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Twister and scientists - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Twister and scientists
I watched Twister on TNT this past weekend. It really is a good movie. For a Crichton project, it has good characters (which is sort of like saying, for an Ashlee Simpson performance, it's very naturalistic, but I digress), and its theme about the randomness of destruction and the chaotic breakdown of a marriage both people value is interesting.

But there's a thread of it that really kind of rings false, and that's the whole "early warning" part, voiced by all of the scientists.

Well, sure, it's fine for the cameras, and the Jo character does have some severe issues involved,though they were forced. But when our Designated NonScienceNerd stand-in--Bill's new financee, Melissa--asks what the new techno-toy in question will do, all of the scientists seem to jump in with, "It'll give a quicker warning system so people can get to safety!"

This rings so wrong.

Oh, I'm not saying that scientists aren't interested in helping people, or would be averse to learning about a tornado leading to helping people escape tornadoes in the future. But honestly, when Melissa frowns and says, basically, "What would knowing that give us?", how many scientists do you know who would automatically leap to a practical application? I mean, seriously, the more honest presentation of this confrontation is in the first Spider-man movie, when Peter Parker and Harry are looking at spiders in a lab, and Peter starts ticking off obscure facts. Harry, a non-scientist (up to this point, anyway), says, "Peter, why would you think I'd even want to know that?" Unfazed in his geeky glory, Peter says, "Who wouldn't?"

In Twister, a bunch of obviously obsessed scientists are chasing tornadoes around, and have been doing so for years. One of them might have a childhood trauma to account for, but all of them? I doubt it. Most of them are very obviously doing it because they love tornadoes and want to know everything about them. The presentation of people like Dusty and Rabbit makes a lot of sense specifically because they don't stop and try to explain themselves, and even the major character, Bill, doesn't offer a real explanation. When Jo and Bill embrace and laugh after being spun by a tornado, Melissa is weeping in fear. When Melissa is almost hit by a falling truck, she's terrified, while Dusty is congratulating her on something so cool happening. These are clearly not people who share a system of judgment with non-scientists.

So why would they automatically--not in a sense of performance or a secondary thought line or anything--answer passionately on an non-science judgment question?

I think that if Jo were talking to a press or to a foundation trying to get grant money, she'd certainly jump right in. But they're talking to this new interloper who is attached in a social way to a member of the group, and all of them get on this "It'll be an early warning system!" bandwagon. I'm sorry, but everything about the other aspects of these particular characters--even putting aside scientists in general--suggests that their answer would be more like Peter Parker's. Why would we want to know what's going on inside a tornado? Well... who wouldn't?

They might recognize Melissa as an outsider and come up with the other answer eventually; it's not out of character for them to have that as a perfectly genuine notion of how the science would be applied. It's the immediacy of it that rings so false, as if adequate warning time alone would make them stop chasing storms as long as there were storms to chase. These are, after all, people who consider discussion of "the suck zone" to be fascinating fodder for a new acquaintance. They would, at the very least, stop and look puzzled at the question before realizing that she means, "Oh, what's it going to do for her?" and then point out the benefit of warning time. And probably only one of them would do the explaining while the others fidgeted impatiently.

Anyway, I'm just being cranky.
11 comments or Leave a comment
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: January 11th, 2005 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, the only thing you've said that makes me think this sounds odd is that Dusty was congratulating her, which suggests that they don't recognize her as not sharing the "cool" reaction at that point.

You get used to being asked for applications, trust me. And it's easiest if there really is an application that can be boiled down to a soundbite and delivered enthusiastically. (And some people do get into science because they're fascinated with what discoveries might eventually be able to do, though in this case it doesn't sound that way; actually, you make me suspect that while they realize allowing people to get to safety is good, the really exciting part for them -- which they may be channeling into the explanation -- is that they'd have a better chance to get to the tornado.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 11th, 2005 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, the only thing you've said that makes me think this sounds odd is that Dusty was congratulating her, which suggests that they don't recognize her as not sharing the "cool" reaction at that point.

That's the thing. They're in full-on insider mode most of the time. They continually forget that she's not one of them. Then for random let's-explain-this-to-the-audience moments, suddenly, they treat her like an outsider. Then, bam, back to their geek zone.
melyanna From: melyanna Date: January 11th, 2005 09:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'll admit, I've never seen all of Twister — what I've seen of it is so scientifically bad that I've just never bothered. It's nothing like real chasing, and I just can't suspend my disbelief. But honestly, a better early warning system is the goal of most serious chasers.

