Movies About Scientists and Science That Families Should Watch
While Egypt might be famous for the Pyramids, Rome noted for its roads, aqueducts, coliseums, and Greece celebrated for its philosophers and contributions to medicine, invention and the scientific method are almost exclusively a western enterprise that grew out of a Christian worldview. While not all the great scientists were Christians, they did operate within a worldview that was developed by Christians.
The idea that an experiment performed on one day would operate the same way under the same conditions the next day was foundational to the development of modern science. Christians believed in fixed creational laws because they believed that God had created the world in this way.
This is why science as an integrated worldview and methodology developed in the Christian West and nowhere else. Stanley Jaki, the author of numerous books on the relationship between Christianity and science, comments: “Nothing irks the secular world so much as a hint, let alone a scholarly demonstration, that supernatural revelation, as registered in the Bible, is germane to science. Yet biblical revelation is not only germane to science—it made the only viable birth of science possible. That birth took place in a once-Christian West.”1
The founders of modern science based their work on a biblical worldview: Louis Agassiz (founder of glacial science and perhaps paleontology); Charles Babbage (often said to be the creator of the computer); Francis Bacon (father of the scientific method); Sir Charles Bell (first to extensively map the brain and nervous system); Robert Boyle (father of modern chemistry); Georges Cuvier (founder of comparative anatomy and perhaps paleontology); John Dalton (father of modern atomic theory); Jean Henri Fabre (chief founder of modern entomology); John Ambrose Fleming (some call him the founder of modern electronics/inventor of the diode); James Joule (discoverer of the first law of thermodynamics); William Thomson Kelvin (perhaps the first to clearly state the second law of thermodynamics); Johannes Kepler (discoverer of the laws of planetary motion); Carolus Linnaeus (father of modern taxonomy); James Clerk Maxwell (formulator of the electromagnetic theory of light); Gregor Mendel (father of genetics); Isaac Newton (discoverer of the universal laws of gravitation); Blaise Pascal (major contributor to probability studies and hydrostatics); Louis Pasteur (formulator of the germ theory).
Where is the Greek version of Newton? Where is the Muslim version of Kepler? Where is the Hindu version of Boyle? Where is the Buddhist version of Mendel? Such questions are all the more powerful when you pause to consider that science studies truths that are universally true. How is it that so many other cultures, some existing for thousands of years, failed to discover, or even anticipate, Newton’s first law of motion of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion? So it’s not just that the Christian religion is associated with the birth of modern science, it’s also the fact that modern science was not birthed in cultures which lacked the Christian religion.
In fact, if you survey other non-christian cultures, their inability to generate modern science renders this clue all the more powerful. For these cultures not only lacked the Christian world view’s perception of Nature *and* God, they held to a view that prevented the birth of science. In this view, the Universe was eternal, necessary, cyclical, and organismic. One could argue that this view of the Universe followed from reason and observation (like Geocentrism). But Christianity gave men a larger reason to deny this type of cosmology, and in doing so, it paved the way for the birth of science.
I don’t think it can be overemphasized as to how detrimental cyclical thinking was to the birth of science. And what made the cyclic views even worse was their close tie to the animistic/organismic view of the Universe. This feature was shared by the Hindus, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Chinese. A detailed analysis of all these cultures, in this light, would make my case all the more obvious. (Michael Bumbulis, Ph.D.)
While God sometimes intervened in overruling the laws that He Himself had instituted in what we describe as miracles, these were rare exceptions rather than the rule. But even a miracle presupposes an ordered, rational, and predictable universe. In most non-Christian cultures, the gods were thought to be capricious. You never knew what they might do. An experiment done today might be sabotaged by the gods tomorrow.
While these points are not presented in overt ways in the following films, the careful viewer will notice how they are assumed to be true and operate accordingly across all scientific experimentation. These men and women stood on the shoulders of earlier scientific pioneers who formulated a methodology that was reliable for doing science.
Older biographical film portrayals are often more hagiographies than biographies. These great men and women of science are sometimes depicted as saints with few character flaws. No one is perfect. While the following films do not paint their subjects as true saints, they often do suppress some negative aspects of their life. So, don’t be disappointed when you learn that even the greatest scientific minds of the past two centuries were sinners like you and me.
