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NASA names best and worst sci-fi movies of all time – or not?

Jan 5, 2011 9 comments

A front page article in this week’s Sunday Times stated that NASA had named 2012 the most absurd science-fiction film of all time. In a follow-up article on page nine, the Sunday Times stated that NASA had recently held a conference at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to highlight the good and bad scientific practices of Hollywood. According to the Sunday Times, NASA and the Science and Entertainment Exchange produced the following lists:

Worst sci-fi movies:
1. 2012 (2009)
2. The Core (2003)
3. Armageddon (1998)
4. Volcano (1997)
5. Chain Reaction (1996)
6. The 6th Day (2000)
7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

Most realistic films:
1. Gattaca (1997)
2. Contact (1997)
3. Metropolis (1927)
4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
5. Woman in the Moon (1929)
6. The Thing from Another World (1951)
7. Jurassic Park (1993)

I was curious about the reasons for some of the choices, so I thought I’d look this up on the NASA website. But I couldn’t find any mention of these films on NASA web site, the JPL web site, or the Science and Entertainment Exchange web site. There were plenty of articles reporting NASA’s choice of films, but none of them I looked at had links back to a primary source at NASA. Many had links to articles in other newspapers. And curiously, none of the articles were in American newspapers.

Then, today (Jan 4, 2011), The Science and Entertainment Exchange issued a statement on its blog:

The article in the London Sunday Times on January 2, 2011 “To Absurdity and Beyond: NASA damns flaws in sci-fi films” incorrectly attributed a top-ten worst sci-fi films list to the Science & Entertainment Exchange. We were not involved in creating the list.

This raises some interesting questions:

  • Did NASA, in fact, publish a list of best and worst sci-fi films?
  • Where did the lists published by the Sunday Times originate?
  • Did NASA have a conference about sci-fi films?
  • Why did so many newspapers publish a story about this without bothering to check the primary source?

The newspapers and journals that re-hashed this story include:

Update, 6th Jan 2011

Dave Kellam, at eightface.com, also wrote a blog post on this subject: NASA and bad science movies. Kellam emailed Donald Yeomans, the manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, who was quoted in John Harlow’s Sunday Times article. In his reply Yeomans stated:

There is no list and there was no meeting to put together such a list. NASA would never put together a list of “worst sci-fi films.” We are not movie critics.

According to Kellam, Yeomans stated that he was interviewed by a British journalist, but was subject to misquotes and manufactured quotes.

Popular science on TV – call for a scientist’s cut

Apr 25, 2010 1 comment

Films are sometimes re-released as a director’s cut – a version that more closely reflects the director’s vision for the film, free from the commercial pressures of the studio.

Science programme makers could take a cue from filmmakers and produce two cuts: one for the general public and one for enthusiasts.

Take Wonders of the Solar System. This has all the makings of a great science programme: an enthusiastic and knowledgable presenter in Professor Brian Cox, great pictures of space and the earth, travel to interesting locations, interviews with scientific experts and fantastic computer simulations. Yet the programme is hard to watch – it’s like eating cabbage: I do it because I know I ought to, not because I want to. And it’s not just me. A friend of mine, who is also a science and technology enthusiast, said he fell asleep during the programme.

The main problem is that the programme is constrained to a 1-hour slot, and is edited to fit that slot. This means there is a lot of filler to sit through. Shots of Brian Cox walking up to a telescope, unnecessary shots of him driving in his car (and, of all forms of filler, presenters driving in their car is the most clichéd and overused), scenes that are portmanteaux of earlier scenes, and so on.

The second problem is that the programme, by necessity, targets a wide audience: since there are relatively few science programmes on television, such programmes have to target both the general public and those who have a deeper understanding of science. This means these programmes generally need to include explanations of the basics, and even when these explanations are good, they are not that interesting to people who already understand what is being explained. A good example is when Brian Cox explained the size of the solar system, by placing planets in their relative positions on a table, and then driving to the position of the Oort cloud. This was a dramatic illustration of the solar system’s size (and, incidentally, appropriate use of a shot of him driving), but not that interesting to someone who understands the vastness of space.

Both these problems could be solved by having two cuts of the programme – a standard version and a scientist’s cut. The scientist’s cut would differ from the standard cut in that it would not include the filler and the basic explanations. But it might include more detail in other areas.

Programme lengths no longer have to be totally dictated by the TV schedule. Perhaps the main showing needs to fit a one-hour slot, but repeats on BBC iPlayer certainly do not. There is no reason why two cuts of “Wonders of the Solar System” should not be available on iPlayer – the full version and the scientist’s cut. The programme is repeated on BBC1 and BBC4, often in the middle of the night – there is no reason why one of these repeats should not be a scientist’s cut. The programme is to be sold on DVD – there is no reason why there should not be a DVD scientist’s cut.

Despite the fact that it contains some wonderful material, I won’t be buying the DVD of Wonders of the Solar System. But if Professor Brian Cox was given full editorial control and was allowed to make a scientist’s cut of the programme, I would buy that.

Film enthusiasts get a special cut, science enthusiasts should get one too.

Do scientists form an ethnic group?

Mar 30, 2010 4 comments

In this post I argue that scientists form an ethnic group (at least according to the definitions used by the UK 2011 census), and that recognition of this ethnic group has important implications.

