The Watchmen

I don’t have a review of this movie, per se, just a comment. It’s interesting to note the progression toward darker and darker superheroes in movies starting from the Superman movies of the ’70’s and ’80’s, through the Batman movies of the ’90’s, and the Spiderman and X-men movies of the early ’00’s. Starting with the most recent Batman movie (The Dark Knight), and considering recent releases such as Hancock and The Watchmen, the heroes have certainly become much more troubled and less virtuous. Of course, the same trend evidenced itself decades earlier in the comics all of these heroes are based on, so this is nothing new. I just find it interesting. I suspect there is a whole social commentary that goes along with this, but that’s way outside my field of expertise.

Assignement: Although we must be willing to accept some flaunting of the laws of physics to truly enjoy any superhero movie, I still expect you as students of physics to be able to spot obvious flaws. For this week’s assignment I want you to analyze the physics of one superhero power (the superhero don’t have to come from “The Watchmen”). I want you to be fairly detailed in your analysis. As an example, for a character like Iceman (from the X-men movies), you could ask how much heat has to be removed from the air for Iceman to create an entire wall of ice from the water vapor in the air (as in X2)? As a follow-up question, one has to wonder where all that heat goes. Does Iceman absorb it? If so, how much would his body temperature have to rise as a consequence?

Please post your entry to your blog by Sunday, 5 Dec.


I really like this movie; it’s the closest any feature presentation has come to showing what the life of an astronomer is really like. That’s probably because the movie is based on a novel written by the eminent astrophysicist Carl Sagan, and some of the characters in the story are based loosely on real life astronomers (Jodie Foster’s character is supposedly based loosely on the life experiences of an astronomer named Jill Tartar, and there really is a blind astronomer named Kent Cullers who worked for SETI). Besides that, though, I think “Contact” presents some compelling plot lines, most crucially the question of what really would happen to our society if we made contact with an alien civilization. It also addresses what many see as a conflict between science and religion.

Anyway, the movie is also great because it really tries to get as much of the physics right as possible. The opening sequence has a problem with the scale of objects and distances, but it at least has everything in the right place. The idea that another intelligent civilization may discover our existence by capturing stray radio transmissions from Earth is also sound. That’s how we’re hoping to discover them after all! And wormholes (if they’re real) are our best hope for accomplishing interstellar travel in a single lifetime.

Assignment: Toward the very end of the movie, we are presented with a version of the “Twin Paradox.” I want you to point out what is wrong with the portrayal in the movie and describe how you would have to revise the movie script in order to gets this point right.

Please post on your blog by Sunday, 14 Nov.

Star Trek

I loved this movie. Right now it’s still one of my favorites. I’ve already watched it a number of times, and I’m happy we’ll be watching it again tonight. First off, I grew up a Trek fan. Not an over-the-top, wear a Federation uniform and speak in Klingon, kind of a fan, but a science geek who certainly appreciated some of the very fine ideas Star Trek brought to us. And from a Physics in Film perspective, this movie has some good moments, like the absence of sound in space when the ship’s hull is breached and a crewman is pulled out into space. The “red matter” and time travel are complete fiction, but they make for an exciting plot, and I guess I’m willing to let it go because of how cool it is to see the Star Trek brand reinvigorated like this. (BTW, ISMP has a very lengthy preview and review of this movie.)

As with all great science fiction, Star Trek has always done its best to weave great science and great fiction into a very imaginitive tapestry. Many of the technologies introduced in Star Trek were predictive of technologies we have today – the communicator devices in the original Star Trek series are eerily similar to the push-to-talk cell phones that are commonly used by businesses today. Other technologies in the series are likely many centuries away or even impossible. But even here, the Star Trek series tried whenever possible to stay within the realm of things that were at least physically plausible based on our current understanding of science. Only a few of the technologies are the stuff of pure fiction.

Assignment: Most of the technologies introduced in the Star Trek series were necessary to fulfill one plot requirement or another. There were very few gratuitous technologies, which is consistent with how new technologies are really developed. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. So what I want you to do for your assignment this week is to explain the plot need behind two of the technologies in the Star Trek series. For your first technology, I want you to consider the “warp drives” on the USS Enterprise. Why was the warp drive a necessary plot device in Star Trek? Remember, this is a physics question. So discuss what some of the physical limitations were, and why it was necessary to go beyond current technology. The choice for the second technology is yours, but I’d like for you to talk about why the technology was necessary for the plot and what the feasibility of the technology is in the real world.

Please post your blog by Sunday, 7 Nov.

Gojira (Godzilla)

This week will be a little different. Instead of writing blog reviews of our feature film, we will have group discussions (at Kudu Coffeehouse or in class, whichever you can make). Topics you will be asked to discuss include: 1) Compare and contrast the moral positions of the scientists in “Fat Man and Little Boy” and “Gojira”. 2) Why do you think that this version of “Godzilla” was not played in the U.S.A. until 2004, 50 years after its original release in Japan? 3) How have our two most recent feature films informed or changed your opinions on nuclear weapons? 4) Discuss the science of the Godzilla monster. 5) Discuss the science of the Oxygen Destroyer weapon. 6) Consider the role movies play in shaping and reinforcing people’s opinions about scientific issues. By some estimates 27% of Americans say they fear nuclear power, even though a far smaller percentage actually understand it at even a rudimentary level. What should be done to fill these information gaps that the movies so often exploit?

Fat Man and Little Boy

I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I watched this movie. Although it does a good job of recreating many of the elements of the Manhattan Project (most everything in the movie, except the love story, is based on real events), I thought the portrayal of the characters lacked any real depth. This was particularly disappointing for me because I have read biographies of two of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman. I can assure you both men were much more conflicted, quirky, brilliant, and interesting than they were portrayed in the movie. Nevertheless, the movie manages to convey the main dilemma I want you to comment on in your blogs this week: the morality of having scientists design and build weapons of mass destruction. Many scientists who do this hide behind one of the moral shields presented in the movie: the scientists are only responsible for developing the weapons, not using them. Other scientists openly embrace their role. Edward Teller was one prominent Manhattan Project scientist who felt that the only way to keep the world safe was for the United States to have weapons of such terror that no other nation would dare to step too far out of line. Even after WWII ended, Teller advocated further development of atomic and then nuclear weapons. In a very real sense, he was the architect of America’s modern nuclear arsenal. Still other scientists have felt that there is no way to divorce the results of such weapons’ use from their development, and therefore have refused to work on weapons-related research. (Sadly, the right or privilege NOT to work on weapons-related research is not always afforded to scientists.)

Assignment: This week I’d like for you to just write about the movie. I want you to record what you think and feel as you watch the story progress. I don’t want to limit you, but if you need suggestions, you might want to comment on the drive and ambition of the military officer, General Groves. You might want to comment on the gradual shift in the moods of the scientists from ebullient enthusiasm and excitement to gnawing guilt and remorse. You might want to comment on Dr. Oppenheimer’s “God complex”, the notion that he could control everything around him. There are many other themes you could choose to comment on as well (I don’t really need to hear your comments on the love story unless you just can’t resist talking about it).

Please post your blog by Sunday, 24 Oct.