Reviewing Science On The Big Screen From sci-fi to documentaries, good science films tell the human story behind scientific ideas. Which films get the science right, and which don't? Physicist and movie critic Sidney Perkowitz runs through some of this summer's top science flicks.
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Reviewing Science On The Big Screen

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Reviewing Science On The Big Screen

Reviewing Science On The Big Screen

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Recognize that music? It's from a science fiction film. I hear it's a hard one to remember. You have to be pretty old to remember that one. Let me give you something that might be a little bit easier.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Day Earth Stood Still")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PATRICIA NEAL (Actor): (as Helen Benson): Gort, Klaatu barada nikto. Klaatu barada nikto

FLATOW: And if you don't know Klaatu barada nikto, you're not a science fiction fan. That was from "The Day Earth Stood Still." The first one, the really good one. Most science movie fans would recognize that alien language, I think. The first one, I'd have to say, was a little tougher. It's the theme music from "Metropolis." And that was a 1927 science fiction film that showed the technology - showed technology that was way ahead of it's time in that movie. And this is our way of kicking off this hour's theme, science in films.

And we're going to look at some of the old ones, like the two clips you've just heard, an three new films that you might want to catch this summer for your dose of science. So our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us @scifri. That's @scifri, talking about science in the films. And joining me now to talk about science movies is first guest, Sidney Perkowitz. He's the author of "Hollywood Science," and he's also a professor of physics at Emory University. He joins us from a studio on a campus. Thanks for being with us today Dr. Perkowitz.

Dr. SIDNEY PERKOWITZ (Emory University): My pleasure, Ira. And if you call me Sidney, that makes me happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay, Sid. Can I call you Sid?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PERKOWITZ: That's even better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Even better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay, Sid. I wondered, what was the first science fiction movie? Do you have the year on that, when the first one would have been?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: "Metropolis" is pretty old. But there are even some older ones. There was an earlier "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde" which kind of comes under that heading, which preceded "Metropolis" by several years. So turn of the century is about when it was happening, believe it or not.

FLATOW: Wasn't there that "Trip to the Moon," a very older movie that…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: And that was even older, in the 1890s…


Dr. PERKOWITZ: …by a French film maker. So, yes, it's an incredibly old genre.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, I'm going to bring in another clip. We talked about those other two clips. Those are two my favorite movies. But here, I saw a movie just this week that is a blockbuster, and it has to do with, sort of, modern science. And I want to bring a clip in from that film that we're going to talking about. And - let's go to hear that clip now.

(Soundbite of movie, "Angels and Demons")

Ms. AYELET ZURER (Actor): (as Vittoria Vetra) It's a way of studying the origins of the universe, to try to isolate what some people call the God particle. But they are implications for energy research.

Unidentified Man: The God particle?

Ms. AYELET ZURER (Actor): (as Vittoria Vetra) What we call it isn't important. It's what gives all matter mass, the thing without which we could not exist.

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (as Robert Langdon): You're talking about the moment of creation.

Ms. AYELET ZURER (Actor): (as Vittoria Vetra): Yes. You know what? I am.

FLATOW: There's that clip from "Angels and Demons," Tom Hanks talking with the scientist there about the God particle. That's a summer blockbuster about the destructive possibilities of a substance called antimatter. And they basically - the plot on this is a - it's a fictional thief steals antimatter from the real Hadron Collider at CERN - that's in Switzerland - and the characters race to stop a citywide explosion. With me now is Michael Tuts. He is the U.S. ATLAS Operations Program manager at CERN and professor of physics at Columbia University. Welcome to the SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor MICHAEL TUTS (Physics, Columbia University; U.S. ATLAS Operations Program manager, CERN): Did they get the science about the antimatter right in the film?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: They got it mostly right. That is to say if you look at the pieces, there is a CERN. There is laboratory like that. There is a large Hadron Collider and accelerator. And in that accelerator, in the experiments, we will make antimatter.

FLATOW: Can you put in a bottle like they did?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: No. We don't have that bottle to put it in, and the other thing is that it would take a very long time to accumulate as much as they actually had there.

FLATOW: They did make - they did say they had a breakthrough in making that much antimatter. You'd need some breakthrough.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: You would, and we haven't seen that breakthrough.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. So you're not going to transport it around the world like they do in a bottle.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: No. Again, in principle, you could imagine some kind of bottle to capture the antimatter, but you wouldn't be able to imagine it in such a -that little small container that they have.

FLATOW: She also talked about the God particle. What was she talking about?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: So, the God particle really refers to what's known as the Higgs particle. And it's the Higgs particle that, as they alluded to in the movie, that gives all the elementary particles their mass, and its responsible for the mass of all the elementary particles. And so, indeed, it's something that we are looking for and that the experiments that the LHC will look for.

FLATOW: Sidney Perkowitz, putting real science like that in a movie seems to be more of a trend these days, getting some real good science in some of these movies.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: In fact, some directors feel that audiences are really sophisticated about science, and they want at least a little dose of it, and fairly well done, too. So, yes, I'd say it is a trend.

FLATOW: Yeah. And the fact that they use real pictures from the Large Hadron Collider, Michael. That was the real thing, right?

Prof. TUTS: Yup. That was the real thing, and so for me, the first five minutes of the movie were the best. That was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, the last five minutes - I'm not going to give away the end. But the last five minutes had the scientist, the female scientist, in - sort of questioning whether she should a scientist anymore.

Prof. TUTS: Yeah, that's true.

FLATOW: Do you find that to be realistic?

Prof. TUTS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TUTS: I haven't had those doubts. The only other thing that isn't realistic is that they showed all these particle physicists wearing white lab coats. I've never seen…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that.

