Jack Oughton   Sunshine SP1S09

                                                   Sunshine is a British science fiction ...
Jack Oughton      Sunshine SP1S09

                                              The film itself communicates science’s m...
Jack Oughton   Sunshine SP1S09

calculator to a schoolboy”[5]. Many contemporary pieces of science communication, such as...
Jack Oughton       Sunshine SP1S09

The science communication may have needed improvement, but Sunshine’s visuals were ...
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Jack oughton sunshine as science communication


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Jack oughton sunshine as science communication

  1. 1. Jack Oughton Sunshine SP1S09 Sunshine is a British science fiction film released in April, 2007. It was directed by Danny Boyle, from a screenplay by Alex Garland. The DVD was released on 27th August, 2007. It was distributed by Fox Searchlight pictures and had a budget around £20 million. It is a dramatic and visually stunning film, which revolves around a mission to ‘reignite the sun’ and the perils faced by the crew. The prevalent popular image of science and scientists comes from the media (Jones, 1970)[1], therefore I chose this film because although not strictly designed as a piece of scientific communication, it’s large budget (relative to other science work), wide exposure, mostly accurate science and exciting content give it an edge over more traditional science communication. Sunshine is an opportunity to share astrophysics in an engrossing way to a large number of people, who may not normally learn about it. How Does It Communicate? Generally speaking, Sunshine presented science accurately. The film’s scientific consultant was Dr. Brian Cox, a physicist and research fellow who works at CERN. Cox has extensive experience communicating science through BBC documentaries and study resources, which is noticeable in his commentary of the film. I believe his commentary to be a better piece of science communication relative to the original film dialogue, as he corrects scientific errors and explains the theory behind many events as they unfold. He does this in an accessible and easy to understand manner, not using any complex physical terminology. Cox also gives small insights into a physicist’s mind and speaks about the nature of his work. Unfortunately I believe that most of Sunshine’s audience wouldn’t experience the commentary unless they had specific interest in the film or the science behind it. This is because his commentary is only available on the DVD and does interfere with the continuity of the film; it would have to be watched after the first viewing, otherwise it may spoil the plot. In all probability, the commentary’s exposure would probably be significantly lower than the original film dialogue and only attract Sunshine enthusiasts or those interested in physics. 1
  2. 2. Jack Oughton Sunshine SP1S09 The film itself communicates science’s many facets in a manner arguably more engrossing than any documentary could. Due to its plot it deals chiefly with the astrophysical, but briefly includes aspects from other disciplines such as astronomy, psychology and scientific philosophy, these are generally not presented separately or in any particular structure, occurring as parts of the story. Brian Cox – Physics rockstar and scientific consultant for Sunshine. The presentation format emphasizes the audio and visual experience, with much of the budget going on special effects. The presentation is very beautiful, for example, the transit of mercury across the sun and the almost mystical ‘stellar bomb’. In Sunshine the significance of science could not be conveyed better; science is generally presented as positive, an essential and empowering human tool for humanity to save itself. Sunshine’s simple science presentation would suggest a non-specific action film audience above the age of 15, with a possible limited scientific interest, this viewer would probably not be viewing the film with the goal of learning about astrophysics. Sadly, the amount of scientific errors and lack of explanation for most technical aspects of the film are a very significant strike against this production as an effective piece of science communication. The emphasis on making it commercially attractive meant that most opportunities for education had to be avoided and in some cases science had to be incorrectly presented to enhance the plot. Cox remarks in the commentary; “There’s a tension between making a $50m movie and getting the science right”[2]. Many needless examples of incorrect science, which do not enhance the plot, are found in this film. One is the absence of explanation for the mission itself, a hypothetical scenario imagined by scientists at CERN involving a ball of super symmetric particles called a ‘Q-Ball’ interfering with the