Ain't It Cool News (
Movie News

Copernicus chats with James Cameron regarding the Science of AVATAR briefly... hints of things to come....

First off, I want to say again I am impressed at the reaction to my Science of Avatar article. The talkback was great, and I've had hundreds of thought-provoking emails. I've even been invited to speak at the St. Louis Science Center in October where they are having a week-long festival on the Science of Avatar. I don't think it is officially announced yet, but I'll be there the weekend of October 16-17, and for at least one of my talks, I'm turning that article into a more in-depth presentation. Also, Ive been trying to keep my professional identity and AICN writing separate, but that will not be possible given what I'm talking about here. So to hell with it, here's who I really am. Onto Santa Barbara. I've been to tons of festivals, and the thing that makes SBIFF special is the staff. They are the nicest and most accommodating of any festival I've ever attended. Case in point: Quint asked Carol Marshall, director of publicity for SBIFF, if I could interview James Cameron for the site. I think he wasn't doing sit-down interviews, but I got whisked backstage before the director'spanel and into a room where the directors were gathering before going onstage. And by directors, I mean: Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER), Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS), Pete Docter (UP), Todd Phillips (THE HANGOVER), Quentin Tarantino (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), and, of course, James Cameron! What a group! Quint will cover what was actually said at the panel. Unfortunately since it was just semi-casual conversations going on backstage, I didn't get a chance to record it, but I'll do my best to paraphrase what was said. First I ran into Quentin Tarantino. We've been acquaintances for years, ever since he started bringing films to Austin in the late 90s for QT fests. I won't go into a blow-by-blow of our conversation (because it isn't newsworthy), but we mostly chatted about this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and previous QT-fests, especially KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE. Strangely enough, that ties in with both my research and what I called Copernicus' Law of Science Fiction in the Science of Avatar article. Way back in 2000, I think in a semi-drunken rant, I had complained to Quentin that I hate movies that ignore science because they are lazy, but I love movies that get it right. It is ok to bend the rules, but only to serve the story. He remembered (I had forgotten I told him), and in the context of KISS THE GIRLS he repeated that and sort of did an impression of me and what I'd said in his own insane Quentin style when he was introducing that film for the "Best of QT Fest." Quentin was impressed that KISS THE GIRLS got the science right -- they use "a rare isotope of Cobalt" in that film, and radioactivity from Cobalt-56 is what powers supernovae, and makes them so bright that we can see them from across the universe. You can see what Harry wrote about it at the time here. Anyway, yesterday, aside from swapping festival stories, I did complain that we've gone too long without a QT fest. He said yes he ought to have one after all the stuff with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is done. But he also mentioned that he now owns the New Beverly Theater in LA, so he might have to have the next one there. He also said he's not working on a new film yet. One other QT/Cameron curiosity is that at the panel, while talking about whether 3D was a game-changer, Quentin said if he'd seen AVATAR first he might have done KILL BILL differently. He'd always wanted KILL BILL to be kind of like a ride, and that he doesn't think he achieved that, but the closest he got was the House of Blue Leaves sequence. After catching up with QT, I made my way over to Cameron. Ok, after writing that sentence, I do appreciate what a lucky bastard I am. Again, I remind you that these aren't word-for-word quotes, I'm paraphrasing, based on my memories and the notes I scribbled down after our conversation. COPERNICUS: Hey, my name is Andy Howell, and I'm covering the festival for Ain't It Cool News, but I'm also a professor of astrophysics here at UCSB.
CAMERON: That seems pretty incongruous, a writer and an astrophysicist. So what do you study, what's your specialty?
COPERNICUS: I do supernovae... and I study Dark Energy.
CAMERON: Oh I do supernovae...
[teasingly, as if I'm being too nonchalant about such an exotic thing... but hey if you do anything for long enough it doesn't seem so hard, and you get quite familiar with it. Later, on the panel Lee Daniels did the same thing to Cameron, saying that he didn't feel worthy up there with Cameron just casually dropping, "On TERMINATOR, on ALIENS... on TITANIC..." That got a huge laugh.]
CAMERON: Dark energy.. and Dark Matter... those are two of the most interesting scientific problems right now.. 98% of what we know is about 2% of the universe.
COPERNICUS: Yes! We're the odd stuff! The "normal stuff" in the universe we've only found out about recently -- we've only known about it for 10 years or so!
CAMERON: Yeah we can only see it indirectly, through gravity... the expansion...
COPERNICUS: Yes, we're making a map of the history of the expansion of the universe, using supernovae, and from that we can work it out. Here in Santa Barbara we're building a global network of telescopes to study supernovae for that, and to find extrasolar planets.
CAMERON: Are they large field-of-view, large-format detectors?
COPERNICUS: No, more like medium format... maybe like half a square degree.
CAMERON: So what's the advantage...
COPERNICUS: Well, with a global network it is always dark somewhere so you can follow anything that varies for weeks continuously, you don't have to be interrupted by daytime. And you get around weather problems. And with northern and southern hemisphere telescopes you can see the whole sky. They don't have to be large format because we're not using them to make discoveries... we're following things up, doing the science.. there are plenty of projects out there making the discoveries for us to follow and confirm. Like, for planets, the Kepler mission...
