Top 5 movies about scientists

In this NYT interview, Philip “Stanford Prison Experiment” Zimbardo gives his list:

1. “Madame Curie,” 1943

2. “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” 1976

3. “Awakenings,” 1990

4. “The Insider,” 1999

5. “The Imitation Game,” 2014.

Not a very impressive list. But that’s the point, I guess: there haven’t been many good movies about scientists. I was racking my brains and the only obvious omission from this list was Young Frankenstein. Also A Beautiful Mind, but maybe that wasn’t very good, I don’t know. Actually, of all the 5 movies on the above list, the only one I actually saw was The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, back when it came out. It was ok, but nothing special. Certainly not half as good as The Bad News Bears, which came out in that same year. On the other hand, maybe it’s more watchable than Young Frankenstein, which may not have aged well.

Anyway, back to movies about scientists: Are we missing any good ones? Or even any OK ones? Does Moneyball count?

Hmmm, there was The R. A. Fisher Story. Overall not a very significant film, but I remember the stirring climax, that courtroom scene where the great statistician and biologist stands up and gives a stirring speech to the jury, explaining once and for all why cigarette smoking does not cause cancer.

Or maybe that was the Donald Rubin Story? Or the Joseph Fleiss Story? Or the Ingram Olkin Story? Or the Arnold Zellner Story? Or . . .?

Anyway, that’s all we have until “Second Chance U” and “The New Dirty Dozen” come out. They’ll rocket up to #1 and 2 on anybody’s list of top science flicks.

P.S. One commenter mentions Dr. Strangelove. I’d say that’s the winner.

And then I was thinking about The Man With Two Brains, which I’m pretty sure is way better than any of the other scientist movies mentioned above.

P.P.S. Given what we now know about the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment, I guess it would’ve made more sense for Zimbardo to have been asked about his favorite science fiction movies, or maybe his favorite movies about fraud. The Times could’ve included im in a symposium along with Brian Wansink and Marc Hasuer . . . hmmm, let me check something . . . yup. Zimbardo has an Edge Foundation connection too. Jackpot! He’s author of “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.” Sounds kind of Evilicious!

77 thoughts on “Top 5 movies about scientists

  1. The Imitation Game is a really terrible movie. As a big fan of both Turing and Cumberbatch, it was hard to watch.
    I’d maybe put Primer on my list. A couple of engineers accidentally invent a time machine – wackiness ensues. It gets bonus points for 1) possibly being the only time I’ve seen a Feynman diagram in film and 2) forcing me to chart things out to figure out what the hell was going on.

      • That was the only redeeming part of the movie. Otherwise, for me, there was the non-sensical framing story, the weird cuts to CGI-ed fake wartime newsreels, the addition of a female love interest who didn’t exist, and most of all, the fact that they made a movie about building a computer where they never even once attempted to explain how it is that computer actually worked.

        I know that isn’t something that would sell a lot of seats, but I think it would’ve been possible. I’m thinking, for example, of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which does a great job of succinctly describing the intuition behind the machine in a very approachable way.

        • The movie wasn’t bad. It was really bad—it libelled Turing, Denniston, and lots of others.

          Two or three points:
          At the beginning, Commander Denniston appears to have had Turing thrust upon him. In fact, Denniston, seeing the war coming, had scurried off to Oxford and Cambridge and started recruiting—he started early enough that, by the time the UK set up a system for managing the recruitment of science and engineering talent for WWII (with C.P. Snow in charge), he had already signed up several all-stars. There is substantial evidence that he went looking for mathematicians. At about the same time he brought in Turing, he also brought in Gordon Welchman—an algebraic geometry specialist and dean of Sidney Sussex college.. But, the movie plot would suffer if too many mathematicians showed up. So, Welchman’s invention of the diagonal board was attributed to Milner-Barry (IIRC)

          A telling example of the ahistorical nature of the movie: in the movie, at their first meeting, Denniston refers to Turing’s paper “On computable Numbers, with An Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” And describes that last word as unpronounceable. The real Denniston received his undergraduate degree from the University of Bonn and taught German before entering the navy during WWI. It is highly likely that he could both pronounce and understand that word.

          Regarding enigma. Turing turned up at Bletchley in Sept 39. The Poles revealed their methods of breaking enigma to their allies (Denniston is reported to have been at the meeting) in July 39. The key polish cryptographers, led by Marian Rejewski(see Wikipedia article), were all mathematicians.

