Biggest Movie Mistakes About Science II

Part 1

Based on a few suggestions, here are three more super-common mistakes film and television make when talking about science. As before, this isn’t some super-boring piece about factual errors that mistakes pedantry for intelligence – it’s about portraying science, and scientists, incorrectly and unrealistically.

After all, sci-fi with invisible lasers and perfectly silent spaceships would just suck.

You’re Constantly on the “Edge” of Your Big Breakthrough

In Movies and TV:

“I can’t leave now, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough!!” shouts the plucky young scientist. They hit keys and tap out code. The scratch their head and stare at a blackboard. Suddenly, the realisation strikes – they knew they just had to stare and scratch for a few more seconds. There! I’ve discovered it – the Osminium TetramethylBromaldehyde! They just had to find this mystery ingredient and add it to their 95% complete formula and now they can build their trans-dimensional portal array!

The Reality:

Science works in two ways.

Firstly, it’s a slow, steady, well-planned slog through the motions. You know what you have to do. You know how you’re going to collect your data. You know a handful of potential results could happen and what those signify – you just need the evidence to say one way or the other.

Or, secondly, you can do something and it unexpectedly slaps you in the face, causing you to casually swear and have a protracted shouting match with your supervisor while you then slowly migrate into doing exactly what the paragraph above states.

But there’s no real sense of being on the verge of a sudden breakthrough. Unfortunately, science doesn’t work like that. Your breakthroughs come after a lot of applied effort, or they come by accident – slightly unpredictably and serendipitously. But no matter how complex the task, you’ll find you always know what sort of solution you want. Even at the hard-core bleeding edge of physics, we know what grand unified theories of everything should look like – we know what we need to do to get there. It just requires the work and the time.

The Worst Offender: Every Comic Book Villain Ever


I can recommend the excellent James Kakalios book The Physics of Superheroes. While also using superheroes to explain concepts in physics and mechanics, Kakalios is also fond of pointing out how almost every other character seems to have worked out the exact workings of their shrink ray, or their death ray, or their super-plague, or their warp drive… except for one key, missing ingredient. They just need that one breakthrough and the last piece of the puzzle! They just don’t know what it is!! But then they find it, and boom origin story!

Science Is One Discipline

In Movies and TV:

General Sharpe: “We’ve collected the world’s top scientists for this project. Your expertise in this will-”

Scientist A: “Wait, what? Top scientists? In what field.”

General Sharpe: “Well, science. Obviously.”

Scientist B: “For what project?”

General Sharpe: “For this top-secret project to fend off an alien attack.”

Scientist A: “Hang on, I do nuclear physics – I work on fusion projects trying to increase the efficiency of those reactions from purely theoretical computer simulations.”

Scientist C: “I research influenza vaccine efficiency. I mostly work in statistical analysis.”

Scientist B: “I work in reactions catalysed by palladium. Occasionally I use platinum.”

General Sharpe: “But.. you’re scientists, right? You science the best. Like… you can develop a super-weapon to take down the alien mothership in the next five days, right?”

Scientist C: “Jesus H. Christ…”

Scientist A: “We’re so fucking doomed.”

Scientist B: “I suppose we could just lob stuff at it…?”

The Reality:

Science is broad. So broad, in fact, that there’s even an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to even defining it. It is, quite literally, impossible to specialise in everything. You can gain the broadest appreciation of as much of it as possible, but at the end of the day if you can find someone who can consider themselves as an expert on quantum mechanics, they’re unlikely to have the same expertise in general relativity – let alone a more distant subject like geology or biology. And the end of the day, you’re very broadly a “scientist” – but before that you’re a biologist, or a zoologist, or a chemist, or a geologist.

You can certainly learn the grammar of another discipline reasonably quickly. I can hold my end of the conversation with someone doing high-detail studies of the ring currents and magnetic fields within charge-separated potentially-aromatic cyclic chemical systems – but by heck I’m not going to be publishing a paper on that any time soon. I’ve got even less chance of making a chance discovery in nuclear physics, or plate tectonics or – in fact, let’s be honest here, even those two things right there are incredibly broad fields and I have no idea how deep the sub-divisions go.

