A Physicist Examines the Scientific Accuracy of Physics Shown in Major Movies: Batman, Gravity, Contact, Interstellar, Star Trek & More

Ever had a friend who cannot bring themselves suspend disbelief? It’s not a moral failing, but it can be a tedious quality in situations like, say, the movies, or the cinema, or whatever you call it when you’ve paid your day’s wages for a giant tub of carcinogenic popcorn and a three-hour distraction. (These days, maybe, an overpriced streaming new release and Grubhub.) Who doesn’t love a big-screen science fiction epic—science be damned? Who wants to listen to the seatmate who mutters "oh, come on!,” “no way!,” “well, actually, that’s scientifically impossible”? You know they never passed intro to physics….

Dominic Walliman, on the other hand, is a physicist. And he is not the kind of person to ruin a movie by going on about how goofy its scientific ideas sound, though he’s likely to express appreciation for films that get it right. He doesn’t get bent out of shape by artistic license and can appreciate, for example, the creative use of visual effects in Interstellar to represent a black hole, which would otherwise appear onscreen as, well, a black hole. “I’m okay with bad physics in movies,” he says, “because the job of a movie isn’t to be a science documentary, the goal of a movie is to tell an interesting story.”

Even so, if you sit him down and ask him to talk specifically about science in movies, as a friend does in the video above, he’ll tell you what he thinks, and you’ll want to listen to him (after the movie’s over) because he actually knows what he’s talking about. Over the years, Walliman has mapped various domains of science, like chemistry, computer science, biology, mathematics, physics, and his own field, quantum physics. His visual explanations make the relationships between difficult concepts clear and easy to follow. In this video, he comments on some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy films (standouts include the first Batman and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons) in ways that are equally illuminating.

Big winners for relative accuracy, in Walliman’s opinion, are no surprise. They include Gravity, Contact (written by Carl Sagan), even a clip from the incredibly smart Futurama. It is soon apparent that the use of a folded piece of paper to represent spacetime through a wormhole has “become a bit of a cliché,” although a helpful-enough visual aid. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “boring” (with apologies), a judgment that might disqualify Walliman as a film critic, in many people’s opinion, but does not tarnish his scientific reputation.

One of the biggest science-in-film fails: 2009’s Star Trek, whose villains have discovered a substance called “red matter.” A single drop can destroy an entire planet, and the idiots seem to have enough onboard their ship to take out the universe with one careless oopsie. Walliman is maybe not qualified to weigh in on the paleobiology of Jurassic Park, but Jeff Goldblum’s explanation of chaos theory fits within his purview. “So, this is not a good description of chaos theory,” he says, “at all.” It is, however, a fabulous plot device.

If you’re interested in more engagingly accessible, non-cinema-related, surveys of scientific ideas, visit any one of Walliman’s many Domain of Science videos here.

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The Map of Quantum Physics: A Colorful Animation Explains the Often Misunderstood Branch of Science

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Map of Quantum Physics: A Colorful Animation Explains the Often Misunderstood Branch of Science

In our time, few branches of science have taken as much public abuse as quantum physics, the study of how things behave at the atomic scale. It's not so much that people dislike the subject as they see fit to draft it in support of any given notion: quantum physics, one hears, proves that we have free will, or that Buddhist wisdom is true, or that there is an afterlife, or that nothing really exists. Those claims may or may not be true, but they do not help us at all to understand what quantum physics actually is. For that we'll want to turn to Dominic Walliman, a Youtuber whose channel Domain of Science features clear visual explanations of scientific fields including physics, chemistry, mathematics, as well as the whole domain of science itself — and who also, as luck would have it, is a quantum physics PhD.

With his knowledge of the field, and his modesty as far as what can be definitively said about it, Wallman has designed a map of quantum physics, available for purchase at his web site. In the video above he takes us on a guided tour through the realms into which he has divided up and arranged his subject, beginning with the "pre-quantum mysteries," inquiries into which led to its foundation.

From there he continues on to the foundations of quantum physics, a territory that includes such potentially familiar landmarks as particle-wave duality, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and the Schrödinger equation — though not yet his cat, another favorite quantum-physics reference among those who don't know much about quantum physics.

Alas, as c explains in the subsequent "quantum phenomena" section, Schrödinger's cat is "not very helpful, because it was originally designed to show how absurd quantum mechanics seems, as cats can't be alive and dead at the same time." But then, this is a field that proceeds from absurdity, or at least from the fact that its observations at first made no sense by the traditional laws of physics. There follow forays into quantum technology (lasers, solar panels, MRI machines), quantum information (computing, cryptography, the prospect teleportation), and a variety of subfields including condensed matter physics, quantum biology, and quantum chemistry. Though detailed enough to require more than one viewing, Walliman's map also makes clear how much of quantum physics remains unexplored — and most encouragingly of all, leaves off its supposed philosophical, or existential implications. You can watch Walliman's other introduction to Quantum Physics below.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”

Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.