Prof. TUTS: I've never seen a particle physicist wear a lab coat.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Never. Never. I've worked at some big installations, too, and it's something you never, ever see.

FLATOW: Well, Sidney, that's how things have changed in the films, from the, you know, pre-World War II and that era where we had the mad scientist and his white lab coat. We're not seeing that at all, and we're seeing these young guys, where the old mad scientists are these old wiry haired things.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: And, yeah, they still have the white lab coats, but they're generally better looking and some of them are even sexy. So that's a big change.

FLATOW: I guess, who be the first sexy - Jeff Goldblum, maybe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Jeff Goldblum, right. Right. He was pretty aggressive and even attractive in the "Jurassic Park" series.

FLATOW: And in the "The Fly."

Prof. TUTS: "The Fly."

Dr. PERKOWITZ: And in "The Fly" - well, before "The Fly" hit. After that, he was not such a good looking guy.

FLATOW: He even played James Watson in an old flick about…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: That's right.

FLATOW: And James Watson didn't think he was sexy enough for him…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …when I asked him about whether he was a sexy enough scientist. So…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: So we'll have to all start worrying about who's going to play us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I'm are going to talk about a movie - a documentary later called "Blast," where it's - there were real scientists in this, and none of them are wearing any kind of lab coats. They're mostly graduate students and college students in there.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: That's right.

FLATOW: Yeah. So you're - what did you think of the movie? You said after the first five minutes, it lost a lot of its science.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: It did. But - so, I mean, I thought it was a good adventure movie. So, I don't know. I give it a B, or something like that.

FLATOW: Sid, would you give it a pretty good rating for science in the film?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: The science wasn't too bad. It confused some things, I think, like antimatter and the God particle and so on, but these are mere details. Just having CERN mentioned - and another thought that crossed my mind, Ira, was when they showed the idea of particles going down all the piping in CERN, how beautiful it would be if we could actually have a teaching film that used all that technology to give a great visual representation.

FLATOW: That's a great idea. Yeah.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: That would be a great medium for teaching.

FLATOW: Yeah. It really personalized and popularized that whole place, didn't it?


FLATOW: And the whole idea of looking for - of doing physics, and that these were real people doing the physics there. And that was kind of exciting. Well…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: You can do physics and see all of Rome and solve a mystery. Quite a combination. (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All in two hours and 14 minutes, or…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: It's only going to take us 20 years of running to (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, but the good news is that people now learn more, probably from this movie, wouldn't you think? More people will know about CERN and that collider than any other thing.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Absolutely. I think it's tremendous, right, because it raises the excitement - people, kids look about it and they'll think wow. Does that thing really exist? Is this laboratory there? And then the answer is yeah, it's there.

FLATOW: And when they hear it up and running sometime later this year - it's going to get up and running.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: We hope by the end of year - it had an accident when it started off last September, but it's getting ready, and we hope that by the end of the year, it'll be up and running. And so we hope again that that excitement will be generated again.

FLATOW: Sid, when you talk to scientists, do they try to shy away from being the subject or to talk about science in movies?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Yes, you know, there's an old tradition, which is partly true and partly not so true, that journalism and the media never represent science right, and a lot of scientists do get uptight about that.

So you'll find a certain hard core, which will reject a whole movie if there's even one scientific mistake in it, but a younger scientist and more relaxed. And our attitude is you're allowed a little suspension of disbelief, as long as you have a good movie and get a lot of the science right.

FLATOW: Which we talked about some of the old movies. Do you have a favorite old science movie of yours?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Oh, "Metropolis," head and shoulders is just a winner, and "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The two that you mentioned were great choices.

FLATOW: I like the original "War of the Worlds," too, myself.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: That was also quite good and, in my opinion, better than the later "War of the Worlds."

FLATOW: Blech.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Yeah, it sounds like you agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What was interesting about the first one is that there was a real scientist who was a hero. There was a scientist who was a hero of that movie, you know?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Yes. He used his knowledge to try to stop the Martians. I mean, how could a scientist be more heroic than that?

FLATOW: Yeah, and then they had to take that away from a scientist in the second one and just give it to someone who was not a scientist. So…

Dr. PERKOWITZ: It made it a human story, which has its good points, but they sure drained all of the science out of the second version.

FLATOW: Yeah. And in fact, you couldn't - I don't think you could understand what happened in that second one, why the Martians died in the end of that movie.


FLATOW: Right, right if you hadn't seen the first movie?

Mr. TUTS: That's right.

FLATOW: If you hadn't seen that first movie, you would not have known why the Martians died. So maybe someone will come up with a third version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Because look, they did the second "The Day the Earth Stood Still." That second version was awful, right?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Agreed, agreed.

Mr. TUTS: Right.

FLATOW: I mean, it was such a small film, the first film, such a beautiful first film, such a film with dialogue, and what, the second movie is all just action.

Mr. TUTS: Yeah, I mean exactly right. It's all action. Well, it's a typical day in the life of a physicist, so…

FLATOW: You agree, Sid?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Oh yes, I totally agree. That's what we do all day. After you get the Ph.D., you get CIA training, and then you're off and running.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for joining us this hour. Sid, you're going to stay with us, but I want to thank you, Michael, for coming down from Columbia. And we'll wait to see them get this thing going, right, get her in the air?

Mr. TUTS: Yeah, I hope that…

FLATOW: Do we have a time that - a date?

Mr. TUTS: Well, it's going to be in the fall. There isn't an exact date yet because it's still a little complicated about getting the repairs done. But by the end of the year I hope someone will be on your show talking about it.

