‘The Theory of Everything’ – A Hollywood Take on Science

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The new movie, The Theory of Everything, is about the life of Stephen Hawking from his graduation from Oxford to his becoming famous and then separating from his devoted wife of over a quarter century. Please, everyone, go to this movie. Why? Because it’s a good story, well acted and directed, and because you will be supporting the concept of telling the stories of scientists in movies. We must have more of this.

Stephen has a special resonance with me for strictly non-scientific reasons. We were born in the same year. We both entered prestigious colleges at the same age, 17, and went on to prestigious graduate schools for our doctorates. We were both married in the same year, he to Jane and I to Jayne. Of course, there are innumerable differences to balance these few coincidences. I majored in chemistry, he in physics. I have enjoyed rather good health overall. He is outrageously famous, while I labor in obscurity. And so it goes.

The Theory of EverythingBefore getting to the science, I’ll praise Eddie Redmayne for his uncanny portrayal of Stephen Hawking. From the early stumbling to the later crablike fingers and the difficulty in forming words, he nails Hawking in a manner that I never would have believed. Especially moving are the scenes in which he has the twinkle and slight smile showing Hawking’s personal joy at special moments and his puckish sense of humor.

This is a wonderful love story in which personal connection overcomes insurmountable odds. Jane (Wilde) Hawking’s (played by Felicity Jones) indomitable spirit lifts Stephen Hawking to the threshold of his greatness. We see this spirit and unwillingness to give up displayed several times in the movie. The very fact that Jane has three children, the last when Stephen is unable to move from his wheelchair speaks volumes about her. Ms. Jones brings a real sense of what the actual Mrs. Hawking must have felt to many of the scenes in the movie.  Continue reading

The ‘Fury’ of War Tanks

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The new Hollywood movie, FURY, focuses on tanks, their role, and tank crews in World War II. This 2-hour 14-minute film opens in theaters on Friday, 17 Oct. 2014. It stars Brad Pitt, a sure audience draw, playing the somewhat complex leader of the five-man crew of the FURY, a Sherman tank. If you go to this movie, watch Logan Lerman as Normal Ellison. He almost steals the show.

The movie starts in April 1945, near the end of the European part of World War II. VE (Victory in Europe) day is celebrated here as May 8, 1945. It’s spring, and everything is mud, mud, mud. American troops are in Germany by this time, and the famous Battle of the Bulge ended a few months earlier. German troops are now defending their homeland ferociously.

FURY, a Sherman tank.

FURY, a Sherman tank.

The main character of this movie truly is FURY, at least for me, and really did steal the show when I watched. The tank used in the filming was real, supplied by the Tank Museum in Bovington, England, a late-war Sherman with a 76mm gun. That’s the big gun on the turret. The inside shots were done in a specially created set that could open up in several directions for the different shots. The entire set was mounted on a gimbal that could move it for the inside shots where the tank was in motion. If you think that the inside of that tank looks really crowded, you should know that it was made 10% larger than the real thing.

Before discussing tanks in more detail, I should warn potential movie goers that this is a very violent movie with lots of grisly scenes, very grisly, and plenty of profane language in nearly every scene. Interestingly, there is no explicit sex.

For those who don’t mind the above, this is truly a riveting and tense movie. There’s little let up in the tension that begins with the first scene. I found it difficult to turn away from the screen even when the most horrific scenes took place. The characters are interesting but, except for Pitt (playing Wardaddy) and Lerman, they’re not plumbed deeply. Even Wardaddy, who says, “It’s my home” about the tank, never has this aspect explained, except implicitly. We are left to wonder if this attachment came about over time or from a single incident. We also are given no clue as to how he became fluent in German.

One more “character” in the movie is the entire FURY tank crew of five. The examination of the development of this team and its personality helps to make up for not looking more deeply into the individual characters because it’s the team and the tank that count in the end.

My favorite quote, again from Wardaddy, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” sums up the movie. Get ready for a Hollywood ride.

Back to the tanks — we’re still using those old machines today. The first were used in World War I a century ago and were rather primitive. They were little more than mobile armored weapons and personnel protectors to move troops across the no-man’s land between trenches while withstanding the machine gun fire and easily trampling the extensive barbed wire fences for the following ground troops. The WWII tanks were much more powerful and versatile and formed the mainstay of many land operations. In the movie, we see quite a few German officers at the front on horseback. This contrast of horse and tank may be intended to suggest that tanks will soon go the way of the horse.

David 'Sting' Rae, center, with the crew on set.

David ‘Sting’ Rae, center, with the crew on set.

To have a better idea of what the past and present role of the tank is in warfare and what the future may bring, I interviewed David “Sting” Rae, a technical consultant for the movie. Mr. Rae sees a continuing role for tanks in the military. According to Mr. Rae, “The US Marines reinvented the role of the tank in Fallujah during the Iraq conflict where it proved almost decisive in breaking the will of the insurgents and allowing the infantry to take and hold ground.”  Continue reading