Assistant Editor's Column: Science and Popular Culture Part II

It has been another interesting year for science and popular culture, though less chemistry with the end of Breaking Bad.

From Esther Inglis-Arkell, a reminder that Superman’s kryptonite doesn’t exist and why. At last fall’s Convergence, there was a panel discussion on popular culture and forensic science, “Getting Away with Murder.”

Epic science fiction films that are heavy on the hard science are becoming a new fall tradition. Last year’s film was Interstellar, with physicist Kip Thorne serving as a consultant and executive producer. He also authored a book and article about the science behind the film. In a second article, he and his co-authors suggested that Interstellar’s wormhole visualizations could be used to teach those concepts to students. Not surprisingly, a number of scientists and science journalists reviewed the film and its science, including Katie Mack, Phil Plait, Annalee Newitz (plus a follow up), the Smithsonian’s Cathleen Lewis, Discovery.com’s Ian O’Neill, the Library of Congress’ David Grinspoon (in an interview with Mother Jones), and Robert Naeye for Sky and Telescope. The Kavli Institute had a Google Hangout with several astrophysicists answering questions about the wormholes and black holes. Adam Rogers wrote about Thorne and the film for Wired. Lee Billings’ blog post at Scientific American about what the movie got wrong about interstellar travel was followed a few weeks later with an interview with Thorne. Neil deGrasse Tyson offered his thoughts via Twitter (Storified here). The reviews over the science in Interstellar led James Erwin over at Slate to recommend less scientific nitpicking over science fiction films. But then earlier this year, Charlie Jane Anders discussed a Berkeley Science Review essay that suggested that scientific accuracy is one of many valid ways to judge a story.

Not to ignore older works, marine biologist David Shiffman wrote about the shadow that Jaws has cast over the last forty years with its inaccuracies about shark behavior. And with the release of Jurassic World this summer, it was an opportunity to revisit the not-so-great science of Jurassic Park with pieces by Brian Switek and Phil Plait, as well as a piece by the film’s technical consultant Jack Horner on the improved plausibility of the new film.

There were a few articles this year about the Mad Max: Fury Road, and there were a few articles about its science. Noah Gittell wrote about how it addressed climate change, and Kyle Hill speculated on the disease afflicting the war boys. Jupiter Ascending was not as critically acclaimed, but Astra Bryant’s grant review summary for canine-human hybrids was an entertaining complement to the film, possibly moreso.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries (co-sponsored by the chemistry and physics departments and Doane College), continued their Sci Pop Talks! series with speakers discussing Game of Thrones, Hollywood fires and explosions, and Marvel comics and radiation. The six talks from earlier this year are available on YouTube.

Orphan Black returned this spring with more discussion about the genetic engineering technology behind the show, from io9, The Mary Sue (where Casey Griffin and Nina Nesseth recapped the episodes), and a Longreads interview with science consultant Cosima Herter. The new summer series Humans is exploring artificial intelligence, and Jovana Grbic interviewed the show’s creators.

A few weeks ago at Comic-Con here in San Diego, I attended two NASA panels, including one about future Mars exploration and The Martian, both the novel and upcoming movie. Panelists included two NASA scientists, new astronaut Victor Glover, novelist Andy Weir, and one of the film’s producers. It was a delight to hear about NASA’s future plans for reaching Mars, and the science behind the film will be get a lot of coverage this fall.

Teri Vogel, Assistant Editor
tmvogel@uscd.edu