          Regarding Turing. The movie plays him as an asocial idiot-savant. The british thought him social enough to send him on trips to the US to coordinate with the americans. Reports of his weak social skills make him sound like a typical MIT grad student—weak but not abysmal. In the movie, the police can’t find out much about his war record. In 1946, the King awarded him an OBE. (See SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 24 JUNE, 1946, at p. 3124) Now, in the pre-Google age, it might be hard to find such public information. But, it was not a secret that his nation valued his war service.

          Regarding science and engineering. The high drama of the test of the bombe, with Denniston at the door, trying to break in to shut it down, ignores several facts: (1) Turning did not design or build it—he contributed most of the high-level design. Harold Keen of BTM did the engineering design and BMT built it. (2) Building it—indeed have the priority to get the necessary resources during the war–required confidence that it would work. It was based on sound mathematical principles—there was no doubt that the theory was right—the practical problems were (a) making it work and (b) making it work fast. (3) knowing the theory of the device, when debugging, one would run it on test cases that were known to stop within a minute or two.

          The bombe was a government-funded industrial product development, not a Doc Brown like mad scientist’s creation in the attic. In a real bureaucracy, Denniston would be in his office praying that it would work and trying to think of excuses to give to his bosses if it did not work.

          In total, the movie is about as fact-based as are the Hobbit movies.


        • Not great. But, interested in crypto history as well as Bayesian statistics and outraged by the movie.


          By the way, has Andrew ever posted anything regarding Turing and Bayesian reasoning? I. J. Good was one of Turing’s assistants. Good wrote,

          “The P value can be used in a Neymanian manner for
          making nonprobabilistic statements that are correct in the
          long run in a certain proportion of cases, thus protecting the
          statistician’s rear end (a card-carrying Neymanian has no
          posterior) to some extent, but the client’s less so”

        • I have not seen the movie but since I have read a fair bit about Turing and quite a lot about Bletchley Park it is probably for the best.

          Whoever produced the movie seems to have decided that historical accuracy is not at all important. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be unusual.

          I am reminded of a post years ago on the soc.history.medieval where a contributer suggested that she had noticed roughly 105 problems “and that was in the first two minutes”

          Sadly, I cannot locate the post but she seems to have done a nice critique at

          I liked her comments on the opening scene:
          The appearance of West Highlands are as disctintive compared to the rest of Scotland as the appearance of the Grand Canyon is compared to the rest of America, so this is like using aerial shots of the Grand Canyon in Arizona as the “scene setting” opening shots of a movie about the American War of Independence.)

      • As other comments have pointed out, Turing was highly regarded from the very start, all resources were provided, and there was no serious tension between Turing and his military superiors. The film’s plot and characterisation is a great distortion of what happened into what the scriptwriters thought was a more dramatic story. They thought they needed conflict within the organisation, so they invented it. They thought they needed love interest, so they invented it. They thought they needed a woman making technical contributions, so they invented one — ironically they did not include any of the brilliant women who did actually work there and who did crack codes.

        The movie tried to “dramatise” by using a movie-cliche plot of the crazy yet brilliant scientist battling against the stupid and blinkered military commanders. This seems to have been all they could think of. It is not what happened. Not how it was.

        Do others feel that a problem with science movies is that scriptwriters just do not appreciate the actual drama of science, and they invent conventional drama instead?

        Gordon Welchman’s memoir of Bletchley is a superb account by one of the key scientists there.

      • Anon:

        I’ve never seen Twister (or maybe it’s Twister!; it’s not clear if that punctuation is part of the title or your sentence, or maybe both; this kinda reminds me of when my friends had to go around saying they worked at Yahoo!), but I do appreciate you adding to this thread, which I’d pretty much forgotten.

  2. I’d add the original The Andromeda Strain and even Jurassic Park. I think Michael Crichton had a knack for catching the real (read: unflattering) behaviors and attitudes the scientists and their interactions with society.

  3. How about Real Genius?

    Apollo 13 has lots of engineers, does that count? The Martian is basically the same movie.

    If you’re willing to count Victorian proto-scientists, Angels and Insects is excellent.

    Proof is pretty good, though the play was better than the movie, and the mathematics is mostly just a hook on which to hang a mental health drama.

  4. I like this class of movies that isn’t about Science per se but makes me look up a gazillion little science-ey things because they seem so intriguing. Maybe more of technology than science but not the entirely sci fi genre.

    e.g. The “submarine” movies like “The Hunt for Red October” or “Das Boot”.

    Also, “Crimson Tide” & “The Boys from Brazil”.

  5. Not perhaps a great movie, but Straw Dogs has a good scene:

    “Dustin Hoffman has moved to his wife’s home town in Cornwall, England in the hope of getting some astrophysics done. His bored wife’s flirtations lead to serious trouble. Somewhere along the line she mischievously changes a plus sign to a minus sign in a set of gravitational equations on a blackboard. Hoffman’s response when he finally notices is by far the best and most realistic portrayal of a mathematician in action in the movies.”

  6. I saw *The Insider* back then on the big screen and remember it as very entertaining.

    I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s *Short History of Everything* and it appears that many of the influential scientists before 1900 or so were rather peculiar characters. Many of them sound like fun film material. For example, why no film about Newton, that Mad Genius? Given CGI, that shouldn’t be that expensive anymore. I’m particularly looking forward to the needle-in-the-eye-socket scene. A taylor-made role for Matt Damon!

  7. Our local movie theatre started a “Science on Screen” program that has spread nationally. Read about it here:

    Each movie is selected and introduced by a scientist. One of my favorites last year was Airplane!, selected and introduced by R. John Hansman is the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics at MIT, where he is the Director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation.

    It have to be a great movie to be a great science experience, with some thoughtful expert guidance. (Although Airplane! is great in its way, I don’t mean to imply otherwise.)

    Want to bring this programming to a theatre near you?
    “We are pleased to announce that, next year, we will be awarding a minimum of 20 grants to non-profit cinemas to create or sustain Science on Screen℠ programs. For more information on this initiative, including grant application guidelines and a list of grant recipients, please click here.”

  8. I don’t know how accurate to the true story it was, but I thought The Insider was a fantastic movie. However, it doesn’t have much to do with science. It’s really on the stress that is placed on a whistleblower within the tobacco industry and a journalist’s pressure from his employer.

      • The Andromeda Strain and Brainstorm (Natalie Wood ‘accidentally’ died during a production break nearly sinking the film) were great. Pi was a big huge pile of steaming horse manure/numerology. Admittedly numerology is a more reliable guide to the truth than “p-value less .05”, but still “Pi” stank bad.

  9. Not a movie, but I thought Arcadia was excellent.

    (I think of this only because I saw it at the same theatre as Arcadia – or maybe not, doesn’t matter – but I went into Picasso at the Lapin Agile really wanting to like it and came away very disappointed. Anyone else with an opinion?)

    • Plays are quite different from movies in quality of portrayals of scientists. For example, Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is a masterpiece. It makes you proud to be a member of the human race.

      I haven’t seen Frayn’s “Copenhagen” (about Bohr and Heisenberg), but I’ve read it and it’s terrific on paper. (Stoppard’s “Hapgood,” on the other hand, is too difficult.)

  10. Since the movie choice set has been extended to works of fiction, I’m surprised no one mentioned Forbidden Planet. It (quite accurately, IMHO) the true motivation of a scientist–the untrammeled id getting loose and wrecking havoc on everyone who tries to thwart the scientist’s will, which is pretty much everyone. The facade of objectivity of the typical scientist is simply that, a facade, particularly when one gets into economics and political science.

  11. “Proof” stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins and is about “the daughter of a brilliant but mentally disturbed mathematician, recently deceased, tries to come to grips with her possible inheritance: his insanity!!”

    Nicholas Roeg’s “Insignificance” tells the unlikely story of a meeting in a hotel room between characters loosely based on Einstein, Joe Dimaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Senator Joe McCarthy. In addition, the all-star cast teams up the ever excellent Theresa Russell (Roeg’s wife) with Gary Busey (pre-motorcycle accident brain damage), Tony Curtis and a relative unknown, Michael Emil, as The Professor. The theory of relativity is explained.

  12. The Martian.
    Though the main character does a bunch of engineering, he is not an engineer, but a botanist.

    My cousin (also a botanist) was so amused just from hearing the phrase “botanist powers” that his wife thought there must be something wrong with him.