Worst Offender: The Day The Earth Stood Still


Many, many examples to choose from (including every “whacky inventor” ever) but in this case I’m going to go with my gut and choose Barnhardt from The Day The Earth Stood Still. I’m still not quite sure what he’s supposed to be a professor of, really. There seems to be some astro-something involved, but he’s still pretty much the archetype for Generic B-Movie Scientist that seems to just be a… scientist.

The script/exchange from the above section basically sums up the first half hour of the 2008 remake, at which point I switched over declaring “contrary to popular belief, Keanu Reeves is not the problem with this film”.

It’s All About The IQ

In Movies and TV:

Your smart character comes on screen. Within a second he’s hacked into the super-computer using nothing but string and some tape. Ten seconds after that he’s NLP’d his way into the pants of the Hot Assistant. He’s then hypnotised a guard to get out of the prison. And finally he’s cured cancer in a rapid montage of test-tubes, Gilson pipettes and rotovaps – all in a day’s work. Now he’s off to bang the Hot Assistant, but it’ll be meaningless sex because he has no emotion.

It’s all because he’s got an IQ of 225 – the highest since Einstein, no less. So special, in fact, that they wheel him around in a glass box like the Pope when he’s not busy doing high-IQ things like reading at super-speed, drawing things from memory or banging the Hot Assistant in increasingly shallow and meaningless ways.

The Reality:

If you’re writing a fictional character who’s super-smart, you invariably have to write someone more intelligent than you. It shouldn’t take too long to realise this is pretty difficult. You effectively have to pass something like the Turing Test – you’re an inferior machine that needs to simulate a higher intelligence well enough for it to pass in conversation. Luckily, that conversation is with people probably less smart than you. So most writers will take the lazy way out and, if they don’t hold multiple doctorates, provide the character with a huge IQ.

The thing with IQ, though, is that it doesn’t really measure anything in particular… except IQ. In principle it measures your logical and spatial reasoning skills with an increasingly abstract and bizarre series of tests. BUT, and it’s a big BUT – contrary to popular belief it is possible to study for them and improve your score. When you get used to seeing logical patterns and can pick up where to look for keys and primers in the puzzles, you get better at the test, and get a better score. It certainly doesn’t mean you get smarter in a broader sense.

IQ does have its use, though. It’s a statistical proxy for intelligence across a population – hence adjusting for age and the Flynn effect. Arguably, yes, scientists will score highly. But that’s usually less to do with because scientist, and more because college-educated middle-class white male I’m sorry to say.

And when you can understand that, you’ll know why it’s pretty much useless when levelled at a single person, and be able to politely snigger when someone brags “135, BTW”.

Worst Offender: Hornet… Viper… Tarantula… Scorpion, that’s what it’s called!


The lead character has an IQ of 197. This should immediate elicit laughter from anyone who even remotely knows anything about the subject of the intelligence quotient. Yes, yes, it’s “based on” a real person with a claimed score of 197, but the response to that story should remain the same for much the same reasons.

The plan depicted in the screenshot above, where they drive under a plane to get a back-up of some software by lowering down an ethernet cable from the front landing gear and hooking it up to a laptop operated by a waitress in a sportscar, however, isn’t based on a real person or event. Because that makes no sense to anyone with an IQ. Not an IQ over something, just anyone with one.

Biggest Movie Mistakes About Science

Part 2

Well, this won’t be one of those articles. I’m interested in the cultural mistakes, the mistakes about scientists themselves and science as a process, rather than just factual inaccuracies.

I can accept factual twists and implausible devices. That’s part of fiction. I can accept that a human-made computer virus can bring down an alien mothership – I just have trouble accepting that computer virus was written overnight by one guy.

But anyway, here are three entries. I might make this a series if and when I can formalise a few others.