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940): The story of Paul Ehrlich, a German Jewish scientist, developed chemical compounds to fight diseases. The use of chemotherapy can be traced back to the experiments done by Paul Ehrlich (not to be confused with the Paul Ehrlich of population-bomb infamy) and his staff of scientists. He especially wanted to find a cure for syphilis. Through many tedious experiments, the arsenic-based compound Salvarsan was found to be effective against the disease. It was used for 40 years until penicillin was discovered. The movie downplays that syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Ehrlich received a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1907. A wonderfully acted movie starring Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Gordon, and Donald Crisp.
Young Tom Edison (1940): This is a great movie for kids. Mickey Rooney plays young Tom in Huck Finn fashion. Almost from the beginning, the young Edison boy is getting in trouble at school and in the neighborhood. He was labeled as “addled” by his teacher. If he were a modern child, he would be diagnosed as being ADD or ADHD, given Ritalin, and told to sit down and behave.
Edison was schooled at home, learned Morse Code at a young age, and went on to patent more than 1000 inventions, everything from the light bulb to the phonograph. This is a great film to show to budding scientists. There’s enough humor and good feeling to enjoy to keep today’s jaded pre-teens interested, even if it is in black and white. As with a lot of these biopics, there are some fictional elements. The final scene, while exciting, never happened. There are many fine biographies on Edison.
Edison the Man (1940): After the success of Young Tom Edison, MGM decided to produce a sequel. It’s every bit as good as its predecessor but not as kid-friendly. Even so, it’s an inspiring story of how a maverick inventor changed the world. It shows a mature Edison, not as a scientist, but as a visionary. He solved problems. He developed items with the consumer in mind. The centerpiece of the film is the development of a long-burning electric light.
A less persistent man might have given up after trying a few hundred substances failed to find the right filament. But Edison had scoured the globe to locate the best one. He tested more than 9000 substances. When one of his colleagues says, “We’re as sorry as you are that you didn’t get results,” Edison replies, “Results? Man, I got a lot of results. I now know 9000 things that won’t work.”
When Edison developed the electric light, keep in mind that people were still lighting their homes with natural gas. He had a product with no market. There was no power company, utility poles, wires to carry electricity, outlets in homes, electric fixtures to hold the newfangled invention, or a way to mass-produce it.
Then there was the natural gas industry that saw their business fortunes in jeopardy if the electric light ever caught on. The final scene of lighting a section of New York City gives you some idea of the obstacles that Edison had to overcome to make his invention a reality and not just a novelty.
Consider that the electric light has not changed much since it was invented in 1879. Even its shape is similar, except for the glass-blown curl at the top.
Spencer Tracy does a fine job playing Edison, quirks and all, even his penchant for taking short naps throughout the day. As with many of these movies done in the 1930s and 1940s, there is a wonderful array of character actors. Gene Lockhart from A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, is the bearded Mr. Taggart.
If you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life, you’ll recognize Henry Travers who played the angel Clarence. Here’s a bit of trivia that only a few people will know. True fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle might be able to spot Jay Ward in the opening scene interviewing Edison. Ward went on to bigger and better things by creating Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-right, and a whole lot more.
The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939): Could Alexander Graham Bell ever have imagined what his invention would bring – from a cumbersome and obtrusive device made from wood and metal to a smartphone not needing wires that fits in a shirt pocket or purse that’s much more than a phone?
Bell was a Scottish inventor whose early interest was in helping the deaf. He was an expert in elocution and the science of speech. Even after inventing the telephone, Bell continued to work with the deaf. He met with a six-year-old Helen Keller and her distraught father in 1887. It was through this meeting that Annie Sullivan came to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to work with Helen.
This film presents Bell’s early work with the deaf and his experimentation with the telephone built on concepts perfected in the telegraph. If dots and dashes could be transmitted electronically, then why not speech? It was a logical inference.
Of course, you will always find a personal touch in a film like this, in this case, a loyal wife who saves a love note written on a back of a scrap of paper that saves the day in court. Pure fiction, but a nice touch. The court scene is important, however, since at the same time Bell was working on his phone, Elisha Gray developed his own independent design. A patent dispute arose, but in the end, it was determined that Bell was first and was granted exclusive patent rights.
Patent Number 174,465 has been described as one of the most valuable patents ever issued. Don Ameche, who plays Bell, had a long film career spanning nearly 60 years. He played one of the Duke brothers in the Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd comedy classic Trading Places. He received an Academy Award in 1985 for Cocoon.
