Installment 1: Accidental Painting, Flatland: the Movie, and Flatland 2: Sphereland

People love science fiction and Hollywood loves the piles of money these films make. The record holder for worldwide box office proceeds among all films is James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar (2009), coming in at a cool $2.8 billion. Other science fiction films have also done well. When paired with the related category of superhero films, the science fiction genre makes up nearly a third of the 60 all-time highest grossing movies, with The Hunger Games (2012) number 60 at $691 million.

Each of these blockbusters exposes millions of moviegoers to some science or at the very least, a “sciency” aura. That can be a good thing, but audience members must watch them with a critical eye, keeping in mind that these films put more weight on entertainment than on science. Fortunately, for those who want to see science well represented in the media, other categories, such as documentaries or videos can put the science front and center.

However, these short efforts reach comparatively tiny audiences. The highest grossing documentary ever, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) earned $119 million – far below even The Hunger Games. The two most successful short films with scientific elements, the nature documentary March of the Penguins (2005), and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), about global warming, earned only $77 million and $24 million respectively.

If short films are not mass market, there is an upside – the freedom to do things besides entertain, such as presenting science correctly and with integrity rather than only in service to a story; helping to educate by demonstrating abstract scientific ideas in visual or animated terms; and making it possible for filmmakers, and scientists themselves, to reach out to non-scientists.

Short films and videos play a vital role in the spectrum of science for the  public that is unmet by science fiction features. With that in mind, I want to recognize three efforts I’ve recently encountered, and will report on more in the future as I come across them.

Accidental Painting


Detail, bottom right, David Alfaro Siqueiros Collective Suicide, (1936, MOMA).
From the video ”Siqueiros accidental painting technique,” Sandra Zetina and Roberto Zenit, UNAM.

The Division of Fluid Dynamics, American Physical Society, invites physicists annually to submit videos that illustrate fluids – liquids and gasses – in motion. Fluids are complicated; their behavior is nonlinear and non-intuitive, and appears to be random when it is turbulent. Yet fluids in motion can also be compelling, from water plunging over a cliff to the huge swirl of the Great Red Spot on the planet Jupiter, a storm bigger than the Earth.

In 2012, one particular entry showed beautiful images and also illustrated the physics behind an aesthetic process: ”Siqueiros accidental painting technique,” submitted by Sandra Zetina and Roberto Zenit of UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

With the well-known artist Diego Rivera, Robert Alfaro Siqueiros was a leader of the Mexican artistic and social movement that painted huge public murals from the 1920s to the 1940s. He was a revolutionary in politics and also in art, where he proposed new artistic techniques. One that he developed is “accidental painting,” in which he placed a layer of paint atop another layer of a different color. The two would interpenetrate, producing what he called “the most magical fantasies and forms that the human mind can imagine.”

The video shows these forms in Siqueiros’ painting Collective Suicide (1936, MOMA), then illustrates that they come from a well known fluid effect, Rayleigh-Taylor instability. When a fluid is supported by a second fluid of lower density, gravity pulls the first fluid into the second to produce complex, turbulent fingers in both. To demonstrate, Zetina and Zenit put white paint onto a black layer of lower density. The video shows the result as the instability develops, the almost miraculous dynamic appearance of the kinds of forms Siqueiros described.

In just three minutes, this video introduces an artist and his art and teaches about fluid mechanics with striking images and music, added to the original video by Brian Jacobsmeyer of Physics Central. The result is a small artistic gem.

Flatland: the Movie and Flatland 2: Sphereland

In 1884, Edwin A. Abbott, an educator trained in mathematics, classics and theology, wrote a little book that has become a classic. Flatland is an appealing fantasy about a two dimensional world, inhabited by creatures who manage to function with one dimension less than we do. By the end of the book, they have also begun to understand that the world has three dimensions and maybe more.

People are fascinated by the notion of dimensionality and the concept is important in science, as in the ten to 26 dimensions that string theory proposes to describe the universe. For these reasons Flatland has remained popular and has inspired other fiction about dimensionality such as Dionys Burger’s Sphereland (1965) and Alexander Dewdney’s The Planiverse (1984).

It has also inspired two short animated films, Flatland: The Movie (2007), directed by Dano Johnson and Jeffrey Travis, and the sequel Flatland 2: Sphereland (2012) directed by Johnson (which also draws on the book Sphereland). These use animation to teach students about geometry and dimensionality in an entertaining way.

Flatland: the Movie follows Abbot’s book and adds twists of its own. In the book, the Flatland creatures have geometric shapes  – triangles, squares and so on up to circles. In the film we meet animated six-sided Hex (voice by Kristin Bell), the sprightly young granddaughter of Arthur Square (Martin Sheen). Hex’s mother has been mysteriously “disappeared” because she believed in a third dimension, which the ruling class of Circles considers heresy.

After adventures that include visits to Pointland and Lineland, Hex and Arthur make a friend of Spherius (Michael York), a denizen of the third dimension, and discover a portal to that world. They elude the clutches of the Circles and begin to understand their newly expanded universe and to wonder about higher dimensions yet.

The story picks up 20 years later in Flatland 2. Hex has become a mathematician who is asked to explain a strange observation: Puncto, a young male hexagon and navigator for the first Flatland mission into space, notices that triangles in space have angles that add up to more than 180o. Hex and Puncto come to realize that this means Flatland is curved in a third dimension. Spherius reappears with Oversphere (Kate Mulgrew), a four dimensional hypersphere, and the film ends with Hex and Puncto ready to go out and explore this rich new universe together.

The characters in these films are charming and funny and the stories are exciting, even for adults  – yet the meaning of dimensionality is expressed in clear and understandable terms, with lots of examples to help students visualize what is going on. For educational purposes, the DVDs include Flatland the book, teaching aids and interviews, and subtitles in several languages. These two films are excellent examples of the use of animation to get across abstract concepts in a way that is correct and also fun.

Sidney Perkowitz, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Emory University, writes about science in film in Hollywood Science, the just released Hollywood Chemistry, and elsewhere. He can be reached at http://sidneyperkowitz.net/.

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