Wednesday, 25 May 2016

From Dr Strangelove to Dr Evil: Hollywood's anti-science stance

Despite the decades of hard work by the likes of Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould etal, there is still an enormous amount of public suspicion surrounding scientists and their work. From wavering opinion concerning climate change to the negative publicity revolving around genetically-modified crops (A.K.A. 'Frankenfoods') it seems that popular opinion of scientists isn't far above that meted out in recent years to politicians and merchant bankers.

Tabloid media cannot be solely to blame for this, although the ridiculous scaremongering stories given front page attention, frequently involving medical science, are certainly no help. Instead, I would argue that some of the blame for the public attitude to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) comes from that ubiquitous global communicator, mainstream Hollywood. So where did the world's movie capital get its ideas from?

It seems that the denigration of science and its technological applications has probably existed as long as modern science itself. Before there were films to spread the negativity, literature had a mixed opinion of the discipline. Could some of the most famous apparently anti-scientific publications from Europe have inspired Hollywood's pioneers, many of whom were European emigrés?

Jonathan Swift's third book of Gulliver's Travels concerns the scientific elite of a floating island called Laputa. First published in 1726 during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the book is typical of Swift's no holds barred approach to satire, making much use of the learning of the day. Despite being far more concerned with social and political issues rather than an anti-scientific stance, the material is still echoed today in the popular media.

Granted, many would agree that some of the more expensive STEM research projects such as the Large Hadron Collider could wait until global issues concerning hunger, medicine, environmental degradation - and poverty in general - are solved, but then wealth is rarely evenly distributed. After all, the USA apparently spends twice as much on pet grooming as it does on nuclear fusion research. Incidentally, isn't this bizarre in itself: it's not just that we consider ourselves so much more rational than all other animals, but that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. That's a pretty scary thought!

As for Mary Shelley's classic novel whose title is evoked during criticism of GM foods, she may have been inspired by the general feeling of doom then in the air; almost literally in fact, due to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, with volcanic dust creating 1816's 'Year without a Summer'. As an aside, the astonishingly lurid colours of J.M.W. Turner's sunsets of the period were another artistic response associated with the high-altitude volcanic aerosols.

In addition to the extremely cold, wet conditions of that year, Shelley is thought to have stopped near to the original Frankenstein Castle in Germany, where alchemy and other dubious dark arts were reputed to have been practiced. Combined with Luigi Galvani's experiments on frogs' legs - originally performed several decades earlier but much imitated still in Shelley's time, including on human cadavers - the novel is clearly a reflection of widespread anxieties of the time.

With the expansion of industrial cities and their associated squalor, the mid-Nineteenth Century saw the origin of philosophies that associated technological advances (and their scientific underpinnings) with a debasement of humanity. William Blake's description of 'satanic mills' epitomises this mode of thought, seen in as diverse a range of expression as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, the Arts and Crafts movement, even the political writings of Marx and Engels. To blame the greed of the new captains of industry on science is obviously unfair, but then the latter were a far easier target. After all, the English chemist and political radical Joseph Priestley fled to the United States after an authority-sponsored mob burnt down his house in 1791.

Blake's over-wraught emoting ("Science is the Tree of Death") is amongst the strongest negativity of the period, but can we blame him, considering science was, as it is today, often wrongly blamed as the root cause of the widespread destruction of nature to make way for a soulless, artificial environment? But it wasn't just a response to the changes to society and landscape that Blake took exception to: he detested the mechanistic vision of the universe built upon the work of Galileo and Newton, believing that too much knowledge destroyed wonder and awe.

This is clearly as subjective a viewpoint as any discussion of a work of art; it can be easily rebuffed, although the attitude behind it should be treated seriously. Happily, today's plethora of glossy coffee table books on such scientifically-gleaned wonders as Hubble Space Telescope imagery show there is still plenty to be in awe of.

Mainstream cinema frequently paints a very A versus B picture of the world (think classic westerns or war films). But science can rarely fit into such neat parcels: consider how the more accurate general theory of relativity can live alongside its predecessor from Newton. In addition, it's very tricky to make interesting drama within a traditional narrative structure that utilises scientist protagonists unless it's a disaster movie (even the likes of Jurassic Park falls within this category.)

It isn't difficult to recall many negative examples of scientists in Hollywood movies, from at best those too wrapped up in their own work to notice its wider effects, to at worst insane megalomaniacs intent on either world domination or destruction. In contrast, how many sympathetic movie scientists are there?

It seems such a shame that such a ubiquitous form of entertainment consistently portrays such a lack of sympathy towards science. Even the film version of Carl Sagan's novel Contact lacked the cosmic spiritual elements of the source material, as if afraid that a combination of astrophysics and the mystical wouldn't be comprehensible to audiences (2001 syndrome, perhaps?) Science fiction films these days often seem keen to boast of their technical consultants, so what about a more sympathetic attitude to the practitioners of science itself? After all, most scientists don't live with their private armies in secret headquarters bases, planning to takeover the world...

Friday, 1 April 2016

Hollywood's natural history hobbit hoax: did Peter Jackson create Homo floresiensis for publicity purposes?

