because Wiig is just as excited to be proven wrong. They both had guesses about the world and they only made a decision once the evidence was in.
So it comes out flying in terms of depicting skepticism and women in STEM. The other thing I liked about it was the way it subtly deconstructs the image of the “mad Scientist”, a stereotype we’re seeing less and less these days.
I remember once posing for a series of photographs to promote my school Chemistry department. The photographer wanted me to ruffle my hair up, pull a goofy grin, put on a lab-coat and cackle like “a mad Scientist”. I got a bit uncomfortable and sort of refused. I know she wasn’t trying to strike a nerve but the mad Scientist stereotype irks me.
For one thing, it’s getting to be a little bit out of date now. Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor came out in 1963 and when was the last time a horror movie relied on some lunatic in a castle screaming “it’s alive!” Even the recent Victor Frankenstein film starring James McAvoy puts an emphasis on humanising the character, returning him to the enthusiastic, if hubristic, genius of the novel.
The general public are starting to recognise that Scientists aren’t actually maniacs and that a lot of them are surprisingly normal people. The “mad Scientist” image has now become a cliché that people are getting wise to. It’s not dead yet, but with popular-Science shows entering a renaissance on TV, people are seeing Scientists for what they really are: passionate and dedicated, but hardly “mad”.
I wear a white labcoat sometimes because it’s sensible. It protects my body and the white colour makes it easy to see if I’ve spilled something. But I only wear it when I’m doing practical work that involves potential spill-risk. Most of my lab research was done on computers, so in my University days I wore normal clothes and sat at a desk...sorry to disappoint you. Although I probably should mention I did a lot of my research at night, dressed in a hooded cloak. I am actually being serious there. It was warm, comfortable and the computer lab was cold. Deal with it jarhead.
Now, as a teacher I happen to wear bow-ties for the simple reason that I like them. From a purely practical reason they’re also easier to tie and they don’t dangle into your reaction, so they might even be safer than standard ties (perhaps that’s why Chemists used to wear them a lot). I know they’re seen as a little old-fashioned and goofy, but I don’t really care. I wear bow-ties because I like bow-ties, not because it’s “mad Scientist uniform”.
But, let’s be honest, Scientists are sometimes massively weird or socially backward. I myself have been described as eccentric and although I’m not 100% sure what I do which makes me “odd”, people usually don't mean any insult bt it. In a way it’s a bit of a compliment. To quote my dad: “who’d want to be normal, normal people are boring?”
Yes, Science does attract some slightly quirky people and a lot of the great Scientists of history had bizarre quirks (looking in your direction Tesla), but I struggle to think of a famous Scientist who genuinely belonged inside a psychiatric hospital rather than the laboratory.
A madman is one who doesn’t have a grip on reality or doesn’t understand the implications of his actions. Scientists are, ironically, the polar opposite of this. Scientists dedicate their lives to distinguishing reality from fantasy. We spend our days analysing, discussing and thinking about what the world is really like and how everything ticks. Scientists are concerned with rational thought, clear arguments and logic. We are anything but mad. Even when it looks like we are.
Consider Sergei Brukhonenko, a Russian man often described as a “mad scientist”. The experiment he’s most famous for was decapitating dogs and trying to keep the heads and bodies alive separately. This does sound like typical mad Scientist territory, but what’s rarely mentioned is why he was doing it. He was basically inventing the world’s first heart-and-lung machines in order to help victims of violent accidents. He was also trying to see if he could keep living tissue alive in order to give surgeons a better chance at carrying out transplants.
Scientists inevitably have to do unusual things because they’re in the business of discovery and by definition discovery = new = unfamiliar = strange. So, yes, Scientists and their experiments can come across as weird, but there’s always a purpose to them. Scientists don’t spend their lives trying to get things to explode, fizz and bubble (most of the time this is a sign something has gone very wrong) and we aren’t wildly trying to discover things without caring about the consequences, the consequences of our research are the very reason we do it in the first place!
Ghostbusters does well on this issue too because all the Scientists in the film are different characters. The villain is a vaguely “mad Scientist” type it’s true, but he’s not mad because he’s a Scientist, he’s mad because he’s a victim of bullying. As it turns out, so are the two main characters, but they decide to use Science to overcome cruelty. In other words, the film is more a commentary on how different people use Science depending on what they already are rather than saying “Science makes you evil.”
The major highlight of the film however was the comedy-relief character played by Kate McKinnon. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, the group’s engineer and nuclear physicist, is a larger-than-life, intellectually brilliant and utterly bizarre woman. She dances with blow-torches in her hands, sings during moments of heightened tension and seems more interested in making silly jokes than engaging in the serious debates everyone else is having. She was absolutely awesome.
Not only was she the funniest thing in the film, she was confident and full of enthusiasm for what she did. But, and this is the key point, all that was beside the point because she was a clear thinker when it came to understanding the principles of Science, she just didn’t particularly care for rules of “the social norm”.
She’s the kind of person you’d want to get trapped on a crashing airplane with, mainly because nothing got her down (pun of the day). Her love of Science was her motivation, and she remained upbeat at all times…who cares if other people found her a bit odd.
She also gets a genuinely heartfelt speech toward the end about the place Science has in the world and what it means to be a human being studying it. It’s a wonderful reminder that Scientists are doing Science because they believe in the human race and that we usually tend to care about the people we love. I know right, Imagine that?
Scientists feel compassion, Scientists feel empathy and Scientists often deal with being social outcasts, perhaps that's why we don't care whether people find us normal or not. We were the nerds in school, the people who never quite fit in, so once we grew up we were used to people finding us strange. What else is new?
But Scientists aren’t mad. We are, if anything, committed to sanity above all else. We just like to sing at inappropriate moments and wear bow-ties or hooded cloaks.
I love science, let me tell you why.