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20 Things You Didn't Know About... Movie Scientists

Frankenstein was tacked together on the silver screen, while Einstein was dismembered there.

By LeeAundra Temescu|Friday, February 23, 2007

Oscar season is here. At the awards ceremony on February 25, the celebrities will be wearing their glad rags, gushing their thanks, and gabbing about science (we hope) as Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth competes for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Yet scientists themselves have a mixed record at the movies, depicted alternately as heroes, wackos or evil geniuses:

1. Scientists first appeared in the movies in 1902, when bearded astronomers shot out of a cannon into space in Georges Méliè's Le Voyage Dans la Lune (Voyage to the Moon). Stop-motion photography showed their space capsule landing in the eye of the face of the moon—one of the earliest uses of this form of animation.

2. The first great iconic movie scientist was C.A. Rotwang, who built an electrically animated female robot in Fritz Lang's 1926 silent masterpiece Metropolis. Rotwang's shock of unruly hair, white lab coat, and maniacal eyes made him the prototype for the mad movie scientist, while his black-gloved prosthetic hand became a motif used in many films, most notably in...

3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, the longest title of any film ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

4. Anarchic hand, a real neurological affliction in which a person's hand develops a will of its own, is also known as Dr. Strangelove Syndrome after the mad rocket scientist in the 1964 movie who cannot stop his arm from reflexively saluting Heil Hitler.

5. The character of Dr. Strangelove was based in part on Wernher Von Braun, the German developer of the Nazi V-2 rocket, which killed thousands of Londoners during World War II.

6. Von Braun surrendered to the Americans after the war and later became the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket program, which propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Von Braun even became a movie scientist himself when he starred in Walt Disney's "Tomorrowland" films about space exploration. The 1960 film I Aim at the Stars was based on von Braun's life and prompted one critic to crack, "But sometimes I hit London."

7. Forget Frankenstein. Albert Einstein has been dismembered in any number of ways: His eyes were the model for E.T. in Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster, and his forehead graced Yoda in 1977's Star Wars—not to mention Einstein's hair, which has been transplanted onto multiple screen scientists, including Dr. Emmet Brown in the "Back to the Future" series and, yes, Dr. Strangelove.

8. Let's be precise. Frankenstein is not the name of the monster but the name of the scientist, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, who in the 1931 James Whale classic created the humanoid creature by tacking together pieces of human corpses.

9. Scientists Bad: A survey of more than 1,000 horror films shown in Britain between 1931 and 1984 found that scientists or their creations were the villains in 41 percent of the films and that scientific or psychiatric research had produced 39 percent of the threats. Scientists were heroes in only 11 of the horror movies.

10. With all those evil scientists running amok, it's no wonder that a BBC poll of 43,000 Brits to find "the nation's favorite screen scientist," awarded top place to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker (of "The Muppets"). Trailing close behind them were Mr. Spock (of Star Trek), Dr. Evil (of Austin Powers), and Doctor Who.

11. According to a 2005 study, less than 20 percent of scientists portrayed on screen from 1929 to 2003 were women. The research also revealed that almost all of the women were young, thin, and beautiful, although some did wear glasses.

12. In 1944 Greer Garson became the first and last woman to be nominated for an Oscar for a portrayal of a scientist. Her Madame Curie was young, thin, and beautiful, but did not wear glasses. The real Marie Curie did.

13. You've come a long way, monkey? One notable female movie scientist does not fit the stereotype: Zira, the simian psychiatrist from Planet of the Apes, was muscular and hairy. As we learn in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), the third installment of the series, Dr. Zira vivisected and experimented on human captives, who in the movie year of 3955 are considered animals and thus expendable in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

14. Actors honored with an Academy Award for their roles as scientists include Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur (1936). A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, won best picture Oscar in 2002.

15. Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, a website devoted to protecting "the minds of our children and their ability to master vectors," voted 2003's The Core as "the worst physics movie ever." The film, in which a geophysicist played by Aaron Eckhart tries to save Earth after its core stops spinning, has "blatant misrepresentations of physical laws...ridiculous feats of engineering, and pure fabrication of scientific 'facts,'" according to the site. "This is not just a disaster movie," their review concludes."It's a disaster."

16. Complete curmudgeons? No. The website also recommends a handful of movies with "good movie physics," among them Apollo 13 (1995), The Right Stuff (1983), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Blade Runner (1982), albeit the last movie "includes clichéd futuristic flying cars which do not appear to use any principles of aerodynamics to keep them aloft."

17. Think you can do better? The American Film Institute is planning a workshop this summer to teach scientists and engineers about the moviemaking process and to encourage them to write their own scripts.

18. No really, you should. There's money in it. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has given more than $1 million in prizes and grants for films that "challenge existing stereotypes [read: mad, evil, or bumbling] of scientists and engineers."

19. In Alfred Hitchcock's 1966 thriller Torn Curtain, Paul Newman plays physicist Michael Armstrong, who is working on Gamma 5, an antimissile project that "will produce a defensive weapon that will make all nuclear weapons obsolete and abolish the terror of anuclear war." Ronald Reagan co-opted this language in a 1983 speech introducing the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," to the American public.

20. A pal for Al: Roland Emmerich, director of The Day After Tomorrow, a 2004 thriller about catastrophic climate change, paid $200,000 to offset the 10,000 tons of carbon expended in the making of the film. The money was used to fund five different environmental projects, including reforestation of degraded land in Bhutan and energy efficient lightbulbs in the Caribbean.

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