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Presenting the Physics Oscars!

ByKate BeckerThe Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality

It was a good year for science at the movies. So as the Beautiful People prepare to don their Beautiful Outfits and receive Oscar honors for acting, directing, and other such Academy-sanctioned achievements, we consulted with a small “academy” of physicists to create some very special prizes for this year’s science-themed and science-inspired movies.

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Check out our prizes, and make your own nominations on Twitter using #physicsoscars. We’ll share favorites here on The Nature of Reality and retweet them at @novaphysics.

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And now, the envelope please…

Category: Most Completely Veiled, Almost Certainly Unintentional Allusion to the Vacuum State of the Universe
Winner: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

According to some theorists, our apparently stable universe may one day spontaneously degenerate from its current “false vacuum” state into a “true vacuum.” As physicists Michael Turner and Frank Wilczek

wrote in Nature back in 1982, “without warning, a bubble of true vacuum could nucleate somewhere in the universe and move outwards at the speed of light, and before we realized what swept by us our protons would decay away.”

The heroes (and villains) of “Guardians of the Galaxy” quest after a bauble called the “infinity stone” which has some tantalizing similarities to the true vacuum. It has the potential to obliterate everything in the cosmos , it has a (vague) connection to the formation of the universe, and its wave of destruction seems to move, if not at the speed of light, then pretty darn fast. No news yet on whether the false vacuum, like the infinity stone, is purple.

Category: Most Chronologically Inaccurate Allusions to Physics Terminology
Winner: “The Theory of Everything”
Awarded by: Paul Halpern (Professor of Physics, University of the Sciences)

Stephen Hawking received his First Class Degree from Oxford in 1962 and soon began his doctoral program at Cambridge under the supervision of Dennis Sciama. In the film, Sciama (circa 1963 or 1964) mentions that his course will separate the “quarks from the quacks.” Although Murray Gell-Mann coined the term “quark” in 1964 , it didn’t come into common usage, even among physicists, until at least the late 1960s, so nobody would have used it in a joke at the time the scene was set. The film has Roger Penrose talking about black holes around the same period, when the term was coined by John Wheeler in 1967 .

Category: Best Takedown of the Isolated Genius Cliché
Winner: “The Theory of Everything”
Awarded by: David Kaiser (Professor of the History of Science, MIT)

As David Kaiser wrote last fall for the Huffington Post , “The Theory of Everything” “brought to mind my colleague Helene Mialet’s fascinating book, Hawking Incorporated . Mialet’s main argument is that Stephen Hawking presents an extreme case that illustrates more general features of modern science. No one is an isolated genius. Every scientist is embedded in a variety of networks, both interpersonal and instrumental: from family members, mentors, colleagues, and students to the diagrams we draw and the other means with which we sketch, share, test, and refine our ideas. Hawking’s physical condition makes these embeddings manifest. In that sense, Hawking’s story, as rendered on screen, offers notable insights into scientific practice.”

Category: Best Use of the Turing Test to Remind You What This Film Was About, In Case You Weren’t Paying Attention for the Last 110 Minutes
Winner: “The Imitation Game”

In 1950, the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing asked whether it would ever be possible to build a machine that could pass as a human being. In 2014, Turing’s character in “The Imitation Game” put it another way: “Now you decide: am I a machine, am I a human? Am I a war hero, or am I a criminal?” This stylish rhetorical twist on the Turing test doesn’t illuminate much about Turing’s “imitation game,” which has become a touchstone for artificial intelligence researchers, but it does suggest an appropriate kickoff question for your book club discussion.

Category: Most Improbable Use of Extra Dimensions and a Bookshelf in a Major Motion Picture
Winner: “Interstellar”
Awarded by: Don Lincoln (Senior physicist, Fermilab)

The movie “Interstellar” was a lovely visual experience with some interesting and possibly valid physical ideas, but the idea that you can fall into a black hole, experience higher dimensional beings and a tesseract, and communicate in the past with your former self? Not so much.

While there remain mysteries about the insides of a black hole, it seems pretty improbable that the inside of the black hole would be the only place they would exist. And if highly advanced beings exist, that makes me wonder if they are so advanced, why they didn’t just bop on over to Earth and talk to McConaughey’s character…you know…just take him out to lunch or something. I mean picking up the tab, even with a healthy tip, has got to be cheaper than making a black hole and hoping that we’d fall into it.

Keep the nominations coming using #physicsoscars, and follow The Nature of Reality on Twitter at @novaphysics

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Alan Turing: The Enigma
Andrew Hodges’ 1992 biography of Alan Turing, on which “The Imitation Game” is based.

Nature: And the winner is: not science
Colin Macilwain argues that this year’s big-screen portrayals of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking fail to shed new light on “what made these scientists tick.”

Science Insider: Physicist who inspired Interstellar spills the backstory—and the scene that makes him cringe
A behind-the-scenes Q&A with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, science adviser to “Interstellar.”

Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen
Jane Hawking’s memoir, from which “The Theory of Everything” was adapted.

This project/research was supported by grant number FQXi-RFP-1822 from the Foundational Questions Institute and Fetzer Franklin Fund, a donor-advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.