Movie posters for the Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, and Interstellar.

Silver screen

PSD faculty members discuss Hollywood's portrayal of science and scientists.

Science and scientist-based films had a big year in 2014. Three high-profile movies earned Academy Awards—two biopics and a modern space odyssey. Inquiry asks a computer scientist, a physicist, and a planetary scientist to weigh in on the films’ scientific and historical accuracy.

The Imitation Game chronicles Alan Turing’s work with a team of code breakers during World War II trying to crack Germany’s Enigma machine. Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore, LAB’99).

The Imitation Game shines a much-deserved light on Turing, a fascinating historical figure who was relatively unknown outside of the computer science community. It is thrilling, well paced, and phenomenally well acted. It is also, unfortunately, a subpar biography. By their own admission, the filmmakers took considerable dramatic license. Turing is portrayed as borderline autistic, perpetuating the stereotype of the oddball scientist, and his code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park are elevated to heroic proportions. But his contributions to computer science, as well as his persecution for homosexuality, humiliating chemical castration, and tragic demise of an apparent suicide in 1954, are touched upon only superficially. 

In reality, Turing was considered affable and well adjusted, albeit a bit shy. Although he made crucial contributions to the code-breaking effort, he was not a lone wolf who antagonized all his peers; he was a team player embedded in a deeply collaborative effort. If you want to get the whole picture, pick up a copy of Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma, on which the movie is based.—Borja Sotomayor, SM’07, PhD’10, Lecturer and Associate Director for Technology, Computer Science

The Theory of Everything chronicles Stephen Hawking’s life and his relationship with his first wife, Jane, based on her memoir. Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Eddie Redmayne).

The Theory of Everything follows Hawking from his Cambridge graduate student days in the mid-1960s through approximately the late 1980s. There is very little science in the movie apart from passing references to what Hawking is working on and depictions of his PhD oral defense, a lecture by Roger Penrose, and Hawking’s seminar presenting his most famous work on particle creation by black holes. 

These depictions display the usual Hollywood conception of scientists more interested in passing judgment (negative or positive) than inquiring about the work or its ramifications. Indeed, Hawking’s PhD oral is the first I have seen where no question was asked of the candidate. However, what is said in these depictions is not scientific nonsense, and the descriptions of Hawking’s work are not unlike what one might expect Hawking to say to a non-scientist. Some scientific details in the movie are very well done; for example, in Hawking’s seminar one can see on the blackboard a correctly drawn space-time diagram of a black hole that forms from collapse and then evaporates. 

The portrayals of the scientists other than Hawking bear no resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but the portrayal of Hawking himself is truly remarkable. Eddie Redmayne looks like Hawking, acts like Hawking, and says the kinds of things Hawking would say. At many points in the movie, I felt I was taken back in time to see Hawking as I had known him in the 1970s and 1980s.—Robert M. Wald, Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor, Physics

Interstellar sends a team of astronauts from a dying earth through a wormhole searching for viable new homes for humanity. Best Achievement in Visual Effects.

This movie asked many subversive questions. How often are we like the farmers in the movie, celebrating small victories while ignoring the larger game? In what ways does our culture—on the surface, very open to better technology—shut down or sideline paths of inquiry that could change the future? Is the Earth the only planet in our long-term future? Is it more human to grow to accept the limits of living on a single planet, or to push past them? We now know there are about 100,000,000,000 habitable-zone Earth-radius planets in the galaxy—wouldn’t it be a shame if the other 99,999,999,999 are always uninhabited?—Edwin Kite, Assistant Professor, Geophysical Sciences