More Scientists Who Deserve Their Own Biopics
Hopefully, 'The Theory of Everything' and 'The Imitation Game' will be the firsts of many critically-acclaimed films about scientists.
Ada Lovelace. Image: Wiki
If this year's Oscar nominations are any indication, the era of the scientist biopic is upon us. Stephen Hawking's biopic The Theory of Everything picked up five nominations, while The Imitation Game, about the extraordinary life of Alan Turing, received eight. Both films are in the running for Best Picture, and Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Hawking and Turing respectively, were also each nominated for Best Actor.
Public interest in science is clearly waxing, and with it, a curiosity about the personal lives of history's greatest thinkers. That raises the question: which scientist should get the biopic treatment next? It's fertile ground for rumination, because the history of science is spangled with figures who not only made crucial discoveries in their fields, but also had intensely dramatic personal lives. It's no wonder Hawking and Turing's stories resonated so powerfully with people, for example. No need to sensationalize the truth with those biographies. They are narratively interesting enough on their own.
With that criteria in mind, my first pick for the Next Great Scientist Biopic would have to be Jack Parsons, the occult rocket scientist, whose bizarre life has been explored extensively in Motherboard profiles by George Pendle and Brian Anderson. One of the most influential rocket scientists in history, Parsons also held thoroughly weird occultist beliefs, and died young in a mysterious explosion. Oh yeah, and he was also a charming looker on top of all that. Talk about a ready-made biopic.
Apparently, Ridley Scott agrees, because rumor has it that he is producing a miniseries about Parsons for AMC. While that sounds promising, a big screen biopic about this improbable human being is also long overdue.
Another scientist who is just begging for a biographical film is Émilie Du Châtelet, a vivacious mathematician born in 1706. I wrote a longer profile of Châtelet last year, but here's a basic rundown of this glamorous genius: She was so naturally gifted that her father gave her a boy's education—complete with swordplay. She became an outspoken mathematician used her genius to optimize her gambling winnings, which she then spent on books and lab equipment.
Obsessed with Newtonian physics, Châtelet wrote the standard French edition of Isaac Newton's Principia, and wrote several original treatises in mathematics and physics, including the groundwork for Albert Einstein's E=mc^2 equation.
Unsurprisingly, her personal life was also pyrotechnic—Châtelet was a total she-Lothario who had affairs with several prominent figures, including an intense, long-lived romance and intellectual partnership with Voltaire. Like her famous paramour, Châtelet was known for having a devastating wit, and the pair's banter was legendary in French intellectual circles, as was Châtelet's penchant for cross-dressing to gain admittance to male-only discussions. As you can see, the question isn't so much whether Châtelet should have a biopic—obviously, yes—but more who to cast. Chloë Grace Moretz? Emma Stone? Anna Kendrick? Regardless, just give us this movie already, Hollywood.
Châtelet isn't the only 18th Century French scientist who is long overdue for a biopic. The French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil, born in 1725, also led a life worthy of cinematic adaptation. But while Châtelet's story is punctuated with high society soirees and hedonistic comforts, Le Gentil's was the exact opposite: an action/adventure story gone awry.
One of the great collaborative quests of 18th-century astronomy was to observe the transit of Venus from multiple locations around the world, in order to measure the Earth's distance to the Sun. Le Gentil enthusiastically volunteered to be among the dozens of astronomers dispatched to exotic lands for the event.
Le Gentil's expedition experienced an extraordinary run of bad luck on its way to Pondicherrry, a French settlement in India. Wars, storms, and navigational trouble delayed his group, and by the time they got to their destination, the British had seized it and Le Gentil had to retreat. He watched the June 6, 1761 transit of Venus with clear skies in his ship, incapable of making observations because of the rolling waves. He bravely decided to wait eight years for the next transit on 4 June 1769, but was once again foiled when, after a full night of clear skies, cloud cover blocked his view.
Understandably, Le Gentil nearly lost his mind.
Oh, but it gets better (or worse, if you are Le Gentil). Upon finally returning to his homeland in October of 1771, he found that everyone had just assumed he was dead. His wife had remarried; his estate had been picked clean; and he needed kingly intervention to reinstate himself in the Royal Academy of Sciences. Le Gentil soldiered on throughout all of this, but it must have felt as if he was at the center of some cosmic punishment. If you ever wanted to retell the Book of Job as a scientist's biopic, Le Gentil would make for a great muse.
Along those lines, it's fun to imagine what kind of narrative treatments could be used for other film adaptations of history's most bombastic scientists. The collaboration between Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace would make for an entertaining mentor/protégé movie, for example, and a Humphry Davy biopic could have a "Fear and Loathing" edge, given how much Davy liked to get high on laughing gas with all his best pals.
I don't know what angle a screenwriter would give Wernher von Braun, who was a Nazi rocketeer, Apollo Program visionary, and Disney star all in one lifetime. But one thing's for certain: it would be really hard to make his life uninteresting.
For the moment, we can only speculate on who will be the next famous scientist to get the Hollywood treatment (and as you've seen here, we will, rampantly). But given the warm reception of last year's scientist biopics, it looks like this subgenre of story is gaining traction. That's good news for everyone, because when it comes to high drama and philosophical complexity, there's no better inspiration than the history of science.