sun, implying a thermonuclear warhead the size of Manhattan could affect the fusion processes of this star. How Did It Fare? Overall I believe that this film fared moderately if defined as a piece of science communication, failing to educate and explain, but succeeding in communicating the importance and value of science. The production received unexceptional commercial acclaim, reviews averaging at 6.4/10 on rottentomatoes.com[3]. Reviewers with scientific background criticized it severely (perhaps they were jealous?). Dr Chris Lintott, a researcher at Oxford University; “From a scientist's point of view, it's complete rubbish”. [4].Anjana Ahuja, a solar physicist, wrote “Danny Boyle could have achieved the same level of scientific fidelity in Sunshine by giving a 2
  3. 3. Jack Oughton Sunshine SP1S09 calculator to a schoolboy”[5]. Many contemporary pieces of science communication, such as television documentaries, increasingly include a dramatic element to capture the human interest; these ‘docudramas’ combine conventional plot building and acting with the documentary component. This is relevant to Sunshine because it is a clear example of the unfortunate necessity to tradeoff human interest for quality of scientific communication. In this manner Sunshine’s use in science communication is to interest people in science, not to inform them about it. Sunshine’s complex and often violent plot is inconsistent with the age level of science presented, possibly posing an obstacle to a younger viewer’s exposure to the film. Some of the scenes later in the film are probably unsuitable for children. Verdict I believe that the film could not be used as a piece of serious science communication due to certain scientific inconsistencies, lack of explanation of scientific phenomena and its design as a commercial creation. By my standards the accuracy of scientific content was average, and the clarity was poor. As an educational tool, Cox’s commentary fared better, if watched in conjunction with the film would correct many scientific blunders and explain much of the correct science, the insight into Cox’s work also enlightens the viewer on a ‘real’ physicist’s job. However, I don’t consider it alone is enough to redeem the film, as I believe its potential audience is very small, and the commentary still has a lower level and quality of scientific communication than a ‘conventional’ piece. For Sunshine to have fared better as science communication I believe at the very least it could have incorporated a greater scientific explanation of events as they occurred, perhaps by a narrator, with diagrams depending on the age of the target audience. Casual scientific errors such as the statement that space is -273°C would also need to have been eliminated. This would however have lessened its public exposure, compromised its plot and altered its format from a film to a docudrama. Today, studies have shown that Public Engagement of Science and Technology is underrepresented in Europe (Lorenzen 2006)[6], and science needs as much positive exposure as possible, even from unorthodox, unintended (usually ineffective) sources, such as the film industry. Cox’s work on the film (barring the mistakes he missed) combined with Danny Boyle’s desire for ‘hard science fiction’; “If I could make a $50m dollar documentary about the sun... I’d do that”…[7], meant that Sunshine came as close to credible scientific communication possible within the standards of a glossy film (compared to others in the genre such as Star Wars), but essentially failed because it was not designed for this purpose. Sunshine’s communicational value could be as a stepping-stone to other more informative documentaries. A better alternative in communicating problems with diminished solar output reaching Earth would be BBC Horizon’s Global Dimming[8], which is a high quality documentary, designed specifically to communicate science, which has many advantages, such as an emphasis on science explanation, presentation of data and interviews with experts. 3
  4. 4. Jack Oughton Sunshine SP1S09 The science communication may have needed improvement, but Sunshine’s visuals were astounding. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1]Jones G., Connell I., Meadows J., (1978) The Presentation Of Science By The Media. 1st ed. Leicester: PCRC. [2],[7] Sunshine and Commentary by Brian Cox (2007) D. Boyle [3]http://uk.rottentomatoes.com/m/sunshine/ Accessed on 01/12/2007 [4]http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article1598953.ec e. Accessed on 01/12/2007 [5]http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Guardian_review/0,,2060703,00.html Thursday April 19, 2007. Accessed on 01/12/2007 [6]Christensen L. L. (2007) The Hands On Guide For Science Communicators, A Step-by-Step Approach to Public Outreach. 1st ed. New York: Springer [8]Horizon – Global Dimming (2005) BBC2 4