Showbiz, stardom … and intercellular signalling?
Kevin Murphy | Opinion
Reading of the soon-to-be-released maths biopic ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, I was reminded of Tony Coll’s column in The Endocrinologist, issue 116, which described his enjoyment of ‘X+Y’ – a love story between an ‘awkward and troubled prodigy’ and his favourite sums.
To my continued amazement, the film industry seems convinced that mathematics makes for good movies. There have been recent biopics of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, and, further back, ‘A Beautiful Mind’, as well as fictions including ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘Proof ’ and ‘Pi’. Who would have thought dramatically scribbling equations on blackboards and conversing with imaginary friends was so entertaining?
‘Perhaps the least of the cinematic crimes of “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is its inaccurate depiction of Hansel’s diabetes’
Hollywood also needs chemists (to make suits out of indestructible fabric and to formulate drugs and poisons) and physicists (to invent time machines, gurn maniacally and make ill-considered, housefly-accompanied teleport jumps).
In general, biologists too are well represented on the big screen. The discoveries of natural selection and DNA have been dramatised on TV and stage and in film. Marine biologists traditionally provide useful advice on how to risk-manage man-eating sharks or a kraken, and entire clades of palaeontologists have been inspired by the various ‘Jurassic Park’ films.
Primates that remain in the rainforest can rely on heroic zoologists for their protection, but those in laboratories tend to suffer at the hands of whitecoated experimentalists. In ‘28 Days Later’, their anguish is compounded by such deathless dialogue as ‘To cure, you must first understand…’, which seems to offer little consolation to the chimp in question.
So, more importantly, where are the endocrinologists? Diabetes plays a supporting role in many films. Poor glucose control finishes off Julia Roberts in ‘Steel Magnolias’ and Judi Dench in ‘Chocolat’. Film makers often use the need for insulin to add urgency to plots, as in ‘Con Air’ and ‘Panic Room’. Perhaps the least of the cinematic crimes of ‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’ is its inaccurate depiction of Hansel’s diabetes (aetiology: eating too many sweets at the original witch’s gingerbread cottage).
My particular favourite is the late-80s horror movie ‘Warlock’, in which the diabetic heroine kills Julian Sands for crimes against God (and over-acting) by injecting him with salt water using her insulin syringes. (Warlocks, as you are no doubt aware, react badly to salt, perhaps reflecting some defect in the warlockian renin-angiotensin system.)
But none of these movies actually feature a heroic (or villainous) endocrinologist. True, there aren’t many endocrine emergencies. ‘Thyroid Storm’ is a good name for a Scandinavian black metal band, but it’s difficult to hang a movie on. ‘Negative Feedback’ sounds like a decent thriller, but the plot summary (‘…and subsequently homeostasis is maintained’) lacks tension.
Movies should reflect the audience that watches them, including endocrinologists. So who will step up and make the movies we all want to see: ‘Ernest Starling and the Chamber of Secretin’, ‘From Dusk till the Dawn Phenomenon’, ‘There will be Blood … borne Signalling Molecules’…?
Science Committee correspondent