“Star Trek” is an obvious example: On-screen science and technology that fueled the fire of scientific research and helped inform the future of touchscreen technology, real-time translation devices and even “cloaking devices” over the last 50 years. But this isn’t the only Hollywood connection to scientific advancements — here’s a look at some of the most popular (and more obscure) links between science and movies.
As noted by the University of California Museum of Paleontology, work in paleontology “declined as World War II developed.” Subsequent discoveries that expanded the catalog of dinosaur species and confirmed their connection to present-day birds helped reinvigorate the field.
In 1997, paleontology enjoyed a massive uptick in popular culture thanks to the release of “Jurassic Park.” As noted by Dr. Stephen Brusette of the University of Edinburgh in a recent Newsweek piece, there were “‘more jobs, more funding, that came from Jurassic Park. I don’t think we can overstate how important that was to paleontology. I probably wouldn’t have my job, and a lot of my colleagues wouldn’t either.'”
In 2012, film director James Cameron reached the deepest part of the Mariana Trench 6.8 miles underwater, known as the Challenger Deep. The record-breaking dive makes Cameron the first person to reach the bottom of the valley alone. According to National Geographic, he also took sediment samples, used a “slurp gun” to collect small sea creatures and recorded data about temperature, salinity and pressure.
The Hollywood connection here? Cameron has made it clear that blockbuster movies only fuel his exploration obsession. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a new exhibit focusing on Cameron’s deep dive and includes the telling quote: “I don’t go down there to find cool aliens to put into Avatar. I make Avatar to get money to recharge the treasury to build new vehicles to go on explorations.” Put simply? Deep sea scientific advancements are driven by Cameron’s passion — and funded by Hollywood.
Search for “Star Trek”-inspired scientific advancements and a host of consumer technologies come up, but less well-known iterations have also been developed. In “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the ship’s Engineer Montgomery Scott provides the formula for “transparent aluminum” to a researcher in 1986. Once produced, a one-inch thick sheet of the material withstood pressure from 18,000 cubic feet of water.
Now, specialty chemical companies such as Reade are creating aluminum oxynitride (ALON), which is used for “transparent armor” applications in the U.S. Air Force and in the windows of armored military vehicles. Composed of aluminum, oxygen and nitrogen, the substance stays solid up to 2,190 degrees Fahrenheit, is harder than glass. After polishing, it becomes “an extremely durable crystalline material with excellent optical transparency in the near ultraviolet wavelength,” according to Reade.
According to The Science and Entertainment Exchange, films dealing with the nature of human perception and memory have also bolstered the link between science and movies. Consider the work of neuroscientist Steve Ramirez of Harvard University. Inspired by movies such as “Inception” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Ramirez developed a way to implant fake memories in rats and is now working on techniques to “turn down” the emotional volume of memories or erase them completely.
Meanwhile, Medical News Today reported on new research indicating that previously overlooked glial cells — which support and protect neurons — are critical components of both learning and memory.
Hollywood’s influence can also have far-reaching impact for animal conservation. As noted by a recent paper published in Conservation Biology, films such as “Madagascar,” “Rio” and “Finding Dory” caused an uptick in viewer web research about specific animal species, while movies like “Jaws” are “strongly implicated as responsible for an increased awareness of sharks in the Western psyche.”
The result? Whether driving discussions about conservation or creating a widespread fear of shark attacks, the Conservation Biology paper makes the case that “providing opportunities for industry professionals to enhance audience awareness and encourage behavioral change…has the potential to be a very powerful tool.”
Roll Credits: Silver Screen Science
Hollywood doesn’t always get science right. Some of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were outlandish and impossible, while movies like “Gravity” feature problematic depictions of, well, gravity, as well as other physical forces. But movies can inspire both scientists and audiences to get involved — this could mean more funding, new research opportunities or conversations about animal conservation.
No matter the outcome, however, there’s no denying the impact of silver screen science on new research, discovery and innovation.
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