Friday, September 18, 2015

Scientists in popular movies

Truth is often stranger than fiction. No wonder mainstream cinema has adapted the true life stories of many accomplished scientists for appealing wide audience.

There is something about scientific fictions that make them mysteriously attractive. Most well-written fictions are wholeheartedly received by scientists to common man. There is a set of biopic movies in mainstream cinema based on true life stories of real scientists who made their mark in the history with their contributions. Here’s an attempt to shortlist eight of such popular movies which we should never miss. Excellent television movies and documentaries of this category such as Glory Enough for All about the isolation of insulin by Nobel laureate Banting and Best or Einstein and Eddington depicting Einstein’s work on relativity were not considered. Movies revolving around the personal lives of great scientists like Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking) or Creation (Charles Darwin) were also omitted.

The Story of Louis Pasteur
This 1936 Academy Award winning narration by Collings and Gibney about the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur is a highly dramatized version of Pasteur’s struggles in the nineteenth century scientific community. His Germ Theory of Diseases and subsequent anthrax vaccine earns him quite a few enemies in the contemporary scientific community as it questioned and later disproved the Theory of Spontaneous Generation that prevailed till then. The movie progresses though Pasteur’s not-so-secret rivalry with Dr. Charbonnet who publicly criticized his attempts on rabies vaccine. But as history is retold, Pasteur finally saves nine year old Joseph Meister from rabies with his vaccine and wins accolades. American stage actor Paul Muni’s sensitive characterization of Pasteur earned him a well- deserved Academy Award.

The Imitation Game
British cryptanalyst Alan Turing lived only for a very short period of forty one years. But the irony is that most of us will be reading this article in a device that materialized partly as a result of his publications in 1930s on theories of computation exploring the possibility of a “Universal Machine”. At least once a day we enter a CAPTCHA somewhere to prove ourselves to be human and not a computer, which is based on the famous Turing test to standardize the intelligence of a machine. This Academy Award nominated movie adapted from Andrew Hodge’s enthralling 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, depicts the various phases of Turing’s life as a mathematical biologist and logician along with his fellow cryptologists Joan Clarke and John Good in Bletchley Park during World War II. The unparalleled screenplay by Graham Moore revolves around the intricacies of breaking the ciphers created by the Nazi code machine, Enigma and the extraordinary brilliance of Turing in decryption. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Turing leaves us with a painful longing to accept the candidness of this genius saving the lives of millions from German attacks in World War II.

A Beautiful Mind
A Nobel Prize for a doctoral dissertation? It’s the dream of every single science enthusiast in the world. Well, American mathematician John Forbes Nash earned the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences through his 28-page long 1950 PhD thesis on Non-cooperative games. Game theory, with Nash Equilibrium as its central axis, is the most powerful unifying theory of social sciences today in handling dilemmas involving collective action. Though unknowingly, each one of us uses it every day from our simple tit-for-tats to complex capital investment planning. Unfortunately, Nash was an extreme paranoid schizophrenic. In fact, it might’ve been his own theories that helped him in choosing his partner Alicia de Larde, a MIT Physics graduate, who was supportive all through his life to maintain his sanity and stability. Nobody can forget the weary face of Russell Crowe, whose Academy Award nominated portrayal of Nash in this 2001 biopic based on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 Pulitzer nominated book of the same name. Ron Howard’s directorial excellence takes us through the complex hallucinations of Nash presuming him to be the code breaker of the US Department of Defense to thwart Soviet spy operations. The portrayal is so realistic that more often we find ourselves crossing the fine line between hallucinations and reality as the movie progresses.

