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Studying physics in films

Obeying the laws of physics?

By Michael Banks

Imagine being able to watch movies for your undergraduate studies. I certainly wouldn’t have minded it. But this is what students at Boston University are doing as part of a cinema-physica course.

Every week students watch movies such as Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Armageddon, and use class discussions and experiments to examine the basic physics behind some of the scenes in the movie.

The course is run by physicist Andrew Cohen who says that it is meant to give humanities students a better (sixth?) sense of what science is about.

“What I want them to understand is how a scientific analysis works,” says Cohen.

So what can students expect on the cinema-physica course?

Cohen runs a clip from Speed 2 showing a cruise ship ploughing into a harbour. In true Hollywood style, people are then thrown out of the ship’s windows as it crashes through the dock.

In the lecture, Cohen and the class calculate that before the ship comes to rest it would have been decelerating at 0.1 metre per second squared. As Cohen says this is a “gentle breeze – no one would be spilling their drinks,” rather than being violently ejected from the ship.

So does it really matter if the science is accurate, and does Hollywood need a lesson in physics?

“Well, no I don’t think so,” says Cohen. “But that doesn’t mean I think they get their all their physics right, but why should they?”

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