FLATOW: Well, we hope so, too. Well, thank you very much for taking time to come down to visit us. Michael Tuts is a U.S. ATLAS operations program manager at CERN and professor of physics at Columbia University.

We're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to talk lots more about movies. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can Twitter us @scifri. We're going to talk about the documentary film "Blast!," about scientists, graduate students, sort of amateur engineers putting together a telescope that gets launched way up there in the atmosphere looking for the origins of the universe, and also come back and talk about a science-fiction movie called "Sleep Dealers." So stay with us, lots to talk about. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're going to talk about science in the films this hour. Next up is a documentary film that chronicled the journey of a team of researchers trying to launch a high-powered telescope into the upper journey, the upper atmosphere, not as a satellite, but this is using the old-fashioned method and the cheaper method, as we learn, a giant helium balloon. And the telescope is going to take some very old pictures of some very old light, light that's been trapped in the dust of stars since creation.

And it's a very, very interesting story. And the film is called "Blast!," and it's named after the name of the telescope. And joining us to talk about this film is director Paul Devlin and his brother, Mark, astrophysicist professor at Pennsylvania State University, and both Paul and Mark join us in our studios here today in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. PAUL DEVLIN (Director, "Blast!"): Thanks very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Why did you make this movie? You have a lot of other documentary films.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah, I've done quite a few documentaries. This is Paul, the filmmaker. And I got into the film basically at the invitation of my brother, the astrophysicist at University of Pennsylvania, and he was dropping me off at the train station one day, and he says I'm going to Sweden to launch my telescope on a balloon in a few weeks. You want to join me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: And I looked at him, and I said, no, not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: See you later.

Mr. DEVLIN: But then I thought about it, and I said hey, well, you know, if you can get me a free flight and put me up, then all right, yeah, I'll come to Sweden. And I'll spend a few days documenting the launch and getting it on tape, and we can, you know, see what happens with it. We'll put it on the Web site or use it in a talk or something like that.

I expected to spend four or five days. I wound up spending four or five weeks, because the project was delayed by technical problems and weather delays. So while I was there waiting for the launch, I started getting into this story about what they were going through and the obstacles they had to overcome, the tensions that were happening, and I realized that hey, there's a good story here.

FLATOW: There's a real, personal story here.

Mr. DEVLIN: Exactly, so - and I had nothing to do but shoot. So I just put my camera in their face all the time and got some interesting characters and narratives that emerged. And so from there, once, you know, we don't want to spoil the end of the movie, but they had quite a few disasters that happened along the way that enlarged the picture.

FLATOW: Well Mark, did you have trouble with your brother hanging out with you and watching you do all this stuff?

Dr. MARK DEVLIN (University of Pennsylvania): I like my brother, but you know, it's a bit much to have somebody putting a camera in your face all the time. And as he said, I was the - I'm the principal investigator of the experiment, and he felt like all my students had to let him talk to them, but I think eventually they warmed up to the whole idea of having somebody there. And as he says, you know, once somebody's there all the time, you just get used to them.

FLATOW: Right. This is actually a story where fact is stranger than fiction. I mean, what you went through, the trials and tribulations of the first failure, the first flight, and then the second and what happened on the second flight, you know, the personal experience that went on there - you could not have written a better script, could you?

Dr. DEVLIN: I gave a talk last night, where, after we showed the movie, and I said well, you know, it could have worked the first time. It would have been great for me. It would've been horrible for the movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: Yes, so they had quite a few disasters. They start in arctic Sweden, and they have to launch the telescope on a balloon to the top of the atmosphere, and it just travels on the wind to arctic Canada. And they drop in polar-bear country sort of randomly and have to go and find it. And that process, you know, they had a lot of disasters that the telescope, you know, had some problems.

So they had to do that all over again in Antarctica, and so that's where I realized I sort of had an epic story. And we followed it for two-and-a-half-years.

FLATOW: And you passed the dental test.

Dr. DEVLIN: Passed the dental test, passed all those tests.

FLATOW: I remember I went there 30 years ago, and the dental test was still the biggest part, the worry that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DEVLIN: You've got to be healthy to go to Antarctica.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah, actually, I had to have a tooth removed before I could…

FLATOW: Is that right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's a very unforgiving place, you learn. You can't make very many mistakes.

Mr. DEVLIN: They say it's a harsh continent.

FLATOW: And it's the driest place on Earth. So how widespread can we see this movie? Where is it being shown?

Mr. DEVLIN: Well, we just released it in New York City theatrically. And before that, we were at the Imagine Science Film Festival here in New York, and we got great reviews in Variety and New York Times, and so now we're taking it out across the country. We've got invitations from independent theaters in San Francisco and Virginia and Minneapolis, and we're approaching more.

So we also want to take it out - as an independent, we have to look for innovative ways to get this film out since we can't really compete in the multiplexes. So we're talking to museums and planetariums, universities and schools. And so we expect it to get quite a bit of exposure over the next few weeks and months.

Also we have on our Web site,, we have a place where there's a map, where people can have screening requests. And we're looking at getting people involved who may not have a venue close to them but still want to see the movie. And we're talking about organizing house parties and special events to screen it because we really want to get this - in addition to getting the DVD - eventually to schools and even high schools. Because we really want to get people excited about science because we think the adventure element brings in the general audience. And in New York, we found that whole families were showing up to the film, and the kids were participating enthusiastically in the Q&As.

So we didn't really realize that we had a kids' film until we started taking it out. So we're really excited about bringing it out to the general public and having people come to us and have screenings all over the country.