Madame Curie (1944): Curie was a native of Poland, living in France, a scientist, and a woman. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in France, the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, and the first woman to receive two Nobel Prizes. These were significant accomplishments for anyone, but for a woman to accomplish in a time when men dominated the field of science, they are extraordinary accomplishments.
It was Pierre and Marie Curie’s isolation of radium that led to breakthroughs in medical research, a field Marie dedicated her life to after the tragic death of her husband in 1906. At the Nobel Prize award ceremony, the president of the Swedish Academy referred in his speech to the old proverb: “union gives strength.” He went on to quote from the Book of Genesis, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet [suitable] for him.”
The Curies had a wonderful partnership, both in work and family. But it was their work with these radioactive materials that made them world-renown scientists. But with all their scientific acumen, they were careless when it came to handling the radioactive material they had discovered.
If you went to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and wanted to study the three black notebooks in which they recorded their work on radium, you would have to sign a certificate stating that you know the risks involved. The books won’t be safe to handle for another 1600 years. They are radioactive.
Greer Garson does an excellent job in the role of Marie Curie. Walter Pidgeon partners with her character as Pierre Curie. The movie is based on the book written by the Curies’ daughter. The movie is balanced between the Curies’ family life and their work as dedicated scientists. This is an inspiring story, but it’s especially good to see a woman accomplish so much in a time when women had few opportunities in science.
The best known and most popular biography is the one written by her daughter Eve, simply titled Madame Curie: A Biography (1937). With Marie Curie’s research journal made available for the first time in 1990, a more comprehensive portrait of the famous scientist is developed in Susan Quinn’s Marie Curie: A Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936): Louis Pasteur solved the mysteries of rabies, anthrax, chicken cholera, and silkworm diseases, and contributed to the development of the first vaccines. He debunked the widely accepted myth of spontaneous generation, thereby setting the stage for modern biology and biochemistry.
He described the scientific basis for fermentation, winemaking, and the brewing of beer. This might seem trivial in our day, but it was fermentation, a point made by Robert Boyle hundreds of years before, that would lead Pasteur to make an astounding leap in scientific logic: If germs were the cause of fermentation, they might also be the cause of contagious diseases.
Like so many scientific innovators who questioned long-held scientific theories, Pasteur faced opposition from many of his fellow scientists. While the debate over whether the earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the earth was an important scientific discovery, a belief one way or another did not affect a person’s health.
Refusing to heed Pasteur’s warnings about how bacteria caused disease meant that doctors were inadvertently killing their own patients. Patients often died at the hands of doctors because they would not take the simple precaution of washing their hands and sterilizing their medical instruments.
The Magic Box (1951): William Friese-Greene (1855-1921) was a British photographer and inventor who has been credited by some with the invention of motion pictures, although this is disputed by other film historians. Of course, this is not unusual. The same happened with the Wright Brothers and Samuel P. Langley, and as we saw with Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray.
This rarely broadcast movie depicts Friese-Greene’s struggle to construct a working camera and projector. Some have described the movie, based on the book by Ray Allister, as highly inaccurate. Greene, who added his wife’s surname to his own, began his quest for the development of moving pictures after seeing a seven-slide “Magic Lantern”2 projector give the illusion of movement on a screen. For his efforts, he secured a patent in 1889. Unfortunately, the camera was not capable of taking pictures at a rate that suggested animation, although the movie depicts him producing a short live-action feature. Since no record exists of his cinematographic work, the credit for a successful cinematographic device belongs to Thomas Edison.
For the only known biography, see Ray Allister, Friese-Greene: Close-up of an Inventor (1948, reprinted 1972) which includes photographs from The Magic Box. For a more critical appraisal of Friese-Greene, go here. It’s this type of film that can be used for research purposes. What is the real story behind men and women and their inventions? Young people can develop good critical thinking skills by researching obscure but (to me, anyway) interesting topics.
- Stanley Jaki, “The Biblical Basis of Western Science,” Crisis 15:9 (October 1997): 17–20. [↩]
- A “Magic Lantern” was the precursor to the slide projector. The slides are glass, about three inches square, with a painted image between two panes. Some of the slides are wonderful pieces of original art. [↩]