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SCIENTISTS ON SCREEN A SPECIAL CHEMISTRY: The private lives of the great inventors, discoverers and academics were often extraordinary. So it's not surprising that film-makers have been drawn to celebrate them. Kit Buchan chooses the pick of the bunch over the years

May 11, 2014


Gorillas in the Mist, 1988

After isolating herself in the remote mountains of Rwanda, Dian Fossey lived among gorillas, imitating their behaviour and diet, and waged a fierce battle against poachers. In the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, Sigourney Weaver displays the single-mindedness of Fossey's campaign, which led to her murder in 1985. Fossey was buried beside her favourite gorilla, Digit.


I.Q., 1994; Einstein and Eddington, 2008

The hairy godfather of modern physics is yet to have a major movie all to himself, but the 1994 romcom I.Q. featured Einstein as a giggling, avuncular cupid played by Walter Matthau, while Andy Serkis, above, portrayed him as both a showoff and a tireless pursuer of truth in the more sober 2008 TV drama, Einstein and Eddington.


Edison the Man, 1940

Nine years after his death, MGM released two films about Thomas Edison in quick succession. The second, Edison the Man with Spencer Tracy, dramatises his invention of the incandescent bulb into a nail-biting race to outfox an evil financier, though, in truth, the only real threats to Edison's most famous creation were his many contemporaries, competing to bring their rival bulbs to market.


Conceiving Ada, 1997

Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, was a mathematician whose contributions to early computing were groundbreaking. Her struggles are examined by Tilda Swinton in Conceiving Ada, a psychedelic sci-fi tract in which Ada communicates with a modern-day programmer via software based on Ada's algorithms.


Agora, 2009

Hypatia was a prominent scholar of mathematics and astronomy who led the Platonist school of Alexandria in the early fifth century AD and was murdered by Christian thugs who saw her as an antagonistic pagan. In Agora (2009) Rachel Weisz portrays Hypatia as a staunch and independent academic in a mire of dogma and misogyny.


A Beautiful Mind, 2001

Russell Crowe completed his transformation from grunting heavy to thoughtful screen thespian in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), playing the brilliant but troubled mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. In focusing on Nash's advances in game theory and eventual triumph over paranoid schizophrenia, the film was accused of glossing over some of the less savoury moments in his life - his abandonment of his first family, his alleged extramarital affairs, his arrest for indecent exposure and his divorce from Alicia, the film's heroine, played by Jennifer Connelly. They rekindled their romance in the 90s, however, and, as if in celebration of his renewed fame, Nash remarried Alicia at the age of 72, the year of the film's release.


Miss Potter, 2006

Aside from the children's books that made her name, Beatrix Potter devoted much of her energy to natural history. Her particular passion was mycology, the study of fungi, and she lovingly and accurately recreated her favourite specimens in watercolour. She even developed her own theory concerning the reproduction of agaric mushrooms, but the 2006 film Miss Potter, which garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Renee Zellweger, elected to ignore both her work as a mycologist and her later success as a farmer.


Creation, 2009

Despite sailing aboard the Beagle, growing a bushy beard and describing the process of natural selection, Charles Darwin did not always enjoy a happy life of scientifiic adventure. A beardless Paul Bettany explored Darwin's personal tragedies and wranglings with faith in Creation (2009), a film that caused controversy among American creationists.


The Theory of Everything, 2015

The acknowledged "greatest living physicist" is himself no stranger to the camera, having acted in The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek, and last year narrated much of Hawking, a documentary about his life. A TV film of the same name, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Hawking appeared in 2004. while next year Cumberbatch's buddy Eddie Redmayne will play Hawking in an American movie, The Theory

of Everything.


The Prestige, 2006

Although Nikola Tesla's discoveries in telephony and electronics are less well known than those of his one-time employer, Thomas Edison, he was a celebrity in his day. But his eccentricities became more pronounced as he grew older and it is this combination of immense fame and otherworldliness that led Christopher Nolan to insist on David Bowie for the role of Tesla, in The Prestige.


Galileo, 1975

Galileo Galilei, the giant of renaissance science who built one of the first functioning telescopes and used it to make numerous revolutionary celestial discoveries, was deemed a heretic and forced to recant his views by the Catholic establishment. In the verbose and highbrow 1975 film of his life, adapted from Bertolt Brecht's play, Fiddler on the Roof actor Topol portrays Galileo as a noisy blowhard.


The Simpsons, 1997

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould made his name by developing the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Instead of accepting the consensus that evolution happens continuously, Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge proposed that it happens in short bursts, with nothing much changing in between. This sparked lively debate in the field and the theory is still not universally accepted. Joining the firmament of The Simpsons guest stars, Gould voiced himself in an episode called "Lisa the Sceptic".


The Imitation Game, 2014

A pioneer of artificial intelligence and computer science, Turing is often hailed as the father of modern computing. Famed for his wartime work at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, cracking the German Enigma code, his tragic death at 41 following his conviction for "gross indecency" has also seen him become a symbol for gay rights. Turing's story has twice been filmed - Derek Jacobi, above, played him in the 1996 film Breaking the Code while Benedict Cumberbatch (him again) will step into his shoes in The Imitation Game, which will be released later this year. In 2009, Gordon Brown, then prime minister, apologised for the way Turing had been treated.


Infinity, 1996; The Challenger, 2013

Like Albert Einstein before him and Carl Sagan since, Richard Feynman wore the mantle of America's coolest scientist. Gifted with a near-supernatural ability to grasp and teach the ineffable components of theoretical physics, he was also an adventurer, womaniser and amateur bongo player who experimented with drugs and used a strip club as his secondary office. Feynman's early life and first marriage are depicted in the 1996 film Infinity, starring Matthew Broderick, while in last year's BBC film The Challenger, William Hurt, above, portrayed an older Feynman rigorously investigating the scientific causes behind the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.


Madame Curie, 1943

The well-loved partnership of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon teamed up again to play France's most famous scientific couple in Madame Curie. Marie and Pierre's nerdy romance plays out against a backdrop of radical experiments and they are soon married and working together, attempting to convince the world of the existence of radium. They shared the Nobel prize for physics in 1903 and, after Pierre's sudden death, Marie won a second Nobel prize, this time for chemistry,

in 1911.

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Source: Observer (UK)

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