Sci-Fi or Sci-Fact? Urban science department discusses

By Lily Dodd

The science department is passionate about many things. Among them: The San Francisco Giants, moths, Batman, science (of course), ski jumping, moths, time travel, sea otters, movies, and moths. Today we combine two of those wonderful passions, science and movies, and learn which popular films the department deems scientifically accurate, and which they deem extremely inaccurate. WARNING: You can click on the embedded links for trailers and clips, but if you don’t like kinda scary/sometimes really gross/exceptionally terrible filmmaking, procede with caution.

Side note: looking for terrible movies to watch over break alone in your bed while your laptop pleasantly warms the tops of your thighs? Look no further than below.


Geoff Ruth (Environmental Science, Chemistry)

The Good: Europa Report (“Awesome.”)

What they got right: Explanation of why liquid water exists on Europa, and why it’s a candidate for life outside of earth. Most other parts seemed reasonable to me.

What they got wrong: Our current understanding suggests that it’s unlikely there’s anything on Europa as big and complex as (spoiler ahead!) the final monster. The final data upload happened many orders of magnitude faster than is possible.

The Bad: The Core (“A crime against humanity.”)

What they got right: Earth has a core.

What they got wrong: There are not enough words printed in all the books in the world.


Mary Murphy (Anatomy, Infectious Disease)

The Good: Contagion

This movie does a lot of things right: the virus’s zoonotic origin (bat to pig to human with really cool genetic recombination), habitat-destruction and its relationship to disease emergence, the epidemiological process employed to identify the pathogen and figure out its transmission/incubation period (that’s a bit fast)/pathophysiology, the complexity of managing a pandemic from a public health perspective (both logistically and informationally), and the science involved in developing a vaccine. It also nails the “fear” component of all pandemics and the vast amount of misleading and often false information that can flood the public consciousness and lead to absolute panic. Equity decisions about quarantining and vaccine distribution were also handled quite well. Finally, Jude Law’s character – a wily anti-science conspiracy theorist who has invented his own “cure” – perfectly portrays the power of media manipulation (and helps the movie poke fun at the anti-vaccine movement). Sure, I could have done without Gwyneth Paltrow’s skull being sawn in half but she had encephalitis so, whatevs, the movie is legit.

 The Bad: The X-Men Franchise

I fear the wrath of true Urban comic nerds on this one but the evolution stuff in these flicks is way off. There’s no “goal” to evolution as implied by the movies. Also, phenotypic change is way more incremental and requires much, much more time. Take the example of Angel, the mutant who comes from “normal” parents but suddenly sprouts wings one day. Let’s just say that researchers now think that the evolution of a vertebrate eye from a flat, light-sensitive patch of photoreceptors probably took, at least, about 360,000 years. Don’t get me wrong – I’d jump at the chance to fly in a plane telepathically controlled by Jean Gray. And I believe in adamantium too.


Matthew Casey (Physics, Astronomy)

The Good: Contact

This film version of Carl Sagan’s masterful sci-fi novel accurately depicts the science behind SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. The astronomical facts and portrayal of wormhole travel are also accurate, based on what we know. Jody Foster’s character is modeled after real life radio astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter. Today, the SETI Institute is a major scientific organization operating out of Mountain View, CA. Check out their free public lectures and their “SETI@home” app, which lets you search for alien signals with your own computer!

The Bad: Angels and Demons

What I hated most about this book / movie was how author Dan Brown lured the audience from scientific fact into unrealistic fiction. Movies like this drive teachers nuts because they start off with some grain of truth and then exaggerate wildly for Hollywood effect. The audience is left assuming it’s all plausible. In Angels & Demons, 1 gram of antimatter is stolen from the Large Hadron Collider to make an immense bomb. True, the Large Hadron Collider is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built. Some of the movie was even filmed there. And yes, particle accelerators really do create antimatter. Antimatter annihilates regular matter in a burst of energy when they touch. But antimatter is extremely rare. The LHC can make .000000001g of antimatter per year. Doing so costs about 1 million dollars. Therefore, 1g of antimatter would take 1 billion years and 1 million billion dollars to produce. So, yeah.


Skyler Silverman (Physics, Chemistry)

The Good: Contact (same as Matthew!)

Makes a really strong effort to stay loyal to science/tech, unsurprisingly considering it is based on the book by Carl Sagan. It does take some artistic liberties but quite frankly, all the science in that movie is directly lifted from, or an extrapolation of, the best understandings of the time.

The Bad: Armageddon (“Terrible Science”)

There are a great many resources on the internet (beginning with a separate section on Wikipedia) that attempt to catalogue the nearly 200 problems with the physics in that movie. Picking out two of the most egregious ones though:

1. The main plan of the entire movie (nuking the asteroid) would require the world’s entire nuclear arsenal more than a thousand times over.

2. Also, literally all the flying around they do with the space shuttles is not even close to real.


Matt Medeiros (Biology, Entomology)

I don’t ever really watch movies about science, I only watch The Big Lebowski over and over again. You know, a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous. And uh, lots of strands to keep in my head, man…