32 - Science in Movies I (w/ Evan Flynn!)

32. Science in Movies I

It is common to be exposed to topics involving science in school, but this rarely is made as exciting as watching a sci-fi film. What creative liberties do filmmakers take to make their masterpiece, and what do they get right? Let’s learn to be scientifically conversational.


General Learning Concepts

1)     Sam Raimi’s ‘Spiderman’:

a.     Summary: "Spider-Man" centers on student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who, after being bitten by a genetically-altered spider, gains superhuman strength and the spider-like ability to cling to any surface. He vows to use his abilities to fight crime, coming to understand the words of his beloved Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility."

b.     Somatic vs germ line cells: Peter finds himself bitten by a genetically altered spider. He, in turn, is given the abilities of a spider. The movie describes this by showing how a segment of DNA in a spider has been removed and changed, with the implication being the same thing happened to our favorite web-slinger. In truth, it is challenging to change the DNA of an already developed organism: for example, to remove a genetic mutation or the integration of a virus like HSV or HIV.

i.     Eukaryotes have two primary cell types: Germ and somatic cells. When there is a mutation in a germ cell, or a germinal mutation, the gametes of an organism are affected. This means that the mutation will be passed onto the next generation if there is successful mating and the mutation (generally) does not affect the individual who carries it. Meanwhile, mutations in somatic cells, or somatic mutations, are not passed on by sexual means and instead require being changed by being cloned. In context, what this means is that because Calvin developed all of the cells in his body with a defective gene that results in carrying cystic fibrosis, it can’t be fixed by today’s genome editing because you’d have to root out the issue in every single cell in his body, a near insurmountable task.

2)     Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’:

a.     Summary: In Earth's future, a global crop blight and second Dust Bowl are slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a brilliant NASA physicist, is working on plans to save mankind by transporting Earth's population to a new home via a wormhole. But first, Brand must send former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of researchers through the wormhole and across the galaxy to find out which of three planets could be mankind's new home.

b.     Scientific Advisory: Interstellar benefitted from the advice and scientific fidelity of Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist at CalTech and 2017 Nobel Laureate in physics. If you want the full background of the science in Interstellar, you should read Thorne’s book entitled “The Science of Interstellar”. The agreement between the brothers Nolan and Thorne / Lynda Obst (film producer) was that nothing would violate established physical laws, while all speculations would be of reasonable scientific merit. Even still, Obst and Thorne had meetings with biologists to properly decide what would be a reasonable biological catastrophe. Finally, some of the simulations to properly show a black hole resulted in academic publications because of the novelty of what the graphical engineers saw.

i.     Fun fact: The bit that went the farthest out of Thorne’s comfort zone was ice clouds.

3)     Wise’s ‘The Andromeda Strain’:

b.     What is Andromeda? Most movie reviews refer to the actor’s as “nobodies” and that they properly act as scientists because they are quiet, neat, and to the point. The movie tells us that there is no genetic element to the “virus”; implying that it is not DNA nor RNA that makes up for what it can do. The closest approximation we can make of this currently is a prion; essentially, an “infectious” piece of protein. Real techniques to culture and investigate a “emerging virus” are used. Additionally, to study Andromeda, a special type of lab is used which most resembles a biosafety level 4 laboratory: scrubs, a full body biosafety suit with an external airflow, decontamination, etc. These are the ways that one would study Ebola, Lassa fever, and other lethal pathogens. All work is done within negative-pressure work hoods that pulls air in other directions (with filters 85 times smaller than the smallest known pathogens), and the building itself is in a totally isolated space. [2]

4)     Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’:

a.     Summary: When scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) completes his teleportation device, he decides to test its abilities on himself. Unbeknownst to him, a housefly slips in during the process, leading to a merger of man and insect. Initially, Brundle appears to have undergone a successful teleportation, but the fly's cells begin to take over his body. As he becomes increasingly fly-like, Brundle's girlfriend (Geena Davis) is horrified as the person she once loved deteriorates into a monster.

b.     The Mixing Event: A machine built for teleportation decided to mix Jeff Goldblum and the fly into one, monstrous creation (unlike a Simpson’s Parody, in which there are two creations: a tiny fly with a Bart head and a Bart with a fly head). The trouble with mixing: the genetic identities of both organisms are DNA, but the organization (chromosomes) are different. Humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and flies have six pairs, so gene expression is completely different. The most likely possibility would be a dead individual (or two!) because of the difference in genetic architecture. Still, if all of this actually worked, it would make sense for flies to molt away the exterior casing of Goldblum to result in a fly! [2]

i.     Earlier attempts and sterility: The area clearly isn’t clean, and the baboon seems to get away scot-free without becoming a giant bacteria-baboon hybrid!

Calvin YeagerComment