‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ panel: Hollywood + real scientists = awkward

Dec. 11, 2008 | 10:43 p.m.

20th Century Fox’s update of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” arrives in theaters Friday, and to get the word out, the studio has gone to unprecedented lengths to pair up two of the world’s most mismatched fields — Hollywood glamour and nuts-and-bolts science.

First, it decided to broadcast the film into deep space through the Deep Space Communications Network, which means images of Jennifer Connelly and Keanu Reeves will be, according to the news release, “zipping through space at 186,000 miles per second” en route to distant Alpha Centauri. There, any awaiting audience will get to see the movie roughly four years from now.

With all due respect, this can’t turn out well for us. After all, one of the last major attempts to export Earth culture to the stars was the Voyager probe, which will surely mean big trouble for Earth a few thousand years from now.

But perhaps to calm the fears of the science community, Fox and Caltech arranged a panel discussion last Friday at Caltech, in which astrophysicist Sean Carroll, robotic engineer Joel Burdick, director Scott Derrickson and Klaatu himself, Keanu Reeves, sat down to discuss the science — and science fiction — of the movie.

Did the two worlds come together harmoniously? Not really.

The audience, made up of Caltech students, was a stickler for accuracy. When a quick flash of a top secret government computer screen flashed a Microsoft logo the audience howled. “It’s gonna crash,” one student (no doubt a hardcore Mac-man) called out.

Then came the Q&A portion of the evening in which the Hollywood duo were peppered with exam-ready questions: “Do you think the laws of physics would change in different parts of the universe?” and, later, “Are you human?”

The former was answered handily by the scientific half of the panel (not shown in the video above), but it was apparent that Derrickson and Reeves were left bewildered. “These are the strangest questions,” Derrickson announced at one point. And a little later, he glanced at his watch and asked the audience, “How much longer will this go on?”

For their part, the scientists did not appear too starstruck, and Burdick in particular had a score to settle with the Hollywood folk, demanding to know why scientists had the highest mortality rate on film.

The space between galaxies may be vast, but the gulf between science and Hollywood still appears to be greater.

— Patrick Kevin Day


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2 Responses to ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ panel: Hollywood + real scientists = awkward

  1. Jim Oberg says:

    You've been suckered. A dish antenna CAN'T send a message "in the direction of Alpha Centauri" from Florida at noon today without pointing through solid rock.
    The star is at 61 deg south declination, meaning that for anyone at 29 deg or further north, the star never rises above the horizon. Cape Canaveral is at 28 1/2 deg north, so in the best case, the star peeks above the horizon a half-degree for a short time each day. It's at nowhere near noon.
    The pages of the LA Times have been used to promote a bogus stunt.
    The geeks in last week's audience were right to mock.

  2. cal godot says:

    The witty "It's gonna crash" commenter, like most engineers and technically proficient users of computers, likely prefers Unix (or Linux) to either the crash-prone Windows or the less-than-optimal MacOS. Your post not only illustrates the gulf between science and Hollywood, but also between science and entertainment writers.

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