I love the movies.  I love science.  I spent many formative years watching Joe Bob Briggs, Commander USA, the goofballs at Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and similar people who introduced and commented on the movies they were showing.

Consequently, I now can't watch a movie without making similar ratings comments as I watch the good, the bad, and the ugly of science in the movies.

That background means that I am in a perfect place to help people who are uncertain about why they need to know science or at least the science I'm trying to teach (usually chemistry, physics, and general physical science for elementary teachers).Many students are probably right when they complain that they won't do the calculations after leaving the intro classes as non-majors, but the basics show up all the time in their living rooms and on the big screen.

For example, how afraid should someone be about a car just bursting into flames as it leaves the road or flipping end over end to crash on its roof? Well, if you watch the movies, then you might have the impression that a medium-sized rock is all that is required to flip that car and have it explode into flames. However, knowing something about center of gravity and combustion can help put a mind at ease.

Cars are actually pretty hard to flip under normal conditions (I don't recommend driving off a cliff, though).The cars that go off the cliff in the movies and immediately burst into flames are not realistic. Yes, air friction is why objects that move very quickly through the Earth's atmosphere burn, but if driving off the cliff at 75 miles per hour were enough to hit the burn-up point, then many of the cars on the interstate would be in flames much of the time. That part of the physics doesn't change just because you're moving as a projectile in an arc instead of on a road.

The lower-than-optimal level of science literacy in the general American public isn't solely a result of not taking science classes. Instead, the problem is much worse: people learn science in a separate context from the rest of their lives so that they have textbook science (good to get you through the test) and everyday common sense that is often based on the ugly science in the movies/television/visual media (movies for short).  

For example, everyone knows that we should laugh at Wile E. Coyote because it's ridiculous to think that one must notice a lack of support before gravity takes over.  However, how many movie scenes have the protagonist making a giant leap between buildings to land just on the edge (or clinging to an edge)?  Physics, though, tells us that a human falls about 16 feet in one second.  That means you will fall a whole story (with tall ceilings) in one second. 

Is 1 second a lot of time to make a leap or a little time?  Well, let's do some easy math.  Say that someone can run 100 m in 10 s (not unreasonable since that was the world record in 1960).  That means the horizontal speed will be 10 m/s.  In one second, that means someone can go forward 10 m (or 11 yards).  That's a little bit farther than the distance between the markings on a football field or about 18 steps for a typical marching band on the football field taking 22 inches per step.  That's a pretty close pair of buildings (a 2009 study found an average of about 40 feet between buildings in New York City, which is about 13 yards) if it's only 11 yards.
Remember, a separation of 11 yards gives you one second to fall vertically the 16 feet.  While you can fudge that number a bit by making an arc to gain some vertical velocity, then that's horizontal velocity that's sacrificed.  Since a runner can only be going a total of 10 m/s at the moment of leaving the roof, any part of that 10 m/s speed going to help with the vertical problem is not available to go forward between buildings (doggone, human legs that can only push so hard; this would be easier with some cyborg legs to start at a higher speed).  

In summary of the jumping-between-buildings problem, something that we all know and have seen a thousand times is not good data for our model of the world, but, nonetheless, it's in our brains and it's hard to ignore in other situations.

Many, many things are like this in the movies.  On the other hand, it's not particularly difficult to pick good science examples from movies for things that we don't generally encounter in other parts of our lives, but that resonate with students and the general public.  In future posts, I will share specific examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly from the movies to teach various topics relating to physical science including space scenes (Men in Black III has an excellent one), explosions, robots, and how worried we should be about having an inventor next door who might be trying to take over the tri-state area.

Stay tuned.

Front page image credit: Warner Bros. Link: thoomas at deviant art