FLATOW: Sid Perkowitz is also with us. He's author of "Hollywood Science." He's a professor of physics at Emory University. Sidney, you got any chance to see this film?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Yes, I did see it. I enjoyed it a lot. I want to say hello to Mark Devlin because I'm a Penn graduate, Mark. I got my Ph.D. there.

Dr. DEVLIN: How long ago?

Dr. PERKOWITZ: It was really - oh, I don't want to tell you that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PERKOWITZ: We didn't overlap. It was great to see some scenes of the Penn campus in the film.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah, those buildings are still there.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Rittenhouse Lab is still there.

Dr. DEVLIN: Oh yeah.

Dr. PERKOWITZ: Yeah. What this film showed is what the life of a scientist can be like. We don't all go to Antarctica, but mostly when you do an experiment, it doesn't work. It's harder when you're on a NASA timetable, and you have something as delicate as launching a balloon, but the basic idea applies to every scientist.

So scientists, I think, really appreciate this film. I also like the presence of all the grad students, and Mark, it was great that one of your students was a woman. I think that's a great message to send.

I would have loved to see a story on one of the grad students, what the failure of the experiment might have meant to one of them because it has different implications than it has for the principal investigator. And that maybe could be a follow-up kind of story, too, but all in all, I think it was very well done, sends the kind of message we need to send out.

FLATOW: There could have been little films about everybody in this movie.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah, there's a lot of threads. In fact, The Onion gave us one review and said there are six documentaries in here. You know, there was quite a few things that - some real depth there.

FLATOW: And there's also an interesting thread - we talked about earlier in the hour about "Angels and Demons," the science-and-religion thread in there - and there was a great, large science-and-religion thread, Mark, in your film about one of the scientists trying to convince - was it you, trying to convince you - that there was a God behind finding something very important that they were looking for.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah, that's true. Barton Etterfield(ph), who is my comrade-in-arms in making the whole experiment work, is a devout Christian. And he believes, and he, you know, prayed to make sure that it all would work out, and he was - when it looked like it wasn't going to happen, he was despaired. And then it all worked out in the end, and you know, you've got to give him credit. I mean, it seemed like, from his point of view, it all had divine intervention.

FLATOW: But I would imagine a lot of scientists must not have liked that part of the movie.

Dr. DEVLIN: There are - my brother and I have coined a term, which is probably not new, called scientific fundamentalism, where we have a lot of scientists who see it are so offended by the idea that one of their own, so to speak, has these beliefs that they hate it. And they hate it so much, that they say the whole, entire movie is about religion. And in fact it's very - it's just a tiny thread in the movie.

FLATOW: It is a tiny - and to me that's a strength of the film, I think.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah, and we - you know, we get a lot of compliments for that. We get a lot of compliments for - Paul had access to my family, and so he's in my house with his camera in my kids' faces. But it shows, you know, what is - the personal aspect of doing this. And Bart has his personal beliefs, and it would be a mistake not to show that.

FLATOW: When you were editing the film, did you think about cutting any parts out or leaving them in, or…?

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah, I mean, that's part of the process of editing. But I was definitely interested in drawing in a general audience, and so those elements are very accessible to a general audience. I mean, a lot of people who are not familiar with science find they can really relate to Bart's point of view, and they can relate to Mark's struggles with being separated from his family.

So for me, drawing in those people is very important. And the interesting thing about Bart is I don't think - you know, he's managed to reconcile his scientific pursuit with his religious beliefs, and I don't think there's, you know, you can't really identify a conflict.

FLATOW: I think that came through. I think he was not conflicted about what he was studying. There was no conflict between his religion and what he was studying.

Mr. DEVLIN: No, in fact he felt that what he was studying enhanced his religion.

FLATOW: Yes. But it was interesting, he's trying to convert you to…

Dr. DEVLIN: He actually doesn't really go around proselytizing to all the students or anything. He pretty much keeps it to himself unless you ask him about it, in which case he's more than willing to spend a long time telling you about it.

Mr. DEVLIN: And as a filmmaker, I was certainly going to ask him about it.

FLATOW: Absolutely. We're talking about - the film we're talking about is "Blast!" It's a film that features Paul Devlin - is made by Paul Devlin and featuring his brother, Mark Devlin, and - oh, that's the other thing, and I think Sid pointed this out correctly, is that you have no idea the team of people who are behind a project like this. And as you say in the movie, these are amateur engineers. They're building stuff, like out of Tinker Toy stuff, and they have no experience.

Mr. DEVLIN: Mark may object to that characterization.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DEVLIN: Did you call me an amateur?

FLATOW: Well, I saw the film. When the duct tape came out…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: There is duct tape going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: There's a lot of stuff - how do you get training to learn how to build that object?

Dr. DEVLIN: You know…

FLATOW: Is it designed? Somebody has a blueprint and you make and you put it together? How does it work?

Dr. DEVLIN: No, it's 50-50. I mean, we start with a napkin and you start drawing and you start making rough calculations about what you need.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DEVLIN: And then you just start building it around it. And when you need professional help, you call them in. And - but for the most part, we do it all ourselves.

FLATOW: And it's learning on the job.

Dr. DEVLIN: Learning on the job. I mean, I learned all my engineering skills just on the job, you know? Bought a copy of AutoCAD, which is a design layout program, and just taught myself and then started drawing.

Mr. DEVLIN: But the interesting thing is you're teaching the graduate students.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah. The grad students go off, and they're in high demand because they learn - the students who do this kind of work, they learn the engineering, they learn the physics, they learn analysis, they learn how to program, they learn electronics. And so, when they go into a job market, they can now say, I know how to do everything. I may not be an expert at everything, but certainly I can learn. That's…

FLATOW: And it's doing science on the cheap, right?

