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Weird Science Science in Media and Popular Culture


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Title: Weird Science Science in Media and Popular Culture

Weird Science Science in Media and Popular
  • Matt Malkan
  • Astronomy UCLA

Weird ScienceHouston (New York, Hollywood),
we have a problem
  • And a fantastic opportunity!

Science (2) and Scientists (1) Incompletely
  • Creative Exploration of new ideas, original
    situations is becoming more feasible (and
    profitable), BUT
  • are great F/X, CGI in science fiction a license
    for bad writing?
  • Much writing about science and scientists is
  • Confusing, Illogical, Unrealistic, to point of
  • Misleading, Unfair.
  • Why do (some) scientists care? Because
  • (4) Popular/Fiction probably influences public
    as much as all our Prose/PR

Weird ScienceSloan Foundation will see more
Science when it stops being
  • Inhuman,
  • Incomprehensible,
  • Impractical,
  • Unreal,
  • Uncertain,
  • Uncreative
  • Guilty as charged!
  • Sort of.
  • But WHY?

Scientists /Intellectuals Cannot Relate to People
  • (1) Learning science separates exceptional
    students from humanities, communications
  • Requires an almost unhealthy obsession with
    the esoteric their way of being special
  • If someone had told me I would be Pope one
    day, I would have studied harder.
  • Pope
    John Paul I
  • You dont LOOK like a professional astronomer!
  • Ive been sick.

Scientists Cannot Relate to People
  • Are scientists unbalanced fanatics?
  • Many of the best ones are (like film makers,
  • And other high achievers)
  • (2) Theyd rather work than socialize or
  • have fun, since their choice of
  • research career
  • shows disregard for monetary, leisure benefits
  • That post-doc is so gung-ho, his coffee mug at
    work says TGIM.

Scientists Do Not Relate to People
  • (3) This accompanies intellectual arrogance,
    impatience with those who are not dues-paying
    members of the club
  • comment about 3rd caveman Hes become just
    insufferable since he invented fire
  • Human craving for prestige, authority
  • Back off! Were scientists.--Ghostbusters

When they try relating, Scientists are Naïve,
Value-Free Drones
  • Striking analogies with markets, price system
    objective standard
  • Its NOT Who you know
  • Technology flowing from scientific discoveries
    CAN be exploited by bad, desperate politicians
  • and
  • it is harder to build up than to tear down

Guilty as Charged!Sciences Cannot Relate to
  • Scientific method is a relentless quest for
    UNIVERSALITY, impartiality.
  • To protect it from human weaknesses,
  • Person who did the science should be irrelevant
  • Principles trump personalities (eg, Samurai code)
  • This is the core of Western intellectual
    tradition, at least back to Galileo.
  • ie, its results should work for anybody
  • Whats so great about computer standards is
    that there are so many of them to chose from.
    --- Anon

Physical Science is Impersonallacks human
  • Human systems cant be described by simple
    physical laws most important human ideas are
    normative choices. Thus most problems do not have
    purely technical fixes, contrary to what
    academics want to believe.
  • The streets are safe in Philadelphia, its only
    the people who make them unsafe.
  • --- Frank Rizzo, ex-police chief and mayor of
  • The laws in this city are clearly racist. All
    laws are racist. The law of gravity is racist.
    --- Marion Barry
  • The hardest thing in the world to understand is
    the income tax --- A. Einstein

Physical Science is Impersonallacks human
  • (2) All scales of space and time are utterly
    different from daily experience, making it so
    hard to get a sense of perspective
  • My friend sent me a postcard with a satellite
    photo of the whole Earth, and wrote Wish you
    were here.
  • What makes the universe so hard to comprehend is
    that theres nothing to compare it with.

