SHEPHERD-BARR: Didn't you notice that I point out how, in Copenhagen, Frayn carefully shows that "common culture" of scientific discussion?
REVIEWER: He has a passage where various scientists are named. It doesn't show slow and careful learning, problem solving, testing and arguing logically, objectively--
SCREENWRITER (entering in a rush): Objective? You must be joking! Science is about getting your name in lights. Citation counting--worse than the Oscars!
REVIEWER: Which leads to another book: Mad, Bad and Dangerous, by Christopher Frayling, about the Scientist and the Cinema. Frayling conveys a deep love and knowledge of film, but he readily admits that his medium has produced totally ridiculous science stories. He is less concerned than Shepherd-Barr with literary theory. Instead he uses a wide historical knowledge to suggest how film can help shape events. His centerpiece is a narrative running from Metropolis to Dr. Strangelove, indicating that the power of film images affected first German rocketry and then, through the von Braun story, American space technology. In discussing the more recent era, it is harder to separate science from countless political and economic issues. But Frayling hopes that film can serve science better, eliminating "mad, bad" images, educating the public in the reality of what science does, and showing scientists as ordinary people. Frayling points approvingly to the image of the mathematician in Jurassic Park, but this raises problems: Do scientists want to look ordinary or to look cool? You might say that scientists are not ordinary, any more than serious actors or writers are.
SCREENWRITER: You might also say that scientists love acting like starlets on television news and documentaries, blogging, and self-promoting as much as anyone in movies.
PLAYWRIGHT: A synthesis of science and art! That's the future of science performance: a new third culture.
REVIEWER: But there are basic things dramatic performances don't show. Science education and career structure. Rational discussion of everyday but complex health questions. The giant databases and computational methods involved in climatology. The software and hardware that the arts themselves now depend on--
SCREENWRITER: And the global weapons industry, depending on scientific infrastructure.
REVIEWER: Both books have a center of gravity in the 1940s and in the mid-Atlantic. I wonder how their discussion looks to today's postdocs--nomadic, transnational, quite likely Asian, who barely remember the cold war. But both spotlight questions that are erased in formal papers and narrow research-group training. They are full of interest for anyone in the business of showing reality.
This article was originally published with the title Reality Show.