ISIS Seminars on Reconstructive Science

The Fall 2000 film & discussion series

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By Heidi Lenos

Even the most socially-conscious scientist enjoys a good movie from time to time, and ISIS decided to indulge that hankering this fall with a blockbuster film and discussion series. Of course, it isnšt all fun and games at ISIS, so we wrote up a list of movies thick with tricky questions about the role of science in our world. That list and a case of microwave popcorn later, the film series was off and running.

The fall film series brought together people who are concerned about where science and technology are taking us and whether this direction will serve or harm our society. But beyond this classic ISIS bent was the interesting twist of how Hollywood portrays those issues. The films included The Matrix, Good Will Hunting, Silkwood, Gorillas in the Mist, Lorenzošs Oil, Sneakers, and A Civil Action. Most of us are familiar with these films and their science-based stories, but we may not have taken the time to explore what they could imply if they were our real lives rather than the film world. Indeed, our lives are enough of a whirlwind of scientific activity with which we rarely have time to fully reckon.

Hollywood may not have the most lucid grasp on reality, but our daily bombardment by pop culture images is part of what defines our reality. Film reflects society, and vice versa. It is not difficult to be lulled by these glamorized visions of the past and future of technology. So what do these films say about our society's understanding of how science really works in our world?

Catharine Bell-Wetteroth, a fourth-year Hampshire student writing her thesis about science and religion, facilitated the discussions after each film. She was there to pose insightful and thought-provoking questions, both about life in an age of nuclear power, medical breakthroughs, environmental degradation, and quantum teleportation and also about the all-too-telling images of our world these films show us in their distorted reflections.

The goal for the discussion series was to initiate dialogue about the ways in which potentially life-changing or earth-shattering science is portrayed in mainstream culture. Popular films reach wide audiences and often have strong social and environmental messages, but they are often ignored or overlooked in the superficial entertainment of going to the movies (especially by people who donšt work for a science institute!).

Our audiences brought up and discussed a variety of good questions. Some dealt with the motivation for technological discoveries and whether science and morality catch up with one another (or does one evolve faster than the other). One point brought up after Pi, an excellent film about a sociopathic mathematician, was about the obsession with new information. The extreme case would be someone so single-minded in the quest for certain information that if he ever attained the coveted knowledge, he would have nothing left to live for--life would be devoid of meaning. On some level, we may all be similarly driven by the things we don't know, and we rely on that uncertainty to propel us to discovery. It's certainly a more substantive thought than most posed as the crowd is shuffling out of the theater.

It may not be possible to change the way people look at scientific images in the mainstream, but the film series was also an opportunity to reflect upon science in pop culture society and ask whether some of the ideas brought up in the films will make life better for us. What would a quantum computer mean for privacy? Could the wrong people get hold of pentagon files? Will we be sending solid-matter "faxes" one of these days? Was nuclear power ever really the answer to an energy crisis?

Like the ever-present challenge to make real each character's motivation, we are compelled to ask whether the real-world impetus to study science is fame and fortune, curiosity, or perhaps the quest to save humanity. Too often there is not enough why in science and only how. The classic Bladerunner muses on how our own implacable drive for powerful technology might ultimately undermine our quality of life.

Of course, few would deny that a great many scientific advancements have vastly improved the lives of many. The point is that it should be obvious that we all need to be informed about changes that may affect our lives--but is it? We cannot rely only on those with scientific prowess to make the right decisions regarding the future of science and technology.

Between weighty questions about the power of science in our world and the nagging awareness that filmmakers color the portrayal of science's effects, going to the movies may never be the same.