Science is Magic
  • (1) Huge amount of difficult preparation before
    discussing it, since were building on an
    enormous base of prior knowledge.
  • (2) Math, the natural language of the physical
    world, is a huge barrier.
  • Half of the world has NO IDEA how the other
    three-quarters lives! --- Bertie Wooster

Science is Magic
  • (3) Just mention fancy-sounding science, and
    ANYTHING GOES! Toss all physical laws and write
  • ex psychic powers, impossible
    accelerations, sounds in vacuum (EXCEPT
    Clarke/2001!), (backwards) time-travel
  • Writers dont get away with that nonsense in ER
    or LA Law

Science is Magic
  • (4) But actually, simplest is usually best
  • science (if not technology) loves Occams
  • e.g. Copernican Revolution naturally explains
    retrograde motion Eratosthenes, Olbers paradox
  • Everything should be made as simple as
    possible, but not simpler.
  • -- A.

Science is Too Unreal
  • Vast extension of senses to unfamiliar realms
  • intuition often inadequate,
  • analogies can be dangerous intuition and
    appearances deceiving
  • simple explanations require special talent!
  • At party, you both have something in common,
  • Dr. X is working on a particle no one has ever
    seen Dr. Y is working on a galaxy no one has
    ever seen.

Science is Too Unreal
  • (2) Much current data and models lack a
    satisfactory fundamental explanation, which is
    why were working on it
  • All science is either physics or stamp
  • --- E. Rutherford
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get
  • Whenever anyone says, theoretically, they
    mean, not really

Science is Too Uncertain
  • (1) Scientific method is almost obsessed with
    understanding its own limits and uncertainties,
    so that they can be under constant attack if no
    error bars are given, and it isnt falsifiable,
    its lousy science.
  • Creative destruction -- we specialize in
    admitting we were wrong
  • When a scientific field starts paying a lot of
    attention to its history, you can tell its on
    the way down.
  • ---- Wal Sargent
  • I asked a scientist her phone number. She gave
    me an estimate.

Science is Too Uncertain
  • (2) Public attention goes to the first
    discoverer, so there is a huge practical
    motivation to risk jumping the gun, which erodes
    public credibility over long run.
  • (ex Taubes Nobel Dreams, Cold
  • why dont you scientists just make up your
    minds and then let us know?!

Science is Too Uncertain
  • (3) Most people have little understanding of
    probability and statistics,
  • Nevada vacation, Dr. Smith 1 to 5. lets find
    another one, Im sure we can get better odds.
  • and regularly overestimate the significance of
    apparent patterns.
  • Random events tend to occur in groups
  • Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary

Science Stifles Artistic CreativityIts
Cookbook Formulae
  • That is how it is experienced in most
    non-scientists education, and even for many
    scientists at many times and places in their

Science Stifles Artistic CreativityIts
Cookbook Formulae
  • Revolutionary breakthroughs are as rare as in
    art or other fields, often by newcomers. Many
    occur by accident, when a well-prepared mind
    uses some new tool (from Galileo to
  • Striking analogies with evolution, mutation and
    natural selection of theories (survival of

Science Stifles Artistic CreativityIts
Cookbook Formulae
  • Aesthetics are important, but abstract (eg.
    Symmetry), formal
  • (ex physicists are musicians, not painters,
    used to clearly defined rules).

Science is Boring
  • Slow, abstract, rarely visually active (compare
    Shakespeare in Love writing sequences limited
    material for a music video) how to show
    problem-solving in a mystery.
  • Even most documentaries show little process of
  • As Chou En-lai responded to a question about the
    significance of the French Revolution, Its too
    soon to tell.

Science is Boring
  • (2) Theoretical and impractical. AT FIRST, but
    unpredictable technological applications (ex.
    Helium, nuclear reactions in sun, stars).

Properly understood, science is an exciting human
  • There is always something exciting about
    pursuing a (surprising) discovery that explains
    many things everyone previously considered a deep

But audiences CAN get scientific insights about
science and scientists AND be entertained
simultaneously! Exceptional science
movies 2001 --A Space Odyssey
Awesome attention to realistic details,
most Intelligent science show in history of TV
Many great classic biopics
Edison, The Man
More great Science Movies
  • Heavenly Body (William Powell, Pasadena
    astronomer, and his wife Heddy Lamar, who dabbles
    in astrology)
  • Madame Curie
  • Fat Man and Little Boy
  • Story of Alexander Graham Bell
  • Colossus
  • Contact minus the ending (always toughest part of
  • Most writings of Greg Benford
  • Several screenplays written for Sloan Foundation!