As the US writers' strike rolls on, now is the time for scientists to extend the hand of friendship.
In the universe inhabited by James Bond, science manifests itself in two ways: as nifty gadgets for the good guys and as new ways to destroy or conquer the world for the bad guys. Can we expect this to change in the next instalment, the intriguingly titled Quantum of Solace? Probably not. The title is taken from an Ian Fleming short story about what is required for love, as recounted at a dinner party, not what is needed for a Bose–Einstein condensate as measured in a physics lab.
No, the real subjects of the 007 series are always charisma and violence; and violence, it seems, is the preoccupation of a globally dark Zeitgeist. The fine films nominated for Oscars this year mostly trade in crime, bloodshed and war. Science has useful things to say about our relationship with violence (see page 512), but it is the science that enhances violence, rather than seeks to understand it, that interests filmmakers. Why is that masked man doing all these impossible things? Radioactivity! Aliens! Genetic-modification experiments gone horribly awry!
“It is the science that enhances violence, rather than seeks to understand it, that interests filmmakers.”
Naturally there are exceptions. This year's Sundance Film Festival was awash with earnest science documentaries, all children of An Inconvenient Truth. A forthcoming Meryl Streep picture, Dark Matter, attempts with mixed success to dramatize the life of hardworking Chinese graduate students in cosmology — although it does feature bloodshed too. Russell Crowe has twice been nominated for an Oscar for playing real-life scientists in serious films — mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and research chemist Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider. But he won his Academy Award for Gladiator.
Scientists often complain that they can never change the way that science is portrayed in films, which seems as if the screenplays are written on a planet with different laws of physics. But, to quote an earlier Bond film, never say never. Indeed, today is a propitious time for such intervention. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike since 5 November. Its members want a better deal in relation to online and other relatively new distribution channels. And boredom among these picketing scribes may well be at an all-time high — a recent update on the strike from The New York Times was headlined 'For Strikers, the Agony of Spare Time'.
What better moment to saunter down to your local picket line, gather up a couple of film and television writers, and introduce them to the fascinations of the scientific life? Buying them a round might not hurt either; some of them have taken a serious financial hit.