In brief

According to the definitions used by the 2011 census:
Important characteristics of an ethnic group include a common heritage, memories of a shared past and shared language. Members of an ethnic group are conscious of belonging to that group and there is a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is probably recognised on both sides of that boundary. Ethnicity is characterised, among other things, by subjective identification, stereotyping and social exclusion. And finally a person should self-assign their own ethnic group: self-classification is not a courtesy but a recognition of the fact that a person’s ethnic group is an integral part of their identity.

As a scientist and according to these definitions I can legitimately claim that I belong to the ethnic group of scientists. I intend to do so. What’s more I intend to declare my ethnic group as “scientist” on the 2011 UK census.

Why would I want to do so? For two reasons. Firstly, as an individual, I wish to assert my identity, and I wish to do so in a way that I define – I do not want to be stereotyped by some government department. And secondly because government policy is informed by ethnicity data, and I am fed up with the systematic bias against science and scientists that exists in the UK. I think that bias is harmful to scientists themselves, but even more importantly it is harmful to the nation.

Surely, I’m having a laugh?

No. Neither am I cocking a snook at the Office of National Statistics or the 2011 census. My intent is earnest. The failure to recognise scientists as a group and the government bias against scientists and scientific knowledge has significant and serious consequences for our nation. The bias against science detrimentally impacts our healthcare, our agriculture, our education, our transport system, our power generation, our fisheries, our environment and our future prosperity as a nation.

The under-representation of scientists in government and government departments and the tendency of ministers to ignore scientific opinion and advice threatens our competitiveness.

In more detail

The government publication Ethnic group statistics: A guide for the collection and classification of ethnicity data quotes Bulmer’s (1996) definition of an ethnic group:

An ethnic group is a collectivity within a larger population having real
or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared past, and a cultural focus upon one or more symbolic elements which define the group’s identity, such as kinship, religion, language, shared territory, nationality or physical appearance. Members of an ethnic group are conscious of belonging to an ethnic group.

It also quotes Berthoud, Modood and Smith (1997) definition of an ethnic group:

In principle, an ethnic group would be defined as a community whose heritage offers important characteristics in common between its members and which makes them distinct from other communities. There is a boundary, which separates ‘us’ from ‘them’, and the distinction would probably be recognised on both sides of that boundary. Ethnicity is a multi-faceted phenomenon based on physical appearance, subjective identification, cultural and religious affiliation, stereotyping, and social exclusion. But it is not possible in advance to prescribe what the key distinguishing characteristics might be; the components of ethnicity will be different in Britain compared with, say Northern Ireland, Belgium, Bosnia, the United States, Rwanda, India or Singapore. So it is necessary to adopt a flexible and practical approach to choosing the specific criteria to identify the important ethnic boundaries in any particular society.

The paper also asks:

Is a person’s ethnic group self-defined?

to which it answers:

Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom.

According to the government publication How to identify collect and report ethnicity data:

all training should emphasise why ethnic monitoring is important and that self-classification is imperative

and:

As said above, a person should self-assign their own ethnic group, once they have agreed for the Trust or council to have this information. Self-classification is not a courtesy but a recognition of the fact that a person’s ethnic group is an integral part of their identity. How an individual sees her or himself may be different from how that person’s parents, other family members or third parties see them.

Government policy implications

According to the 2011 Census White Paper (English), paragraph 3.53:

The UK Statistics Authority proposes to include a question again in the 2011 Census to meet a wide range of uses of ethnicity data:

  • to enable organisations to meet their statutory obligations under race relation and equal opportunities legislation (where other sources of data do not adequately provide accurate data for small, geographically dispersed ethnic minority populations)
  • in the formulae for grant allocation by Central and Local Government
  • to inform policy development and monitoring
  • to provide public bodies with a better understanding of the communities they serve and hence inform service provision

One in 10 UK children thinks Queen invented telephone – NOT

Mar 13, 2010 5 comments

According to an article on BBC News one in ten UK children thinks the Queen invented the telephone. One in twenty think that Luke Skywalker was the first man to set foot on the moon. And an amazing 60% of nine and ten year olds think that Sir Isaac Newton invented fire.

I think not.

What this survey shows is that children have a sense of humour. What it shows is that, when presented with a bunch of boring questions, the average 10 year old will have a laugh and choose the stupidest answer. I probably would too.

The real story here is the poor quality of the BBC reporting. Without even considering the plausibility of the results the reporter presented the results of an online survey as fact.

May I suggest an alternative story:

Gullible BBC reporter outsmarted by a bunch of 10 year olds

When presented with a survey showing that “60% of nine and ten year olds thought that Sir Isaac Newton invented fire” a gullible BBC reporter naively presented this story at face value. The reporter did not consider the plausibility of this factoid, nor did they seek a second source to verify the factoids.

Which is more likely: the ten year olds were having a laugh by giving stupid answers to a boring survey, or the ten year olds were genuinely ignorant? I think the children proved themselves smarter than at least on BBC reporter.

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Why is science important?

Dec 15, 2009 Leave a comment

I recently came across Alom Shaha’s project: Why is science important? Although he has completed the film, he is still accepting contributions to the website. I was inspired to write a response, it is here.

My post is deliberately succinct: I have intentionally omitted the reasons behind my answers. This reasoning may be the subject of a future blog post.

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