Science Is Finally Getting Its Close-up

IHidden Figuresn case you hadn’t noticed, science is enjoying a renaissance on screen. Not science fiction—that’s always been a silver screen staple—but actual scientists doing actual science. As Nautilus explained in December, in “How We Got from Doc Brown to Walter White,” the fictional scientist, in particular on TV, has evolved from the nutty genius to the trenchant chemist.

The same trend is seen on the silver screen. The scientist is no longer the bespectacled sidekick who’d hack the enemy’s defenses or explain why the creature has grown to gargantuan proportions while the hero mows it down with a middy gun.

Scientists are now surviving debris strikes in orbit (Gravity), transforming our ideas of what constitutes a “disability” (The Theory of Everything), and surviving alone with limited resources on other planets (The Martian). There have always been movies that treated science and scientists both seriously and speculatively. Think back to The Andromeda Strain (1971), Contact (1997) and even a thrill ride like Jurassic Park (1993). But if you get the feeling you’ve been seeing more movies about science recently, you’re right.

Of the big screen releases in the United States domestic market, there were three films in 2010 containing strong themes of science or featuring “real” scientists, three in 2011, two in 2012, five in 2013, eight in 2014, and nine in 2015. Two of the nine Oscar nominations for Best Picture this year—Arrival and Hidden Figures—are steeped in science.

Arrival called on a linguist, Jessica Coon, from Montreal’s McGill University, who specializes in obscure languages, to consult on the creation of a believable means of alien communication. And the box-office hit Hidden Figures puts a spotlight on African-American women mathematicians critical to early NASA spaceflights.

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