Movies that Help to Teach Science
By David Brin, Ph.D.
Films based on history or true life stories:
Apollo 13 (1995) "Houston, we have a problem." Ron Howard directed this stirring story of NASA's real-life crisis. En route to the moon, an oxygen fuel-cell tank exploded, cutting electrical power and the astronaut's air supply. The film shows the crew interacting with mission specialists back on earth to rig solutions as they retreat to the lunar module for a desperate return voyage to earth. Tom Hanks is Commander Jim Lovell.
The Right Stuff (1983): The story of the early days of NASA's space program, focusing on the selection and training of original Mercury astronauts: John Glenn, Gus Grissom, and Alan Shepard, as well as the story of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. One of my personal favorites.
October Sky (1999) Based on the book "Rocket Boys," the movie tells the story of a coal miner's son who was inspired by the Sputnik launch to build and test model rockets while in high school, eventually becoming a NASA scientist.
Inherit the Wind (1960) A fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Two lawyers argue for and against the teaching of evolution in schools. Spencer Tracy and Frederic March star.
Lorenzo's Oil (1992) Based on a true story of two parents, the Odones (Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte), research and challenge doctors to develop a cure for their son, who suffers from the rare degenerative disease, adrenoleukodystrophy.
Something the Lord Made (2004) A dramatized portrayal of the partnership between two doctors (played by Alan Rickman and Mos Def) who pioneered early advances in heart surgery. The film also deals with issues of racism in the times of Jim Crow.
Gorillas in the Mist (1988) The true-life story of Dian Fossey (played by Sigourney Weaver) and her work in the jungles of Rwanda, studying the rare Mountain Gorillas, as she fights to save them from poachers and habitat loss.
The Dish (2000) A fictionalized account of the true story. Austrialian scientists based at Parkes radio telescope, work to relay the televsion footage of man's first steps on the moon. Sam Neill stars.
Life Story (1987) A dramatization of the rivalries and collaborations between scientists James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, as they seek to determine the structure of DNA.
Awakenings (1990) Based on a true account from neurologist Oliver Sacks, a doctor (Robin Williams) uses a new drug to revive a catatonic patient (Robert De Niro), who awakens to life for a brief interval.
The Dam Busters (1955) Based on a true story, the film follows the RAF's development of a bomb to attack dams in the Ruhr Valley, hindering Germany's industrial development during World War II.
Medicine Man (1992) Sean Connery plays a doctor seeking a cure for cancer in the Amazon rain forest, fighting against a logging company razing the forest.
Contact (1997) Based on a novel by Carl Sagan, Jodie Foster plays a scientist who receives a radio message from another world. She decodes the message to reveal plans for building a spaceship, which she uses to make contact with alien species.
Extraordinary Measures (2010) Two parents struggle to develop a drug to save the lives of their two children suffering from Pompe disease. Brandan Frasier and Harrison Ford star.
No Highway in the Sky (1951) James Stewart stars as an aircraft engineer investigating an airline crash, which he attributes to metal fatigue. He begins testing his theory in the laboratory. Meanwhile, he finds himself aboard one of these planes, and he intervenes to stop the flight, warning the crew and passengers of the danger.
Moon (2009) For three long years, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is stationed at a lunar manufacturing base, with only a computer, GERTY, for company. Isolated, he begins to hallucinate. Just before his return to earth, Sam has an accident....
Mindwalk (1990) A conversation between a scientist, a politician and a poet, with insights into philosophy, quantum mechanics and particle physics.
Day After Tomorrow (2004) A series of global catastrophes unfold as Earth enters a new ice age. Populations move south to warmer climates; meanwhile, a climatologist (played by Dennis Quaid) heads north to New York to rescue his son.
Gattaca (1997) This science fictional film explores whether genes are destiny. It depicts a society where genetic engineering is used to select the best possible hereditary traits, resulting in a tiered society, where 'normal' humans are given only menial jobs. Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman star.
Donald In Mathmagic Land (1959) Nominated for an Academy Award, this cartoon features Donald Duck entering a fantasy land, where he explores the connections between music, art and math, then journeys to ancient Greece, where Donald meets Pythagoras. The film ends with Galileo's quote: "Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe".
Andromeda Strain (1971) Based on a novel by Michael Crichton, the film follows scientists who investigate a microbe of extraterrestrial origin that arrives when a military satellite crashes on earth. Humans begin dying when this microorganism causes blood to rapidly coagulate.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) This Stanley Kubrick film deals with issues of artificial intelligence and human evolution. No film ever paid closer heed to the plausible look and feel of the technologies of interplanetary flight. It begins with the discovery of an ancient monolith on the moon, which has apparently guided human development. A spaceship, piloted by the computer HAL, sets off to investigate a signal coming from Jupiter. There, astronaut Dave Bowman detects HAL's errors, disconnects the computer, then goes on to achieve the next step in human destiny, the Star Child.
Fantastic Voyage (1966) Despite some silliness and tight-spandex pulchritude, it does take you on a tour of the human circulatory, lymphatic, pulmonary and phlegm systems aboard a cool cubmarine.
Infinity (1996) A biographical film about Caltech physicist Richard Feynman (played by Mathew Broderick), based on his book "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" It shows Feynman's early years, then follows his work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and on through his wife's death from tuberculosis.
The Story of Pasteur (1935) Considered one of the best bio-pictures, follows the great biologist's discovery of vaccines for anthrax and rabies and his campaign for cleanliness vs. infection. (Paul Muni.)
Madame Curie (1943) A biographical film of Nobel-prize winning physicist Marie Curie (played by Greer Garson), and her husband Pierre Curie, as they undergo hardship to isolate radium from pitchblende rock, learning about radioactivity.
Edison the Man (1940) A fictionalized account of Thomas Alva Edison (played by Spencer Tracy), following his inventions of the phonograph and light bulb.
Temple Grandin (2010) Based on books by Dr. Temple Grandin (played by Clare Danes), an autistic woman who became a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.
Winged Migration (2001) A documentary film showing gorgeous aerial footage of birds struggle against the elements in their migratory journeys.
Life After People (2008) How will all of Man's works deteriorate, once we're gone?
March of the Penguins (2005) A documentary film that shows Emperor Penguins' rituals of courtship and breeding, as they travel across Antarctic ice to reach the ocean.
Microcosmos (1996) A documentary of insect life.
Planet Earth (2006) A documentary consisting of eleven episodes, shot in high definition showing Earth's topography and diversity in all its glory. Narrated by David Attenborough.
Powers of Ten (1977) A short film directed by Ray and Charles Eames, depicting the vastness of the universe, as it steps in magnitude from the galactic to subatomic scale.
Infinite Voyage (1987-1991) A five-year television series about humanity, the stars, the dinosaurs, and other mysteries of the world and the universe.
(Of course there is a near infinite supply of such nonfiction series.)
Other films to ponder:
Destination Moon (1950) Robert Heinlein's movie about a lunar expedition, explaining some of the basics along the way.
Men of Honor (2001) Boyle's Law and the bends, suffered by Navy divers.
Quest for Fire (1981) Totally off the wall in some of its lurid "other hominid" species... yet a rather poignant look at the grittiness of Paleolithic life.
Dante's Peak (1997) You do learn a thing or two about volcanism, though attend also to a website about some fallacies.
Star Trek (1966-1969) Very hit or miss, but maybe 10% of the episodes and movies, across the years, actually had premises based on intelligent science. Even the others at least passed their "techno-blather" through a science advisor, in order to lower the drivel index. See also The Physics of Star Trek.
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