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: It's cheaper.

Dr. DEVLIN: Relative. All relative.

Mr. DEVLIN: Compared to a satellite, maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Sid, do you agree that the strength of the movie watching all those kids there?

Mr. PERKOWITZ: Absolutely. And it is the way it's done. When you're a graduate student, you learn the skills you have to to make the experiment work. And as Mark said, often those skills will apply across the board in all kinds of engineering and technical applications. I'd like to make one more comment…


Mr. PERKOWITZ: …about the film, if I may. If you look at the credits at the end, I was delighted to see that there's a credit for a science writer. That's not something you'll ever see in a mainstream fiction film. But there was someone who apparently help make the science understandable as possible to a general audience. I think that was a great feature of that documentary and of many documentaries.

Dr. DEVLIN: Thanks. That was Emily Kagan. She…


Dr. DEVLIN: …did a great job. We had some really talented people working. Richard Martinez did amazing work with the music. But that was very important for us to make…

FLATOW: (Unintelligible).

Dr. DEVLIN: …the science accessible.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DEVLIN: It absolutely…

FLATOW: You know, it's not…

Dr. DEVLIN: It absolutely…

Mr. DEVLIN: Of course, Mark understands a science, but you need someone who has real experience in making sure it's at the right level for the audience.

Dr. DEVLIN: Paul and I struggle with that quite a bit because I would - I just screwed it up. I would - he would ask me, and I would give him a very long technical description. And just - that's just not going to work for movie like this.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Did you have to do takes over and over again?

Mr. DEVLIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: Not - you know, in the field, I mean, it's a documentary.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DEVLIN: So I mean, it's not like you can say, okay, launch that balloon again, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DEVLIN: But when it came to descriptions of science, we insisted that Mark do it in a way that that would be understandable for a general audience. And I think as a result of that, he's getting better and better…


Mr. DEVLIN: …would you say, Mark?

Dr. DEVLIN: Oh, no. And I use those techniques in teaching my astronomy students now.

FLATOW: And the graphics were excellent also.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah. Those - a lot of those came directly from NASA. And we - at first, we thought we weren't going to be able to do a lot of that because the budgets were too high when we started sourcing it out. And so, we just stole stuff off of YouTube and put it in the cut, just to…

FLATOW: As a placeholder.

Mr. DEVLIN: As a placeholder. And then we said - some of this stuff is perfect. Where is this coming from? And we went back and looked. And it came from NASA, and it turned out that NASA's graphics are public domain and free off the Web site.

FLATOW: Yeah. That helps a lot.

Mr. DEVLIN: So our budget for graphics went from hundreds of thousands down to zero. You know, we had very high end stuff in that.

FLATOW: I believe it. We're talking about science in movies this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm here talking with Paul Devlin and his brother, Mark, talking about the movie "Blast!" And at the end of the movie, you sort of hint at a next step. There's another astronomy project going on. Are you going to be documenting that at all?

Mr. DEVLIN: Well, we'll see, you know? I mean, see what funding we get for the next project, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: It's all about funding. But I mean, Mark's got several going at once. I mean, that's part of the way he maintains his infrastructure, I believe. So we wanted to say that this is - it's not just one thing. It's an ongoing process.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you, where do you go from here with this research?

Dr. DEVLIN: Well, this research, we just published eight papers with eight more coming, science papers on the results from the flight, which is just amazing to me. It's actually more papers in the last year than I published in the last 10 years. So…

Mr. DEVLIN: And one of them was in "Nature" and got quite a bit of attention, BBC News, front page of Philadelphia Inquirer. So…

Dr. DEVLIN: Right.

FLATOW: And you said the real work begins now because there's so much data.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah. Well, that was two years ago.

FLATOW: Yeah. Wow.

Mr. DEVLIN: So we're now wrapping that up now. I mean, I'd like to divest myself of this work and move on to something else.


Mr. DEVLIN: And so, we're - I have several different things in the fire right now. The one that's in Chile, which is…

FLATOW: That's a ground base.

Mr. DEVLIN: Yeah, nice on the ground occasionally. It's nice to be there. And that one's a - doing cosmic ray background work. And I have another balloon experiment.

FLATOW: I was going say, would you do this…

Mr. DEVLIN: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: What have you learned that you would apply to the next balloon?

Mr. DEVLIN: Oh, boy. I would - one would spoil the movie, which is…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DEVLIN: Can't spoil too many surprises.

Mr. DEVLIN: But there are a little - a couple few steps that you would take that would be really easy to make sure you get your data back. And the other is really how to work with the students and the post docs as the principal investigator in the experiment. So it's a modest size experiment, only 20 or so people involved. But managing all that and getting it done and not killing yourself is a skill that has to be acquired. And I've learned that so it seems easier to me to go and start again.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And where can we see the movie now?

Mr. DEVLIN: Well, let's see, we're starting to book in independent theaters across the country.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DEVLIN: So, you know - at the moment - we just played in Columbia last night. And we expect to have other university screenings coming up. So it's also - check out the Web site,, and there will be screenings…

FLATOW: Have you made any return on your investment on this?

Mr. DEVLIN: Well, you know, that's - depends how define return and investment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: The thing is, the movie has been doing spectacularly well in Europe. We got co-production with the BBC. It's played in Sweden and Denmark and Netherlands, Al Jazeera's bought it, Discovery Canada. We've had a little trouble in the United States. Frankly, there's been some resistance. So we're still trying to place the movie on television here. And I think that there's some resistance in the mainstream to pure science. And then we had - like we said, we had a little bit of resistance in the science community to the religion. So we're walking a very narrow path.

