Sometimes it seems like there's a mandate that says stories about real-life science have to be as boring as possible. But doing science is actually more like living inside an action movie full of robots, explosions and thrilling mysteries. Here are ten ingredients you'll find in action movies and in science.
Gif by Sam Woolley
Every scientific experiment and idea begins with a mystery. What are all those tiny burning lights in the sky? What makes us sick? Why does glass melt? How does fire work? Those are the simple questions that people started asking thousands of years ago. Like detectives, scientists answer them by gathering evidence from the world around us. They test hypotheses, discard them, and start again. Sometimes the process is long and grueling and full of false starts, as any fan of Sherlock or Prime Suspect knows. But the scientists continue because there is something mesmerizing about the chase. If you ever want to get to the kernel of the scientific story, just ask a scientist what question they wanted to answer when they started their work, and you'll realize that even the most obscure quest for molecular signaling behavior is actually a mystery story unfolding.
At the heart of every good caper, whether it's Oceans Eleven or Fast Five or The Lavender Hill Mob, there's an amazing cast of characters. I'm not saying they're necessarily realistic characters, or sensitively acted — I just mean that each one of them has a special power or skill, and they can only pull off the heist by working together. The thrill of the action is mostly in the crackly interactions between the expert driver and the systems genius, or the one who knows electronics and the one who is a master of disguise. In many scientific labs today, you have the same kinds of crack teams because so much discovery requires an interdisciplinary approach with many kinds of expert tackling the same problem together. Thus a biology lab — depending on what it's doing — might need a software programmer, a chemist, experts in plants, bacteria, ecosystems, evolution, and more. They might even need an artist to create visualizations. It's all about the team and their interlocking superpowers.
Indiana Jones' adventures are insane, but you'd be surprised how much they're based in fact. Every summer, scientists go out into remote regions to get eaten by leeches, stricken by malaria, and menaced by people in armed conflict with each other — and that's just the tip of the iceberg (yeah, they also do things like drill into icebergs). If you want to hear ridiculous adventure stories, just as an environmental biologist about fieldwork — or an archaeologist about unearthing lost cities.
Whether medical researchers are investigating infectious diseases or slow-moving cancers, their work is always a race against time. Maybe that's why one of the science stories that translates easiest to action movies is the disease thriller. Everything from Outbreak to Helix and World War Z managed to dramatize how this kind of scientific investigation is all about saving the world before it's too late.
Many kinds of science help us solve crimes. Demographers study the remains of genocide camps to figure out what happened and who should be brought to justice. Forensic analysts look at dead bodies and crime scenes to determine causes of death. Neuroscientists study our brains to figure out whether anti-social and violent urges have a biological basis; social scientists study our cultures to determine whether they have a social one (spoilers: it's both). Often, a story about science begins with a crime and ends with a solution to it.
There's a piece of folk wisdom that you hear sometimes among scientists and engineers. Say you're working on putting together an amazing device, and you've spent days or even years building it and packing all its components into a nice chassis, and you're finally ready to turn it on. But when you flip the switch, it explodes. What is your reaction? Do you say, "Wow, cool!"? Or do you say, "Oh, shit!"? If you answered the former, you're a scientist. If you answered the latter, you're an engineer.
The point is that science and engineering are full of explosions. How you react to them is what's really important. That's what sets the plot in motion.
No action movie is complete without what are technically known as Giant Awesome Machines. Same goes for science investigations. You know how geologists study disaster? Often, it's by building massive devices to recreate common catastrophes. They'll build a giant shaking platform, erect a house on it, and then activate the actuators to shake the shit out of it until the house shatters. They erect massive slides and throw tons of wet mud down them to recreate landslides. Yes, there are actually labs that do this. And then there are the explosion labs, where researchers blow up everything from cars to chemical tanks to figure out the best safety measures. That's right. Science is a Michael Bay movie.
If you go into many genomics labs today, you'll find a big transparent box with a large robot arm inside. Moving at incredible speed, it's depositing samples into tiny compartments on dozens of plates. This used to be the job of a graduate student with a pipette, squeezing out little blobs of sample into dishes, waiting for the cells to grow. Now robots are the greatest lab companions. They do everything from grunt work to high-level analysis. It's just like 2001, or Moon, where characters go on adventures with robot pals. Let's just hope they don't turn evil.
Yesterday, humans landed on a moving comet, with the help of a robot companion named Philae. It was just like an white-knuckle science fiction movie. There were those breathless hours waiting to see whether the robot would win out against all odds. There was the death-defying landing. And now, for the first time, we have landed on a body that is rocketing through space. We've touched a remote, icy new world — with the help of our robot pal. It doesn't get better than that.