Scientists are always “ON”

The Movies and TV:

Scientists are always scientists. They always talk in convoluted words.They’ll never say “fast” when “28.996 metres per second” sounds more intelligent. And there’s always a lot of decimal places, whether they’re significant or not. They can practically see the Matrix as equations fly around their head constantly no matter where they are. If asked about their favourite music, they’ll respond with discussing the mathematical patterns found in music without any room for a subjective judgement. Even discussing dinner plans, they can’t help but break it down into a hyper-fine quantum-physics like description, trying to use a quantum mechanics thought experiment to solve which restaurant to visit.

The Reality:

Well, scientists are real people. Colleagues I know with a strange obsession for cricket don’t talk about it in terms of “and then the human with the wooden shaped object strikes at an angle of 45.76 degrees and a force of 27.89 Newtons, immediately changing the velocity of the spherical object propelled toward them”. They’re more likely to just say “and then he knocked it for six” like, you know, normal people.

There’s a certain element of being unable to “switch off”, but in that case it’s more the stress of grant proposals running around in the back of everyone’s mind. “We need this final draft submitted to Nature by tomorrow, so we’re staying late, guys” may well happen. But that’s because it’s a job,and it can carry such stresses.

Worst Offender: The Big Bang Theory


Particularly earlier episodes of TBBT, before it turned into a repository for just stating nerd-culture references out of context. Leonard asks Leslie Winkle out with the words.

“I was going to characterise it as the modification of our colleague/friendship paradigm, with the addition of a date-like component. But we don’t need to quibble over terminology.”

In many ways, I’m pleased Leonard devolved into a complete dickhead in the later seasons – because at least now he talks like a real person.

Science is done by one person

The Movies and TV:

She’s the world’s foremost expert on quantum astrophysics, and she has 18 hours to synthesise an antidote to a genetically engineered virus. 5 minutes of pipette-and-petri-dish montages later, she has it. Now she has to fly a helicopter to the distribution net, and inject it into the air filtration system once she’s repaired it – but first she must hack her way through the layers of cyber security installed by the terrorists by using a GUI interface made in VBA. But the only way to guess the password is through obscure trivia about 14th century French literature… luckily, she has a degree in that, too.

The Reality:

Science is a team effort.

It takes dozens, if not hundreds, of people to make a decent dent in the world of scientific discovery. I was recently at a lecture by a recent Nobel Prize laureate – and he invited about 30 people in the audience to stand and receive applause for their contributions to that work, listing them all by name. And that’s the people who were just in the audience – about another 30 couldn’t make it in person. And the others who shared that years prize had teams of similar size. Many of those people were now older, with research groups of their own, working with dozens of additional scientists under them and around them across the world.

Day-to-day, the big name superstar professors are unlikely to ever get involved in the hands on lab research. They’re too busy writing the grant proposals and having high level discussions. The post-docs will author the papers and communicate at conferences around the world. The PhD candidates will do the actual experiments, the technical staff will maintain the equipment, the workshop engineers will build the crazy bespoke stuff… it goes on.

Louder for people at the back: science is a team effort.

Worst Offender: Tony Stark


While I could have pretty much said “everythinge” for this, I decided to stick with Marvel’s super-genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. Sure, in the movies he has fabrication equipment to build the suits. And he hardly has to do any designing because Jarvis will do the hard work for him. But who builds the maintains the fabrication equipment? Who delivers the raw materials and mashes them out into usable material first? Who programmed Jarvis? Who replaces Jarvis’ busted hard-drives and processors? If Tony did all of this himself… where would he ever get the time to actually wear the suit? Where is most of the money going if it’s not going to pay people to do most of the intricate fiddly research and development in the background?

I can do it if I had access to my lab!

The Movies and TV:

“We have to get back to the lab, my equipment is there!” shouts the elderly scientist. But the lab has been destroyed, now all hope is lost! In the movies, laboratories are magical places with infinite power supplies, and infinite racks of every known chemical. Spectrometers of all shapes and sizes are squeezed into every orifice. If you locked the one-man super-genius in here, they’d build a warp drive within the week!