Dr. DEVLIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: This is going to get big virally soon, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEVLIN: Right. Exactly.

FLATOW: And there is a great thirst for science films out there.

Mr. DEVLIN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, we hope. I mean, our intention - my intention originally was not to necessarily make a, you know, pure science film, but really about the scientist…

FLATOW: Yeah, it is.

Mr. DEVLIN: …because that had not been seen before. And I had the access, so I was really interested in that element. And I think that's going to emerge as it gets seen more and more that people really have a thirst for seeing what scientists are really doing.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you. The film "Blast!" is terrific. I recommend you go out and see it and try to, you know, get others to see it. Paul Devlin and his brother, Mark Devlin. Mark is the astrophysicist, professor at Pennsylvania University and he's the star - one of the stars of "Blast!" And Paul Devlin is the director of the film. Thank you both for taking time…

Mr. DEVLIN: Thanks.

Dr. DEVLIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: …to be with us today. We're going to take a short break and continue our theme of science in the movies, and we're going to talk about a science fiction film called "Sleep Dealer." And we're going to be talking with Alex Rivera, who's the writer and director of "Sleep Dealer," really interesting look into the future that's really quite plausible when you think about where the Internet is heading and this is sort of a movie about that. So, stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about science in films and it's science-oriented summery films you might want to find at your local theaters. We've been talking - the last film we talked about was a documentary. The next one we're going to be talking about is a science fiction film that's set in the near future in Mexico, it's called "Sleep Dealer." And it really takes us to a world where instead of showing up at a construction site - let's say you're a worker, you don't go to a construction site.

You commute to something called a sleep dealer factory and you work on a construction site remotely. You have to go there via sort of a futuristic Internet world where you can work anywhere in the world and you're hooked up remotely. Here to tell us more about it is the, well, the guy who's - is the director - the writer and the director of "Sleep Dealer," Alex Rivera, and he joins us here in our studio. Thanks for being with us, Alex.

Mr. ALEX RIVERA (Writer-Director, "Sleep Dealer"): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Good to see you again. This idea that you can work remotely as a sleep dealer, how did that idea come about?

Mr. RIVERA: Well, about 10 years ago, I was reading a - an article in "Wired" magazine that talked about telecommuting and this idea that in the future everybody could work from home. There'd be no traffic jams. There'd be no people on subways because we'd all be working from home. Well, half of my family is immigrants, people who came from Latin America to work here in the United States in construction, in landscaping. And I had this moment where it started - my brain started to wonder about a future in which they could telecommute. And this image came to me…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIVERA: …of a world where maybe the border is sealed and instead of crossing the border physically, workers in this near future would connect their bodies to a kind of network and control the machine that does their labor in America so that their energy, their labor arrives here to this country, but their bodies stay out. And when I came up with this idea about a decade ago, it was a metaphor. It was a joke. It was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIVERA: …you know, it was just a way of kind of criticizing in a sense the anti-immigrant politics in this country, where there's 14 million undocumented people here that are working, that rent apartments…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIVERA: …that buy goods. But that there's always this kind of noise to throw them out.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RIVERA: And so there's sense of being here but not here. That political critique created this metaphor and this image that - this fantasy that my project started with.

FLATOW: How would you know that this could come true…

Mr. RIVERA: Well, I…

FLATOW: …you know, in the Internet, right?

Mr. RIVERA: Yes. I mean…

FLATOW: Pre-Internet days.

Mr. RIVERA: Mm-hmm. Yeah. This was - when I came up with the idea, we were all on dial up, you know? And people were fantasizing about telecommuting and virtual reality. And then around 2000, 2001, we started to see in the news articles about outsourcing, right?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIVERA: And this idea that companies were hiring people in India over the net. And so there's this - they started to talk about this wave of workers who were on the other side of the planet but working live in America.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RIVERA: And then I started to scratch my head and say, wait a second, maybe this isn't a joke. Maybe this is where globalization is going.

FLATOW: Yeah. Also with us is Sidney Perkowitz, who is author of "Hollywood Science." He's also a professor of physics at Emory. Sidney, it's amazing how reality catches up with (unintelligible).

Prof. PERKOWITZ: And, in fact, it's even more real than Alex was indicating because there's been a lot of work done in the last five or 10 years about direct neural connections that let people operate devices outside their bodies. So this is reality. I mean, I thought "Sleep Dealer" was science fiction in the finest tradition. It took an existing trend and extended it in an extremely believable way. So it really works at that level.

FLATOW: It really is believable. I myself, when I saw it - and it doesn't take a whole big quantum leap…

Prof. PERKOWITZ: Right.

FLATOW: …in imagination.

Prof. PERKOWITZ: Yeah. Right. We can be there in 15 or 20 years or less.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIVERA: Yeah. And for me, I mean that's not necessarily okay, you know?

FLATOW: I know.

Mr. RIVERA: (unintelligible)

FLATOW: Exactly right.

Prof. PERKOWITZ: That's a whole other side of it, right.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's talk about that side.

Prof. PERKOWITZ: There's a political side to it too.

FLATOW: Yeah. Go ahead, Alex. Talk about that.

Mr. RIVERA: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I think when we see this whole question of outsourcing and the idea that this world connected, which for, you know, for us in our daily lives, it enables Facebook, this thing called Twittering, which I still don't understand, and this sense of being connected around the globe socially. Well, for corporations, they're able to use that connectivity to hunt for cheaper and cheaper workers in more distant corners of the planet. And right now, you know, we - 30 years ago, we became accustomed to factories moving around the planet and using systems of transportation to send goods to American markets.