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
Another critically acclaimed movie from the master of biopic, William Dieterle. This 1940 controversial movie takes us through the struggles of German microbiologist and physician Paul Ehrlich and his invention of chemotherapy. Ehrlich strongly believed in the possibility of developing a “magic bullet” against infections. He proposed the idea that if an agent, which can selectively target a pathogen is designed, then toxins against the pathogen if delivered to the body with this agent should selectively target and kill the pathogen without adverse effects to rest of the body. This built the basic foundations of ‘affinity’ in immunology. The movie depicts his extensive experiments to develop such a molecule to cure syphilis, which was widely considered a consequence of blasphemy and sins till early 1900s. In 1910, he developed Salvarsan (arsphenamine) and tried it in syphilitic patients. The Academy Award nominated screenplay of Huston, Herald and Burnstine narrates the disturbing account of 606 failures of the treatment before achieving success. This also gained Salvarsan the notorious nickname of “Agent 606”. Though the movie ends on a tragic note of Ehrlic succumbing to illness and death due to the stress of his work, in reality his works were later extrapolated to develop Neosalvarsan to cure syphilis. This also led to the discovery of the Blood Brain Barrier.

I ragazzi di via Panisperna
Enrico Fermi, the 1938 Nobel Prize winner in physics is no stranger to science or history enthusiasts. This Italian quantum and nuclear physicist formed and mentored a group of young scientists in the Physics Institute of the Sapienza University of Rome. This group caught the nickname of Via Panisperna Boys after the Roman street in which the institute situated. The 1989 Italian classic retells the challenging works of this group in the discovery of slow neutrons which were eventually instrumental in the development of atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. Fermi’s contributions are not limited to this work that earned him the title of “Father of atomic bombs” and made him a crucial part of Manhattan project. He explained beta decay and through Fermi- Dirac’s statistics described weak nuclear interactions, one of the four fundamental forces of nature. It is a well-known joke that Nature refused to publish his article citing “too remote from physical reality”. The legacy of his team of “boys” is beautifully depicted in the movie with historical accuracy by Italian director Gianni Amelio.

Gorillas in the Mist
Anthropologist Dian Fossey is regarded as the greatest primatologist in the history. She spent eighteen long years in the remote rainforests of Rwanda studying mountain gorillas. Recruiting local African tribal people, she founded Karisoke Research Centre deep in the forest to conserve the extremely threatened species of mountain gorillas. Thanks to her relentless efforts, the poaching and brutal killings of these animals have considerably decreased, maintaining ecological balance. Her 1983 autobiographical note Gorilllas in the Mist was recreated as the widely acclaimed 1988 movie of the same name. Adding final details to Fossey’s life, the movie ends with the cold murder of Fossey in her forest cabin by an unknown assailant which still remains a mystery.

Le Palmes de Monsieur Schutz
This 1997 French drama is inspired by the lives of the royal couple of radioactivity, 1903 Physics Nobel Laureates Pierre Curie and Marie Curie. Their discovery of Radium and Polonium at ESPCI (The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution) as well as their relationship with their mentor Professor Schutz (Paul Schutzenberger, the then Director of ESPCI) set against the picturesque backdrop of medieval Parisian charisma makes this movie equally appealing to all kinds of audience.  Nobel winning French Physicists Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak make cameo appearance too in the movie.

Extraordinary measures
Though theoretically not about any scientist, this Harrison Ford starrer 2010 medical drama is one of the most thrilling movies about biotechnology research and industry. It is based on biotechnology executive John Crowley’s biography The Cure by Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Street journalist Geeta Anand. Crowley’s two kids suffered from glycogen storage metabolic disorder Pompe’s disease. Frustrated by the slow pace of research in the field of this genetic disease, he chose a management position in the Oklahoma based pharmaceutical company Novazyme. His and glycobiologist William Canfield’s untiring efforts to raise money and encourage scientists in his team to develop a potential cure for this disease are the gist of the movie. Novazyme eventually succeeds in developing and marketing recombinant human alglucosidase alpha Myozyme and Lumizyme for the treatment of Pompe’s disease. 

This list is in no way final. It is also enriched with biographical movies depicting the historical rivalry between church and science like the 1974 classics Johannes Kepler and Galileo, Academy Award nominated 1973 Polish movie Kopernik and 2009 controversial Spanish movie Agora. The much contentious Milgram experiment on obedience by the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram comes out as Experimenter in October after critical acclaim in Sundance. So next time when you have free time from your work, it may be worthwhile to watch some of these informative and inspiring movies.

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