Emory Report
January 28, 2008
Volume 60, Number 17

Sidney Perkowitz’s
picks and pans

Thumbs up
“Gattaca” (1997): “The premise of this movie is that, if I can know your DNA, I can know everything about you. Ultimately, it is about the triumph of the human spirit over this belief.”

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951): “This movie is important because it’s a warning against nuclear war and it explores the issues of where science will take us.”

Thumbs down
“The Core”
(2003): “The U.S. tests a way to create earthquakes, to use as a secret weapon. A side effect is it stops the core of the Earth from spinning. This movie is so contemptuous of science that you have to hold your nose to watch it.”

“What the Bleep Do We Know?” (2004): “It seems to be saying that if you believe in quantum mechanics, you can change the world around you just by mind power.
The heroine uses this power to reduce her thighs.”


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January 28, 2008
Stranger than science fiction: A physicist’s foray in Hollywood

By carol clark

What happens when you take years of scientific training and stir in a passion for art, movies and literature? It’s the kind of experiment that could blow up in your face, unless you have the talent and tenacity of Sidney Perkowitz, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics.

“I have a lot of experience as a research physicist, but my career has turned in a different direction,” says Perkowitz, whose writing oeuvre includes the pop science book “Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos;” the play “Glory Enough: Rosalind Franklin and DNA;” and provocative articles such as “Doughnuts Reveal Life’s Secrets.”

His latest nonfiction book, “Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World,” takes on the aliens, monsters and planetary disasters of the silver screen. Drawing from the earliest science-fiction movies to more recent hits, like “The Matrix,” Perkowitz explores how scientific reality and Hollywood often collide, but occasionally coincide.

“I think the science-fiction movies I watched when I was a kid had a lot to do with me becoming interested in science,” says Perkowitz, who grew up in the 1950s and recalls the sense of wonder instilled in him by movies like “The Thing from Another World.”

He gives the highest marks to sci-fi films that are as accurate as they are entertaining. “If you can make a movie funny or dramatic and exciting, then why can’t you get the science right, too?” he asks.

And who better to take on that challenge than Perkowitz himself? Just two months after the publication of “Hollywood Science,” he put the finishing touches on his first film script and sent it out to an agent in January.

“The working title is ‘The Second Obsession’ and it’s about cloning,” Perkowitz says. “Isn’t that cool? To be realistic, the chances the script will get anywhere are one in 100,000. But it was a lot of fun to write.”

The plot revolves around a geneticist who has been in love with the same girl since high school. “She ends up marrying his brother, who is a jock,” Perkowitz says. “It’s the nerd scientist lament.”

The geneticist steals the woman’s DNA and clones her. Unlike some movies about cloning, which distort the facts to make the cloned individual the same age as the subject the DNA came from, Perkowitz sticks to realism and has the clone emerge as a baby. The geneticist adopts the cloned baby and waits for her to grow up.

“This is more than just a rocket-ship-blasting-off science movie,” Perkowitz says. “Obviously, the geneticist is doing something that a lot of people wouldn’t agree with, although I do give him some redemption in the end, when he tries to make up for everything he did. I think the best science-fiction movies don’t necessarily focus on the science, but more on the impact of science on people and society.”