About 10 years, we became accustomed to this outsourcing/offshoring thing in call centers in India. That process isn't over. So, what's next? And in "Sleep Dealer," it puts for us this vision of what's next. What if you got in a taxi in New York and it was being driven by somebody in Pakistan, somebody in -halfway around the world? And what kind of a city would that create? What kind of an America…


Mr. RIVERA: …would that be if globalization was taken to this slightly - you know, taken to its logical conclusion, this idea of a totally connected, totally free market.

FLATOW: And you also had the sleep dealers were working for next to nothing also, right? I mean, they weren't getting paid very well either, even though they're working on these - for example, a construction site where if you were at the site, you might be making some real money.

Mr. RIVERA: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Because you're not at the site, you're working a robot that's building something.

Mr. RIVERA: Exactly right. And in the film, the vision is of - the story follows a young man, a young boy from southern Mexico who leaves his village and ends up in the city. But instead of coming to America, he ends up in the city, sort of in Mexico trapped on the other side of a border wall.

And he goes into this factory where he finds himself - he discovers that he's working on a top of a skyscraper under construction. And next to him are these other machines being controlled by other people. One might be in China, one might be in Malaysia, one might be in Brazil. And so he's in this workforce where he's never able to even know who his coworkers are, you know? And so, it's his vision of - that's slightly comedic...


Mr. RIVERA: ...but a portrait of a totally alienated, you know, person.

FLATOW: And you might also be fighting wars that way, right? You talked - you show the military side of it.

Mr. RIVERA: Yeah. "Sleep Dealer" looks at three characters. And to me, that was one of the fun parts of developing the story, was looking at the future from all of these angles through these different characters. And so we got that near future worker that we've talked about. One of the other characters is a near future soldier who is fighting wars from America but over the Net. He's controlling a thing called a drone, which I...

FLATOW: Gee, what a concept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIVERA: Exactly.

FLATOW: Ten years ago - who would ever have those thing, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIVERA: Exactly. I mean, when - you know, and I was reading about these drones and saying 10 years ago they were out there, but it was a subplot to the American military, right? And now it's center stage. This past month there's been a lot of noise about drones. I mean, it's hard to talk about in a conversation about science fiction because it's a painful reality from today, but drones killing innocent people in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. And so, that's - in my science fiction that's one of the characters, a drone pilot who is fighting this kind of remote war. And he's kind of a mirror image to the remote worker.

FLATOW: It's hard to sell this as a science fiction movie…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …Right, Sid? I mean, it's...

Prof. PERKOWITZ: (Unintelligible) right. It's a science movie, just about. Yeah.

Mr. RIVERA: I think...

Prof. PERKOWITZ: It's really happening. But you know, the political commentary is a really important part of it. And you make the point in different ways. There's one brief snaps of conversation, one of the workers isn't even sure what city he's in. That's how isolated they are in the factory. All of that comes through loud and clear. The factory foreman and says the U.S. wants our work but doesn't want our workers. So that part of it is quite a strong thread in the story.

FLATOW: And would you - do you think you would have trouble pitching it today, pitching this movie today?

Mr. RIVERA: Well, it would have to be described as period piece, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIVERA: It's not a - you know, if we started the movie today, by the time it came out, it might be a period piece and not a science fiction. But you know, I'm definitely hoping to make a sequel, so...

FLATOW: Yeah. Where's it playing now? Where can we see it?

Mr. RIVERA: Well, right now I believe it's in Seattle. I believe it's in San Diego. It's kind of been hard to keep track. It's been moving around the country kind of quickly. The most reliable thing for people to do is look to the Web sites,, and it's on Netflix. The DVD will come out, so look for it on DVD.

FLATOW: One of the most fascinating futuristic aspects of your film is what you thought blogging would look like in the future. But it was a whole - much more personal. Tell us what your blogger does in the movie.

Mr. RIVERA: Well, that's of course the third main character in the film, is a woman named Luz. And in this future, which is a future of technology connecting distant points on the globe but borders dividing countries and dividing north and south, her role is as a writer, a blogger of the future.

And instead of using a keyboard and a mouse to input her words like bloggers do today, she connects her body directly to the network and she uploads her memories. And she sells them the way a journalist would sell a story, a stringer would write a story and sell it. That's what she does. But her - she does it straight out of her nervous system and she shares her memories.

And so, the story follows her. When she meets the main character, she uploads a memory of meeting him and somebody out there buys it and pays in advance for more memories. And so she's got this motivation to learn more about the main character, kind of pursue him, and that ends up creating all kinds of conflicts around her.

But the technology, the idea of recording memories is something that I think that a lot of science fiction films have experimented with and is also about to happen. I mean, I've been reading a lot about technology in Japan, this machine called the dream machine that they've got actually up and running where you put your head in it and they show you images in front of your eyes and then they can scan - I think it's the visual cortex of your brain...


Mr. RIVERA: ...and on a TV monitor, show a rough image of what you're seeing with your eyes. And so this idea that in the future, the camera would disappear and it would really be our eyes that pick up the images and they would be able to share them the way we share photographs today - well, I believe that's where this process of innovation and image capturing and image sharing, that's where it's going.

FLATOW: Well, you're also ahead of your time in figuring out how to make money on the Internet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The fictional part - that's interesting. Sidney, I know you want to say something. Go ahead.

Prof. PERKOWITZ: There was one really scary part, speaking as a writer, about how Luz blogged on her computer, because at a couple of points. when she faltered a little bit, the computer told her how to do her thinking and her writing. It said simplify things. So she, to some extent, was being directed by the software. And again, speaking as a writer, I thought that was the scariest part of the whole scenario.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIVERA: Well, yeah, the idea being that, you know, if we're connected - if this character is connected to the network and uploading her memories, maybe there would be something like a lie detector in there. And a client...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RIVERA: ...would pay for a story that was verified as being truthful. And what it really did was create a character out of her computer. So her computer can interrupt her and say, come on, tell me the truth. You know you're straying. That's not the whole story.