The Reality:

Labs are just… a… place, you know? They’re a room. Sure, there’s some specialist kit in there, but it’s specialist to whatever that lab is. See, the reality is that a lab can’t have everything in it. It just wouldn’t be possible. Why does my lab need pots of iridium trichloride, our research focuses on controlled polymer synthesis? Why do we need our own IR spectrometer, we record one about once a month and we can just steal the one in the teaching labs!

In reality, it’s easier to bring your research to a lab – one that has the specialist equipment you need, but not necessarily your own. A large research group might have one spectrometer to share, a department might have their own collection of NMR instruments, a university might have its own high-performance super-computer. When we look at really big stuff like particle colliders, they don’t even service whole countries but whole continents.

Your lab is just whatever is closest to your office. It’s mostly storage and a work area. If you have something there, it’s the essential day-to-day stuff – diligently maintained by a post-doc who knows her way around Stores and isn’t afraid to tell the MSc student to lug a trolley of crap from the other side of the department. Because science is a team effort, remember.

Worst offender: Fringe


It’s been a while since I watched X-Files Fringe, but I’m pretty sure “I need to get to my lab!” was one of Walter Bishop’s catchphrases.

I have no idea what he actually kept in there – Fringe was never particularly specific about anything – but by heck he had stuff that could take a particle and image it in full-HD on a display within moments before making a super-slow animation that revealed something important. Bishop and Son were very much the epitome of that one-man-army trope about super-scientists who can do anything with just some pluck, wit and access to their home-made Ambient Quantum Resonator Microscope and their Bi-Lateral Endophrenoscopic Separator.

Or, you know, something like that. It’s definitely been a while since I watched this – but, as fun as it is, I’m pretty sure Fringe is to science as American Pie is to sex.

Theresa May Shocked To Learn ‘Red, White and Blue Brexit’ Still Not A Real Plan

Speaking on a two-day cruise to Bahrain, Prime Minister Theresa ‘What Even Is SSL, Anyway?’ May has described the need for a “Red, White, and Blue Brexit” only to be met with raised eyebrows from everyone paying attention.brexit_recession

“What? What did I say this time?” She asked.

When pressed for further details, May quickly responded with “What I mean is, Brexit Means Brexit” to be met with, yet again, further stunned silences. At one point, one top-level economist was seen to mouth the words ‘what the actual fuck’.

Brexit Is As Brexit DoesIt’s The Brexit, Stupid… Read My Lips: Brexit…”

“Okay, look, everyone…” May finally conceded. “We’ve gone over these plans in high level cabinet meetings. Believe me, we have formulated many, many potential plans for how this shit-show is going to go down.”

“We went over some other prospective candidates, such as ‘Super-Brexit‘, and ‘New Brexit: Now With a Hint of Mint‘ and our thorough analysis of those revealed they just wouldn’t work. We even hired some top-level consultants to think outside the box and come up with ‘Diet Brexit‘ and ‘Brexit With Bells On‘, and we even considered ‘Brexit II: The Brexoning‘ until one of the clerks pointed out we’d probably need a ‘Brexit I’ before we can have a ‘Brexit II’. At one point Phil the intern even suggested ‘Follow the existing pattern of existing affiliated member states, secure free access to the common market and existing trade deals via allowing free movement, then slowly phase out the EU regulations and directives that we don’t need in order to minimise sudden impacts to the economy, and put the resulting details to the public in a second referendum in late 2017… Brexit‘ but come the fuck on guys, that doesn’t fit in 140 characters so is completely unworkable as an idea.”

After walking away, May was replaced by a close advisor who revealed further details of the cabinet’s current plan. “Right…” he said. “You know how in RPG there’s a quest, yeah? Well, we’re on a quest called ‘Get Britain Out of the EU’, right? So, it stands to reason that there should be some old guy with purple hair standing at the back of a convoluted dungeon, sealed behind some ancient possessed hell beast, and he’ll have access to the ‘Elixir of Brexit’. Right? See, we’ve got this down, guys! Now worries. So Brexit Means Brexit, right? Come on, what more do you fuckers want from us?”