Montana State University

MSU equations part of new Hollywood movie

December 16, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


William Hiscock with some of the equations he and Hector Calderon sent to a consultant for the movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still." (MSU News Service illustration).   High-Res Available

Subscribe to MSU Newsletters


Bobcat Bulletin is a weekly e-newsletter designed to bring the most recent and relevant news about Montana State University directly to friends and neighbors via email. Visit Bobcat Bulletin.

MSU Today e-mail brings you news and events on campus thrice weekly during the academic year. Visit the MSU Today calendar.

MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
msunews@montana.edu
BOZEMAN -- William Hiscock has been a science fiction fan for most of his life and now the Montana State University physics professor is part of a sci-fi movie.

The remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which opened Dec. 12, contains equations from a paper published by Hiscock and his graduate student Hector Calderon. Hiscock, head of the physics department from 2003-2008, is director of NASA's Montana Space Grant Consortium. Calderon, who received his Ph.D. in physics this year, is now visiting assistant professor of physics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

"I saw the original on TV as a child and many times since," Hiscock said. "It is one of my favorite films. I am a fan of good science fiction -- science fiction with good science behind it."

Equations by Albert Einstein were part of a key scene in the 1951 movie where an alien lands his flying saucer at the White House and warns the Earth not to spread nuclear arms to the rest of the galaxy, Hiscock said. The alien, originally played by Michael Rennie, is now played by Keanu Reeves.

The 1951 scene took place in the home of Professor Barnhardt, a character obviously modeled after Einstein, Hiscock said. Barnhardt had a blackboard that contained equations from Einstein's theory of gravity. The alien changed some of the equations to explain how his star ship could travel between the planets.

"The essence of that scene is to have the ‛smartest person in the world' working on the most fundamental issues in physics, and then to have the alien do some work at the blackboard to convince Barnhardt that he knows more than any humans," Hiscock said.

The new movie needed to update the equations so they represented the cutting edge of knowledge in 2008 and not Einstein's equations from 60 years ago, Hiscock said. To find such equations, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a scientific consultant for the movie, contacted Calderon and Hiscock. Shostak said the new script mentions the "Big Rip" possibility in General Relativity, and that led him to read their paper about it.

The Big Rip refers to the possibility that galaxies, stars, planets and atoms would be ripped apart and their parts accelerate away from each other at ever-increasing speeds due to the "dark energy" in the universe, Hiscock said. Calderon and Hiscock's work considered how Quantum Gravity would affect a "Big Rip" and concluded that Quantum Gravity would actually strengthen the Big Rip instead of weaken it.

"The equations that they decided to use are written in our paper, but only the last two lines can be considered our own," said Calderon, who has seen the movie. "The other ones, especially the ones that appear at the top of the board, are the collective effort of several people."

His and Hiscock's name appear on the chalkboard with the equations, Calderon added.

Calderon said he is no fan of sci-fi per se and used to go to science fiction movies to catch their mistakes. After seeing "The Day the Earth Stood Still," however, he said, "I am happy to see that they are paying more attention to this type of details."

Hiscock said, "It's pretty flattering to have your work substituting for Einstein's, even if it's in a science fiction movie."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu