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Bad Science, Great Opportunity

What if every terribly mistaken pop-culture  representation of our discipline  was actually a terrific learning opportunity? Lots of folks I know who are locked in the ivory tower bemoan the glamorous and adventurous portrayal of their  work in popular culture. What archaeologist carries a whip? What theoretical physicist wears a lab coat? How do you control a tornado with a lightening rod? How does an English Professor get an office that large, with that kind of view? Sure it’s upsetting that the only time information about what we do reaches a mass audience it’s usually simplified, or mangled to suit the plot twists of a summer blockbuster. Feel free to share your ideas!

But  Scientists who work on the Large Hadron Collider are finding that the popular misinformation in Angels and Demons is giving them plenty of chances to educate the public on the real nature of particle smashing and anti/matter.  Scientists affiliated with the collider project were really excited to have a sudden rush of public interest in what they were doing, and the opportunity to correct some big misconceptions  about the project. (No, it will not rip a hole in the space time continuum.)  They’ve scheduled fifty lectures worldwide for moviegoers interested in the real particle physics. And there’s a similar, older, web library of terrible movie physics. This site details the real physics behind movie cliches like outrunning a ball of flames and igniting massive fires with a flicked cigarette.

I think there’s a lesson in this  for all of us. Misunderstandings and flawed first impressions, especially those that come from pop culture,  are all great opportunities to launch a conversation with your students about the real-deal. So where are the representations of your discipline? And how can you engage students in fruitful conversations about the pop culture  that misinforms?  One idea that comes from the movie physics site, is to have your students review a movie or television show for it’s accuracy with respect to your discipline.  Or you might have students re-write a scene to produce a more accurate reflection.

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