Superman Won’t Rescue Science


Graphic Illustration by Travis Wright | New University
Graphic Illustration by Travis Wright | New University
In space, no one can hear you scream. Assuming you don’t hold your breath, you can survive for about 30 seconds before you lose consciousness, get severely sunburned by ultraviolet radiation, and die.
College professors from the University of Central Florida argue that their students are increasingly illiterate in the field of physics. They believe movies like “Speed” and “Spider-Man” only perpetuate ignorance about science. Statistical evidence supports these trends, despite the fact that common sense would affirm that events in movies are created by stuntmen and special effects.
Professor Costas J. Efthimiou, who contributed to this claim in a scientific journal, says that his students’ basic understanding of science is decreasing as the years go on. The Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 report supports his claim. The report shows that science scores dropped among seniors in high school and remained stagnant in the fourth and eight grades. Only one third of students were proficient, meaning they had sufficient knowledge of what they should know for their age.
The drop in science scores is caused by a decreased interest in the fields of physics, biology and other scientific fields. When Efthimiou began teaching physics in 2000, he described the experience as “horrible,” and cited the lack of enthusiasm from the students as the main problem. Students expect experiences that produce excitement on the same level as movies.
It seems obvious that the average college student would know that the special effects they see on the screen are not real, but the drop in students’ scores and an absence of a desire to learn suggest otherwise. Since students seem to be unwilling to learn science at an early age, the special effects of movies go uncontested until later in life. People do not learn how impossible it is for a woman to grow 50 feet tall, or a man to mutate into a raging, green beast.
In response to this problem and the low levels of motivation, Efthimiou began to take a new approach to physics. He reviews hundreds of films and searched for movie scenes that have the potential to be used for a physics problem. For example, in his class he uses the scene from “Superman” in which the title character flies around the Earth until it spins backward in order to reverse time and prevent Lois Lane’s death. In class, the situation is dissected and analyzed so students learn the real laws of physics. The “Superman” example teaches angular momentum.
It does not take much imagination to apply this idea to other subjects and situations. Using psychology to analyze Batman villains can teach psychology and social behavior majors about psychiatric disorders. History majors can find out about the historical accuracy of “300.” Lucky pre-med students can determine what would really happen to a person if they were bit by a radioactive spider.
“Physics in Film” is one of the most popular classes on the University of Central Florida campus, which raises the question as to why it has not been tried in other places. Thus far, no interest or suggestion has been made to faculty or academic administrators in order to create such a class. However, people may wonder if going through all this trouble for the sciences is worth it.
Efthimiou argues that it is essential for the improvement of society that we continue to have enthusiasm for math and science. Many of the technological advances we have today are a result of efforts made during the space race in the ’60s. He states that scientific advances “don’t just happen.” We have to work as a society to promote science so that we can foster an environment in which advances do happen.
Movies can potentially shoulder some of the blame for this general malaise and the apathetic assumption that we will automatically advance in technology. For decades the population has been fed images of futuristic societies with teleportation and flying cars, which are always promised in the relatively near future. These kinds of images, combined with low levels of enthusiasm for science, encourage lazy expectations that advances in technology will occur regardless of our actions.
Science scores have stopped climbing and at some age levels have begun to decline. Professors notice that the enthusiasm of their students is at an all-time low. The lack of interest decreases scientific literacy, allowing the physics of movies to take over. Professor Efthimiou managed to find a way around the problem by using movies, a part of the problem, as a solution. Efthimiou’s work in the class has recently been published in Germany and he hopes it will become more popular in the United States as well.

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