thu 28/05/2020

The Nature Autumn '09 Debate: Science in Cinema | reviews, news & interviews

The Nature Autumn '09 Debate: Science in Cinema

The Nature Autumn '09 Debate: Science in Cinema

Scientists and film writers debate: does sci-fi need to be sci-fact?

It's genuinely sad that last night's proceedings are not higher on the cultural agenda and that the gleaming new Kings Place auditorium was only half full.  But as one of the participants pointed out, 50 years on from C P Snow's Two Cultures, there is still an arts establishment for whom sci-fi means Star Trek, and the ludicrous guff of Independence Day touches more of a nerve than Arthur C Clarke's visionary treatment of the same subject-matter in Childhood's End
The event, the last in a series of science discussions organised by Nature magazine, all began very sensibly with a laying out of terms. After the speakers for the evening took their seats, but before they spoke, we saw iconic moments from Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey , The Andromeda Strain, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, Gattaca, and Sunshine.  It was a simple gesture to project these sci-fi movies, but reminded us how much these films, over the course of several generations, had served to cement our images and concepts of civilisation, of power, of transformation, of belonging and alienation, of sexuality, even of the most fundamental building blocks of identity and spirituality.

The panel were introduced to us by the chair Adam Rutherford of Nature as “the finest dorks, geeks and nerds that I know”.  The description showed a degree of self-effacement that only scientists know how to achieve, but for those gathered in the scientist-heavy audience, there was a ripple of solidarity in appreciation of the various pejorative descriptions of intelligence, all having no doubt learned to deal with the bafflement and snobbery that is carried in the very language used to describe science and those who practice it.

Once the discussion began, though, there were no concerns about anti-intellectualism weighing things down, but neither was it ever turgid or academic for the sake of it.  As Mark Henderson, the science editor of The Times, and Gia Milinovich, media consultant to the film industry (incuding work on the aforementioned Sunshine), laid out their interest in the presentation of science, it became clear that our performers for the night had no axe to grind but were more than willing to go through a few mental acrobatics for our delectation.

They were not, as fellow panellist the fantastically gruff and no-nonsense paleontologist and self-confessed Tolkein nerd Henry Gee, described it, “from the Newsnight Review set for whom anything outside Islington is marked with 'HERE BE DRAGONS'”, but they were willing to trample across intellectual boundaries to give the sort of breadth of discussion of which Newsnight Review participants find themselves often incapable.

Asking whether Gattaca taught us anything about genetics, or whether The Day After Tomorrow pushed the political debate about climate change forward, the panel were elastic and self-effacing but never lazy or compromised.  Questions about why science-fiction film lags so far behind the advances of the equivalent literature, and why writers like Margaret Atwood seem ashamed to even use the term "science fiction" butted up against discussions of fundamental particles and the nature of gravity.  Fabulous phrases like “would you measure someone's height by looking at their genes?” and “just because there's no gene that makes you an x-man doesn't make X-Men an immoral film” brought the collision between science and art to life.

By the time we were brought to realise that Mulder and Scully's illustration of the nature of a research partnership – an imaginative partner and a rationalist testing hypotheses and creating a view of the world based on limited evidence – might have been as important a legacy of The X Files as the series's alien fantasies, the discussion had degenerated, as discussions amongst scientists are wont to do, into the sublimely ridiculous. Did the technology of Blade Runner matter, or was it just another hard-boiled detective story?  Does a scientific understanding of truth affect art's relationship to truthfulness?  Does fantasy create conspiracy theory or vice versa?  Is the i-Phone generation the realisation of science fiction or an end of it?

No conclusions were reached – of course they weren't.  But the evening's discussion went way out into the areas where supposedly dragons dwelt, and came back unharmed.  And as the audience joined the panellists in the bar to continue the conversation, the whole thing felt a whole lot more constructive than most Monday night conversations - and by an injection scientists' rigour and insistence on basing arguments on first principles, many topics that from cultural commentators might seem like tired old riffs or nebulous waffle were made fresh and refreshing.

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