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Physics in Films

While you're watching the latest movie hero fly through space or speed through the streets to bring lawbreakers to justice, Costas Efthimiou may be noting if the hero or villain's breaking the laws of physics.

Efthimiou teaches physics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He's found the actions and reactions of today's action flicks can be great teaching tools for physics-phobic students.

"They come to class the first day and they always ask is it going to be hard is it going to have a lot of calculations and formulas?"

Efthimiou's approach is filling his classes. He says between two classes last fall about 600 students learned serious physics with some Hollywood flair.

The professor's formula for reducing those fears was to look to the movies as physics demonstrations in unreal life. "For example, we used 'Speed 2'," he says, "That gave us the opportunity to discuss acceleration, deceleration and motion in general."

The Sylvester Stallone cop thriller "Tango and Cash" helped show how electricity behaves when the heroes dangled from a power line without getting shocked. (They weren't grounded.) The hyper-kineticactions of Arnold Schwartzenegger in "Eraser" offered lessons in momentum, conservation of momentum, free fall, and weightlessness. "Armageddon" offered lessons in motion, astronomy and rockets, but for real science, Efthimiou prefers the other "killer rock" film of that year: "Deep Impact".

Efthimiou says when a comet collides with Earth in 'Deep Impact', "They have a very nice sequence of tidal effects; but the students don't like that movie as well as 'Armageddon.' They love 'Armageddon.' "

His theory is a more heroic plot line trumped sound science in the students' affections. Armageddon's heroes managed to keep the asteroid from hitting Earth. In 'Deep Impact' the comet did hit.

Debunking Hollywood's science mistakes can offer valuable lessons too but some of the most accurate science is in a film 35 years old: Stanley Kubrick's "2001". In that film rockets are silent (sound can't travel in the vacuum of space), and a spinning segment of the spacecraft uses centrifugal force as a realistic way to achieve artificial gravity.

—Inside Science News Service

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