And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.

Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.

The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.

Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”

Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Dr. Fauci Reads an Undergrad’s Entire Thesis, Then Follows Up with an Encouraging Letter

Photo via the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases 

What are some qualities to look for in a leader?

  • A thirst for knowledge
  • A sense of duty
  • The scruples to give credit where credit is due
  • A calm, clear communication style
  • Humility

Dr. Anthony Fauci brings these qualities to bear as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health.

They’re also on display in his message to then-undergrad Luke Messac, now an emergency medicine resident at Brown University, whose research focuses on the histories of health policy in southern Africa and the US, and who recently tweeted:

13 years ago, I emailed Dr. Fauci out of the blue to ask if I might interview him for my undergrad thesis. He invited me to his office, where he answered all my questions. When I sent him the thesis, HE READ THE WHOLE THING (see his overly effusive review below). Who does that?!

Here's what Fauci had to say to the young scientist:

It certainly reads like the work of a class act.

In addition to serving as one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s most recognizable faces, Dr. Fauci has acquired another duty—that of scapegoat for Donald Trump, the 6th president he has answered to in his long career.

He seems to be taking the administration’s potshots with a characteristically cool head, though compared to the furious criticisms AIDS activists directed his way in the 80s and 90s, he's unlikely to find much of educational value in them.

Last March, The Body Pro, a newsletter for workers on the front lines of HIV education, prevention, care, and services quoted ACT UP NY’s Jim Eigo on the doctor’s response to a letter demanding parallel tracking, a policy revision that would put potentially life-saving drugs in the hands of those who tested positive far earlier than the existing clinical trial requirements’ schedule would have allowed:

Lo and behold, he read the letter and liked it, and the following year he started promoting the idea of a parallel track for AIDS drugs to the FDA. Had he not helped us push that through, we couldn’t have gotten a lot of the cousin drugs to AZT, such as ddC and ddI, approved so fast. They were problematic drugs, but without them, we couldn’t have kept so many people alive. 

Fauci, despite being straight and Catholic, was not only not homophobic, which much of medical practice still was in the late 1980s, he also wouldn’t tolerate homophobia among his colleagues. He knew there was no place for that in a public-health crisis.

Speaking of correspondence, Dr Messac seems to have taken the “perpetual student” concept Dr. Fauci impressed upon him back in 2007 to heart, as evidenced by a recent tweet, regarding a lesson gleaned from Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron, a 1977 documentary about bodybuilders:

Schwarzenegger explained how he would figure out what to work out every day by looking in a mirror and finding his weakest muscles. It’s pretty good advice for studying during residency. Every shift reveals a weakness, and greats never stop looking for their own.

In writing to Messac, Dr. Fauci alluded to his commencement speeches, so we thought it appropriate to leave you with one of his most recent ones, a virtual address to the graduating class of his alma mater, College of the Holy Cross:

“Now is the time, if ever there was one” he tells the Class of 2020, “to care selflessly about one another… Stay safe, and I look forward to the good work you will contribute in the years ahead.”

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Everything You Need To Know About Viruses: A Quick Visual Explanation of Viruses in 9 Images

It’s a great time to tune in to what scientists are trying to tell us.

It’s true that we’ve received a lot of conflicting information over the last four months with regard to how to best protect ourselves and others from COVID-19.

Scientists and health care professionals have a learning curve, too.

Their bulletins evolve as their understanding of the novel coronavirus grows, through research and hands-on experience.

There are still a lot of unknowns.

Some people take any evidence-based messaging updates regarding masks and re-opening as proof that scientists don’t know their asses from their elbows.

To which we might counter, “If that's the case, please take a minute from berating the poor grocery store employee who asked you to follow clearly posted state mandated public health practices to educate us. Forget the economy. Forget the election. Blind us with some science. Pretend we don’t know anything and hit us with some hardcore facts about viruses. We’re listening.”


Science writer Dominic Walliman, founder of the Domain of Science Youtube  channel, may have a PhD in quantum device physics, but he also had the humility to realize, earlier in the pandemic, that he didn’t know much about viruses:

So I did a load of research and have summarized what I learned in… nine images. This video (above) explains the key aspects of viruses: how big they are, how they infect and enter and exit cells, how viruses are classified, how they replicate, and subjects involving viral infections like how they spread from person to person, how our immune system detects and destroys them and how vaccines and anti-viral drugs work.

