Science and the Cinema

UNSW Science

Do you want to watch movies and gain credit points over summer?

SCIF1004: Science and the Cinema is a Level 1 Science course that can count as a Science or Free Elective. Dr Leigh Aldous from the School of the Chemistry is the course convenor and enthusiastically shared some insights of what to expect.

What films will students get to watch and study?

There will be a range of films. As examples, viruses will be covered by Outbreak and Contagion, DNA and future sensors by Gattaca, and climate change by the wildly different An Inconvenient Truth and The Day After Tomorrow. As Hollywood has done such a poor job of dealing with nanotechnology, this topic will be introduced with the wealth of resources available on YouTube instead.

What can students expect from the course?

Students will gain a better insight into the increasingly love-hate relationship between modern science and the mass media, and the frequent exaggeration of science for entertainment value. Students will acquire a basic knowledge of, and gain experience in discussing six major scientific topics relevant to the modern world. These scientific concepts relate to science that is highly prevalent in the media today. Experts in these fields will deliver the lectures. Ultimately, students should be better able to learn from movies and other media, recognise the limitations in such learning, and gain the knowledge in researching topics of interest further.

What sorts of activities and assessment tasks are involved?

The course is divided into two components: an on-campus week, followed by online assignments via Moodle.

The “on-campus week” involves watching six films and associated lectures and team debates.

Continuing online via Moodle, more great films! Your group will also write a short newspaper article, discussing how wonderful and promising science is, or, aim to scare people with how science is going to doom us all. Going free-form with you team students tackle the topic of “Science and the Cinema” in almost any way which can be submitted online.

So Leigh, is it important for science in cinema to be accurate?

This is a very grey area. Clearly some things should not be sacrificed just for the sake of entertainment value, yet truly inspirational science fiction will always be well in advance of demonstrated ‘science fact’. It is clear that the majority of science in the cinema is not accurate, but this can actually be put to good use. NASA use the film Armageddon as one of their tests for their applicants – the test is to spot as many as possible of the 168 scientific and factual errors relating to space and space travel which litter this film!

Has fiction in cinema ever become science fact?

Yes, most certainly – there are too many examples to mention, but this is a question which some students choose to tackle (and answer) in their final assignment.

And how close are we to cloning Thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger?

I’m afraid I haven’t kept up to date on this topic but UNSW’s expert on this issue, Professor Mike Archer, will come along and tell us all about it during the course; using Jurassic Park as a parallel!

For any questions about course content, assessment and time-frame please contact Leigh Aldous: l.aldous@unsw.edu.au

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