Mr. RIVERA: And so let the computer become a character.

FLATOW: There's another great theme in here that - how people can connect to each other's nodes, right, to get to know each other better.

Mr. RIVERA: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: The whole body gets in there, right?

Mr. RIVERA: Exactly. There's one scene in which my main characters make love. And I watched a lot of science fictions, and you've seen time and again people sticking cables in their body. We saw it in the "Matrix." We've seen it in "Johnny Mnemonic."

We see it in many science fiction films, people connect - eXistenZ by Cronenberg. I'd never seen a love scene, though, where the characters connect. And so this is maybe a - not necessarily a scientific impulse, but one to have fun with the genre…


Mr. RIVERA: …to help make characters making love and plugging in in multiple ways.

FLATOW: We're talking about science in film this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Alex Rivera, author - writer and director of "Sleep Dealer." I say this is a great film. And I think it's really more science than science fiction.

And - getting back to the characters connecting and making love by computer, if you talk to - if you talk to, as I have on our program, to the next generation of videogame makers, this is what's going to be happening…

Mr. RIVERA: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: …you know, in the next generation of videogames, you know? It's all about this sort of stuff going on here.

Mr. RIVERA: Yeah.

FLATOW: So - and people talk to each other in videogames now at home, so I imagine that's where we're headed.

Mr. RIVERA: Yeah. You know, I mean, that's exactly the process of "Sleep Dealers," imagining this hyper-connectivity. And we can see it marching forward so quickly. We - I think a lot of people who are interested in science know Moore's law, the idea that computers double in speed every, I think, year more or less.

Well, the sense of connectivity, transmission that we can hear each other, see each other over great distances in more profound ways more and more as every day goes by, well, "Sleep Dealer" takes that as a given and imagines a hyper connected world, but then looks at that from a point of view we've never seen before, across borders, looking at it from a point of view of a worker in Latin America, a soldier in North America and this blogger/writer character who kind of ties them all together.

And but, you know, so the process is really fun and challenging to try to think about this connected world from many different points of view.

FLATOW: Sid, do you have any reaction to that?

Prof. PERKOWITZ: That is the strength of the film as I keep saying in different ways. It brings out the human aspect of what this connectivity means from the viewpoint of globalization and also from the viewpoint of person-to-person contact - really couldn't be a stronger human story in all the ways that matter, in my opinion.

Mr. RIVERA: And for me, one of the things - in terms of looking at science fiction, too, I had never seen a film in all my years of watching science fiction that looked at the future from the point of view of the South. We've seen…


Mr. RIVERA: …Los Angeles. We have seen Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, London. We have never seen Jakarta, or we've never seen Sao Paulo, or we've never seen Mexico City, even though it's so patently obvious that the whole planet is going to the future. We're all going there together.

But in science fiction cinema, I'd never seen the future from the point of view of the South, and that also became a really exciting part of my process, was to try to intervene in the genre and try to do something really new with it.

FLATOW: Are you hooked on science fiction now? You going to make another film? You say the sequel - a sequel is coming.

Mr. RIVERA: Yeah. I mean, I love the genre because it lets me do what I - what I'm really passionate about. I studied political theory in college, you know? I didn't study film. And science fiction, whether we see it or feel it or not, it's always about development, economics, politics.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RIVERA: That's always underneath the surface. Whenever you start to paint the picture of the future, you're painting a vision of development and how this journey, economic and political journey that we're all on together, unfolds.

And so I love science fiction because it let's us take a glimpse into the world that we're building, you know? And - but that being said, I'm also really tired, and I want to do a film that's easier to make for my next project. So, I'm trying to do either a documentary or a true story, because…

FLATOW: Well, why was this so hard to make, "Sleep Dealer?"

Mr. RIVERA: It was hard to make, A) because when you start to talk about the future, every question is open…


Mr. RIVERA: …so for example, on set the wardrobe department would bring me -bring me this crazy, like, S&M outfits. People - do people wear this in the bar in the future?

No, no, no. People wearing blue jeans in the future - this is not about, you know, people walking around in leather straps. And, you know, so…

FLATOW: Not "Star Trek."

Mr. RIVERA: Yeah. But literally…

FLATOW: …not "Star Wars" either, yeah.

Mr. RIVERA: Mm-hmm. But everything from how - what does the car look like to how the people dress, to - everything gets tossed up in the air and everything becomes a question you have to answer when you're working in the future. And so creatively, it's a heavy exercise on top of all the things a filmmaker needs to do, which is track characters, create conflict between them, you know, effective scene. And so there's so much work involved, creative work, as well as the producing work of trying to get…

FLATOW: I bet.

Mr. RIVERA: …somebody on board to pay for this whole thing.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, good luck to you in your next film.

Mr. RIVERA: Oh, thank you so much.

FLATOW: I can't wait to see what it looks like. Alex Rivera, who is a writer and director of "Sleep Dealer." We'll see it out there. See it when you can. And it's a great film. Also, thank you, Sid, for taking time to be with us today.

Prof. PERKOWITZ: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Sid Perkowitz - you're welcome - is the author of "Hollywood Science," a great book, if you want to pick it up - and a professor of physics at Emory University. Thank you both for taking time to be with us this afternoon.

Prof. PERKOWITZ: Thank you.

Mr. RIVERA: Thank you.

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