Walliman animates his 10-minute overview with the same bright infographics he uses to help students and laypeople wrap their heads around computer science, biology, chemistry, physics, and math.

The virus video has been fact-checked by immunologist Michael Bramhall and biologist Christoph von Arx.

And how refreshing to see transparency with regard to human error, published as a corrective:

In slide 9 toxin vaccines are for bacterial infections like tetanus, not viruses. 

For those who’d like to learn more, Walliman has tacked a whopping 15 links onto the episode’s description, from sources such as Scientific AmericanNatureStanford Medicine’s Scope blog, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Download a free poster of Domain of Science’s Viruses Explained in 9 Images here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest project is an animation and a series of free downloadable posters related to COVID-19 public health Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Michel Gondry Creates a Burger King Ad That Touts New Research on Reducing Cow Flatulence & Climate Change

As every grade schooler knows (and delights in working into conversation), cows have a tendency towards flatulence. At first this just deterred kids from going into animal husbandry, but now those kids have come to associate the phenomenon of farting livestock with a larger issue of interest to them: climate change. From cows' rear ends comes methane, "one of the most harmful greenhouse gases and a major contributor to climate change," as Adam Satariano puts it in a recent New York Times article on scientific research into the problem. "If they were a country, cows would rank as the world’s sixth-largest emitter, ahead of Brazil, Japan and Germany, according to data compiled by Rhodium Group, a research firm."

For some, such bovine damage to the climate has provided a reason to stop eating beef. But that's hardly the solution one wants to endorse if one runs a company like, say, Burger King. And so we have the Reduced Methane Emissions Beef Whopper, the product of a partnership "with top scientists to develop and test a new diet for cows, which according to initial study results, on average reduces up to 33% of cows' daily methane emissions per day during the last 3 to 4 months of their lives." The main effective ingredient is lemongrass, as anyone can find out by looking up the project's formula online, where Burger King has made it public — or as the marketing campaign stresses, "open source."

That campaign also has a music video, directed by no less an auteur of the form than Michel Gondry. In it the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind filmmaker has eleven-year-old country musician Mason Ramsey and eight other Western-attired youngsters sing about the role of cow flatulence in climate change and Burger King's role in addressing it. All of this presents a natural opportunity for Gondry to indulge his signature handmade aesthetic, at once clumsy and slick, childlike and refined. You may recognize Ramsey as the boy yodeling "Lovesick Blues" at Walmart in a video that, originally posted two years ago, has now racked up nearly 75 million views. Burger King surely hopes to capture some of that virality to promote its climate-mindedness — and, of course, to encourage viewers to have a Reduced Methane Emissions Beef Whopper "while supplies last."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Bill Nye Shows How Face Masks Actually Protect You–and Why You Should Wear Them

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up having things explained to me by Bill Nye. Flight, magnets, simple machines, volcanoes: there seemed to be nothing he and his team of young lieutenants couldn't break down in a clear, humorous, and wholly non-boring manner. He didn't ask us to come to him, but met us where we already were: watching television. The zenith of the popularity of his PBS series Bill Nye the Science Guy passed a quarter-century ago, and the world has changed a bit since then. But even in the 2020s, when the spreading of scientific knowledge is no less important than it was in the 90s, Nye knows where to air his message if he wants the kids to hear it: TikTok.

Hugely popular among people not yet born during Bill Nye the Science Guy's original run, TikTok is a video-based social media platform that accommodates videos of up to 60 seconds — roughly half the length of the "Consider the Following" segments embedded within the episodes of Nye's original show.

This week Nye has revived the format on Tiktok in order to lay out the scientific principles behind something that had recently become a part of all of our lives: face masks. True to form, he explains not just with words but with objects, in this case a series of respiratory system-protecting anti-particle devices from a humble scarf to a homemade cloth face mask (employing that stalwart science-project component, a pipe cleaner) to the medical industry-standard N95.

"The reason we want you to wear a mask is to protect you," says Nye. "But the main reason we want you to wear a mask is to protect me from you, and the particles from your respiratory system from getting into my respiratory system!" As simple a point as this may sound, it has tended to get lost amid the fear and confusion of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: the conflicting information initially published about the advisability of face masks for the general public, but also the ensuing controversy over the implementation and enforcement of mask-related rules. But as Nye reminds us, this is "a matter literally of life and death — and when I use the word literally, I mean literally." As we shore up our knowledge of masks, we Millennials, who throughout our lives have learned so much from Nye, would do well to internalize that point of usage while we're at it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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