It's a huge thrill, sure. Last spring my group was in a pretty dangerous situation when the sun set and we had no idea where the tornado was moving anymore. And yeah, afterward we sat around and talked about how it was so cool. But while it was all happening, we were calling the local weather service station and telling them what was going on, and they were giving out warnings based on our information.

In the end, that's what field research for meteorologists boils down to. Storms are hugely destructive forces, and the end goal of understanding them is to better predict them. There are a lot of meteorologists out there who really are just fascinated by it, but most of the ones I've met have understood that their research will eventually translate into a public service, as the early warning system is improved.

So you asked how many scientists will immediately jump to a practical application in answering a question — they're probably an anomaly in the scientific community, but in general, meteorologists do.
azaelia_culnamo From: azaelia_culnamo Date: January 11th, 2005 10:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is OT, but did you get my email? I sent it to your gmail account...
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 12th, 2005 01:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: And the Tsunami?

Did I suggest that they were mutually exclusive? Sheesh. No, I just said that when they are going out there, it's very obvious that what they want is to see the inside of the tornado. They're in a high emotional state, and I doubt that these things would be the first to trip off of their tongues.
twigkris From: twigkris Date: January 12th, 2005 02:38 am (UTC) (Link)

From a neuroscientist

Like the poster above me, I haven't seen Twister either. But I can comment a bit about the rest of us science-types, although be warned that I have been reading grad school spplications for the last 4 days.

In general, most scientists start out "wanting to help people". In fact, that is such a common answer to the "Why do you want to study X" or "Why do you want to attend school Y", that you are actually choiced NOT to give that answer. So yes, helping others is often what gets you in the door of scientific discovery.

What keeps people in science, however, is the thrill of discovery. We love finding out what happens when you splice gene X with promoter Y. For us, it's like playtime. And while knowing all of those details is important to us, we usually understand that it isn't all that important to others. We don't know why, but we understand.

So, in that aspect, I don't think that the scientists in question would be quite so selfish that they wouldn't jump on early warning system. Any time anyone asks me why I'm studying what I'm studying, I always start out by talking about the practical applications of it, regardless of if their science-types or not.

And I cannot tell you how sick I am of reading personal statements about how much the applicants want to help people.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: January 12th, 2005 03:06 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: From a neuroscientist

My own answer above, I admit, was partly influenced by my PIs' recent frustration with the difficulty of getting funding for methods development (such as, in our case, working on ways to make the determination of large molecular structures easier and more accurate) and for basic science where we don't know enough about the particular aspect of the universe to guess what the applications might be yet.

Personally, I'm starting to think her complaint this time sounds more like a problem with the reaction sounding odd for these specific characters than for scientists in general. I haven't seen the movie either, but the characters sound as if they only rarely shift gears into practical as opposed to "Oh, wow, weather!" mode, if they're congratulating someone on almost being hit by a truck.
twigkris From: twigkris Date: January 12th, 2005 03:32 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: From a neuroscientist

Oh, I realize that that was Fern's beef with the movie. I was just saying that in my experience, not all scientists were that way.

And there are definitely some cases where you really don't know how your work will help society as a whole. I personally have yet to figure out what organic chemistry has do with anything.

-From a scientist who is sooo not a chemist.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: January 12th, 2005 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: From a neuroscientist

I confess also to having not been entirely clear when I first read her post as to whether this was a specific or general type of characterization annoyance, given the comparison to Peter Parker. *g*

As someone who majored in chemistry, despite deciding that organic synthesis was not my calling in life, I'd say that many organic chemists can probably tell you at least some example applications pretty easily, actually. Drug design and industrial solvents come to mind first.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: January 12th, 2005 03:06 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: From a neuroscientist

Really? As a soon-to-be science student, the answer "wanting to help people" wouldn't cross my mind. Stuff the rest of the world - I plan on an obscure and rather pointless branch of research (exobiology) because that's what fascinates me, and because I get a thrill out of discovery and new knowledge in that field. That's true of my friends who are going into science, too. Such a generous motive as aiding the world would occur to all of us later. If at all.

But I suppose when they're trying to impress a university, applicants want to sound like kind and wonderful people.
twigkris From: twigkris Date: January 12th, 2005 03:38 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: From a neuroscientist

Part of my bias is that I am in a highly biomedical science and have to deal with those sticky MD-types all the live-long day. Both of my advisors are MD-PhD and so are two of my fellow grad students. Plus, it's somewhat hard to explain why you want to study spinal cord injury without saying you want to help people walk again, why you want to track down the chemical imbalances during depression without wanting to help people with depression... I could go on.

So I suppose what you are studying is something of a qualifier here.

Exobiology sounds cool by the way. I wish I knew more about it.
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