CAMERON: That's staring at one region of the sky and looking for what varies, right?
COPERNICUS: Yes, many square degrees, but relatively large pixels. They discover stuff, and we can check it out and follow it in more detail.
CAMERON: Is Kepler already making discoveries?
COPERNICUS: Yeah, it is going great, they just announced their first batch of discoveries that the American Astronomical Society meeting.
CAMERON: So you are looking for the light of the star dimming when the planet goes in front? Not looking for the wobble of the star, right?
COPERNICUS: Exactly, Kepler, and we, are looking for the transits, but people can use other facilities to look for radial velocity variations after the fact.
CAMERON: So you have to see them edge-on... so you're only seeing like 10% of what's out there. You know there is 10 times as much that you can't see, but you can figure out what you're missing...
COPERNICUS: Exactly... after all these years we're finally able to constrain a number in the Drake Equation!
CAMERON: Yeah it has like 20 terms! It is amazing how little we know... how thin the scientific constraints are. But even still, it inspires people... people are always asking me, "When are we going to find a Pandora."
COPERNICUS: So I wrote an article on "The Science of Avatar" for Ain't It Cool, and it easily got the biggest reaction out of anything I've ever written, either about movies or science.
CAMERON: It is amazing how it has connected with people.
COPERNICUS: You got all these bloggers and talkbackers talking about science, rather than just pop culture... debating the finer points of convergent evolution...
CAMERON: There's a reason they look like humans, but it hasn't been revealed yet...
COPERNICUS: You mean like in a future film? [Cameron answered in a way that I took to be affirmative, but I can't remember if he said yes, or nodded, or just smiled] COPERNICUS: Like they were seeded....
CAMERON: No... well... [I suspect changing the subject because he didn't want to reveal anything.] The real reason is that they have to be similar enough that the audience can connect with them.
COPERNICUS: Of course... but in most science fiction, people have just shown a desert planet or snow, and that has to stand in for something more exotic, but you've really taken us for the first time to a truly alien world. I'm wondering, with the tools you've developed, how far you can push it into the truly alien.
CAMERON: Well we started off like that... we went really extreme... purple skies, different colored plants, but we found that you just didn't buy it.... not for two hours. So we dialed it back, and put more of the exotic stuff into the nighttime stuff, the bioluminescence. But there's an argument to be made that chlorophyll might be out there... that maybe this experiment has been done many times on earth, and chlorophyll is the best way to extract energy from sunlight.
COPERNICUS: Of course it depends on the output of the star.
COPERNICUS: But that's why I love the choice of Alpha Centauri -- sunlike stars... similar spectrum... and they are close, space travel is sorta plausible.
CAMERON: Of course the energy requirements are still an order of magnitude out of reach, and there's an argument that we'll never be able to achieve that.
COPERNICUS: Yeah, but you have to tell your story.
CAMERON: There's also an argument that any civilization you approach might destroy you before you get there. If you come shooting in at 0.75c [3/4 the speed of light], with a spaceship the size that we see in movies -- if you hit the planet, you'd destroy it. They don't know you can stop that thing. Are they going to take the risk?
COPERNICUS: Haha, that's a good point. But I still like how you've made things scientifically plausible.
CAMERON: Well... the floating mountains. A physicist friend of mine calculated that for a pure superconducting mountain, to break it off and float it would require a magnetic field so strong that it would rip the hemoglobin out of your blood...
COPERNICUS: Yeah I started to do that calculation...
CAMERON: But you know science fiction is kind of the opposite of science. In science you start with the facts and figure out the story, but in science fiction you start with the story and then fill in the science...
COPERNICUS: Well, I was inspired to do science by watching movies by you, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, then of course later I got into reading and watching Carl Sagan, but most of my colleagues, at least the ones my age, first got inspired by movies, and then started reading more. So one of your legacies, especially with AVATAR, may be that you inspired the people finding all these planets, including the person who does find the real Pandora.
CAMERON: I was recently asked to pick one of my films to show to 5th and 6th graders. Without question, I picked Aliens of the Deep.
[At this point they started giving directions on what to do to the assembled panel... telling them to get ready to go onstage, but he finished talking, whispering the rest while the powers that be were wrangling them up]
CAMERON: I made that to make science aspirational. I wanted to show young researchers making discoveries, not just old professors in tweed suits.
[I didn't catch everything he said there because of the noise, but he was echoing a sentiment he had expressed the previous night when he got the award, that science has not been well served by the filmmaking community, and he wanted to change that.] With that, they rushed everyone out to get ready to go onstage. Quint is going to write up what was said on the panel (which was great). But the one bit of AVATAR news is about possible sequels. I think the moderator said Rupert Murdoch has announced sequels but he wasn't sure Cameron had signed off. Cameron said: "There's still some deals to be made... which will be easier now that Rupert's announced it." That line got big laughs. It was so cool to get to talk James Cameron about science and AVATAR. So I'd like to thank him, and everyone who helped arrange it. I was quite impressed -- he knows his astrophysics better that just about every non-astronomer I've met. And he's quite a curious guy. I agree with Leonard Maltin, who the night before, when interviewing Cameron, said curiosity is one of the most under-valued, but most valuable traits a person can have.

Readers Talkback
comments powered by Disqus