Judging by the limited ingredients of contemporary blockbusters, cinema audiences are fairly easy to please. Or are they? Peter Jackson's magnum opus The Lord of the Rings trilogy made an absolute mint at the box office and garnered seventeen Oscar wins besides critical acclaim. In contrast, The Hobbit trilogy received but a single Oscar accompanying some rather lukewarm reviews.

The reason for the critical indifference and lack of awards has been put down to franchise fatigue, although to be fair stretching a children's book over three long movies whilst partly improvising the script at a late stage couldn't have helped. So if you are a world-renowned film maker well aware that you are judged by many of your fans and much of your peer group on the success - and possibly the quality - of your latest film, it wouldn't be surprising if you go to great lengths to maximise that success. Just how far Peter Jackson went for The Hobbit trilogy is read on...

It's been some years since I visited Weta Cave in Wellington, where close-up views of various costumes and props from movies including the LOTR trilogy leaves you in no doubt about the superb workmanship the effects house is capable of. Some of the exhibits and merchandise included non-human characters from Middle Earth and District 9, the quality of which got me thinking. Peter Jackson is known to have visited the Natural History Museum when in London recording the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings. This in itself is not suspect, except that the museum was at the time hosting an exhibition about the infamous Piltdown Man.

For anyone who knows anything about science scandals, Piltdown Man has to be among the most notorious. The 1908 discovery in southern England of a hominin skull of unknown species was rapidly followed by numerous associated finds, all touted as genuine by professional scientists. In fact, by 1913 some palaeontologists had already suggested what was finally confirmed forty years later: the entire assemblage was a fraud, the skull itself including an orang utan jawbone with filed-down teeth! The fact that so many specialists authenticated the remains is bizarre, although it may be that patriotic wishful thinking (to confirm prehistoric hominins had lived in Britain) overrode any semblance of impartiality.

Back to Peter Jackson and his hobbit conundrum. Although LOTR trilogy did the bums-on-seats business (that's an industry term, in case you were wondering), Jackson's next film was the 2005 King Kong remake. Included in the record-breaking US$207 million production costs was a $32 million overspend which the director himself was personally responsible for. Having already been put into turnaround (that's cold feet in Hollywoodese) in the previous decade, Jackson was determined to complete the film to his own exacting standards, thus resulting in the financial woes surrounding the production.

So just how do you get the massive budget to make a prequel trilogy that's got a less involved storyline (sound vaguely familiar, Star Wars fans?) directly after you've made the most expensive film in history, which is not even a remake but a second remake? How about generating tie-in publicity to transfer from the real world to Middle Earth?

Around the time that Peter Jackson's production company Three Foot Six was being renamed (or if you prefer, upgraded) to Three Foot Seven, worldwide headlines announced the discovery of a small stature hominin of just this height. The first of the initial nine specimens found on the island of Flores, labelled LB1, would have been a mere 1.06 metres tall when alive, which is three feet six inches give or take a few millimetres.

Coincidence? When in doubt, adherents of scientific methods should follow the principle of parsimony, A.K.A. Occam's razor. Which in this case has led to me putting my conspiracy hat on.

Consider this: the new species rapidly became far better known by its nickname the 'hobbit people' than as Homo floresiensis. Which was handy for anyone about to spend US$225 million on three films involving hobbits. In addition, it was discovered at the perfect time for Jackson to get maximum publicity (admittedly not the release of the first hobbit film, but for purposes of convincing his American backers of the audience anticipation).

The smoking gun evidence for me is the almost comical resemblance the remains bear to Tolkien's creations. For example, the feet are said to be far longer and flatter than any other known hominin species. Remind you of anything you've seen at the movies? It's just a shame that hair doesn't survive as long as the alleged age of the specimens - which based on the stratigraphy has been estimated from 94,000 to 13,000 years ago.

In addition, how could such creatures have built the bamboo rafts or dug-out boats necessary to reach the island in the first place? When sea levels dropped during glaciation periods Flores was still convincingly isolated from the mainland. Braincase analysis shows that Homo floresiensis had an orange-sized brain. Since the tools found with the semi-petrified organic remains were simple stone implements, the idea of real-life hobbits sailing the high seas appears absurd in the extreme.

Several teams have attempted to extract DNA from the water-logged and delicate material but after a decade's effort none have been successful. This seems surprising, considering the quality of contemporary genetic replication techniques, but perhaps not if the material consists of skilfully crafted fakes courtesy of Weta Workshop. Some of the fragments appear similar to chimpanzee anatomy, but then Peter Jackson has always tried to make his creatures as realistic as possible. Indeed, he even hired a zoologist to ensure that his King Kong was anatomically correct (I recall hearing that some of his over-sized gorilla's behind needed reworking to gain accuracy. Now that's dedication!)

There has also been some rather unscientific behaviour concerning the Homo floresiensis remains which appears counter to the great care usually associated with such precious relics. At one point, the majority of material was hidden for three months by one of the Indonesian paleoanthropologists, only for what was returned to include damaged material missing several pieces. All in all, there is much about the finds to fuel speculation as to their origin.

In summary, if you wanted to promote worldwide interest in anything hobbit-wise what could be better yet not too obvious? Just how the much the joint Australian-Indonesian archaeology and palaeontology team were in the know is perhaps the largest mystery still remaining. I've little doubt that one day the entire venture will be exposed, perhaps in a documentary made by Peter Jackson himself. Now that would definitely be worth watching!