  13. The Polish comedy “Seksmisja” from 1984 is about a couple of male scientists that allow themselves to be frozen for 3 years in the name of science, only to be woken up 50 years later after all males have become extinct. Pretty much no science in the move, but it’s a cultural classic.

  14. Don’t know about movies but there are some great science comics like Logicomix it Ottaviani’s Feynman.

    What I see missing from above commentary is movies about the social aspects of science. Why always the mad scientist? Why not the fraud? Or the mediocre? The climber or the despot?

    Any suggestion for a good faculty politics movie? I was thinking Watergate, as an allegory of course.

  15. I’m a little surprised that The Martian has only been listed twice so far. It’s a really enjoyable movie, but maybe more relevant to this discussion is how pro-science it is without being ridiculous. It made you feel really good about NASA (and science in general). There’s no obviously anti-science person to play strawman; everyone has clear responsibilities and motivations and acts accordingly in a reasonable way.

  16. Last but not least are two screwball comedies — Bringing Up Baby directed by Howard Hawkes with Katharine Hepburn as a dizzy socialite and Cary Grant as a befuddled paleontologist. Also worth a mention is Preston Sturges The Lady Eve with a sublime Barbara Stanwyck as a lovestruck con artist and Henry Fonda as a priggishly smitten herpetologist.

  17. I don’t know why you are citing the bias opinions of some leftist law professors. If you are trying to say the movie-makers were biased against Turing, then I agree with you. They butchered his life story in a very offensive way.

        • You are missing the point if you think those are critical issues to the movie. If this were a documentary, your argument would have some legs, but it is not.

        • So “Research and quality data is valued over opinion” unless it’s your opinion, in which case everyone else needs to shut up about the data.


        • Your entire argument was you liked the main messages of the movie, so everyone else should shut up about factual mistakes.

          That’s not reason. Thats just you being another self important academic boob who can’t stand to allowing others to voice even the mildest disagreements with your blather.

        • My liking the movie was my *opinion*.

          My argument was that dramatic liberties go with the territory of the dramatization of stories even when based in reality and that unless one is critiquing a documentary it is mostly beside the point.

  18. James, why do you keep posting your opinions?

    The movie was a gross distortion of Turing’s life story, from beginning to end. Maybe about 5 sentences from the biography made it correctly into the movie. The rest was just made up. Much was distorted to suit the ideology of the movie makers. This is not just my opinion. It is the conclusion of reviewers who compared the movie to the facts of Turing’s biography.

    • Both your perspective and that of the reviewers is utterly beside the point. It is a movie that took dramatic liberties, but which highlighted important themes in Turing’s life. The most important being how his homosexuality was treated by the intelligence service, military, and British Gov’t.

      You can quibble with issues of chronology and factual accuracy of relationships, etc. But, it was a movie that conveyed some very real truths, to dismiss those truths is equally bigoted.

      • I can’t even imagine what kind of ideological blinkers you must have to read “bigoted” into anything Roger wrote. He said he thought it was an awful movie which got most facts from his biography wrong (which others pointed out at length in the comments and appears to be true).

        Seriously, how in the hell did you jump from that to thinking Roger is leading the next anti-homosexual pogrom? He never said anything about homosexuality!

        I get the feeling whenever you paint a portrait, it’s a self portrait.

        • I did. Still haven’t found any evidence of evidence of him harming homosexuals. You two likely disagree on many things. Yet his worldview is wide enough to let you speak your mind, while yours is so narrow you can’t stand someone freely disagreeing with you in blog comments.

        • I did not accuse Roger of ‘harming homosexuals’. I accused Roger of making a false inference when he argued that the makers of Enigma were biased against Turing.

          The actual bias is coming from Roger and from Robert above who are trying to use possible discrepancies between a book and the movie to entirely dismiss the points made by in the movie about how Turing was treated by intelligence, the military, and the Government because of his sexuality.

  19. James, you say that Turing’s homosexuality was the most important thing, but it was a very small part of the movie, and it was portrayed completely inaccurately. The movie portrayed him as being blackmailed, and then betraying his country. This did not happen.

    • That’s my point. If it in fact occurred, it would in all likelihood have been done secretly and surreptitiously which could become known if someone revealed them, but they would not be documented otherwise. The absence of documentation is not proof.

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