"Most people don't understand science and technology, and we look to it as where miracles come from," said writer Bob Weinberg, co-author of "Science of Superheroes." "This is modern mythology. ... This is our magic."
According to Weinberg, that's why we often see scientists and geeks portrayed as superheroes, like science-loving Peter Parker who gets bitten by a radioactive spider that turns him into "Spiderman," or Dr. Bruce Banner, a physicist who gets hit with atomic energy that allows him to turn into a green, mean fighting machine -- the Hulk.
It's a revenge of the nerds fantasy that comic book writers, and the Hollywood studios that bring their stories to life, thought audiences could relate to.
"It's very much the American dream," Weinberg said. "I think that's really why it works."
In movies, Weinberg sees both the scientific truths and the myths. In "Spiderman," Parker's "spidey sense" is something that spiders actually have; the hair on their bodies is sensitive to the motion of the air and can alert them when something's approaching them.
On the other hand, spiders aren't particularly good fighters, according to Weinberg, nor do they swing from structures on strands of silk.
Weinberg also takes issue with the upcoming movie based on the Incredible Hulk. The atomic energy that hits Banner -- gamma rays -- wouldn't make him a superhuman fighter.
"They definitely do not mutate people. They just kill people," Weinberg said.
But superheroes, of course, aren't the only on-screen characters that get to revel in the "geek chic" of scientific theory.
In the "Bourne Identity" series, Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, is an abandoned supersecret CIA agent with a serious case of amnesia. In the first film, directed by Doug Liman, sailors find him floating in the water with no memory of who he is; he still, however, retains a memory of how to speak in English and several other languages, tie intricate knots and, of course, fight with both guns and his body.
"I'm interested in honest characters more than I'm interested in honest science," Liman said by phone from a movie set in Africa. "I discovered immediately that the reality of amnesia wasn't going to be valuable to Jason Bourne and that the movie was going to have to exist in a slightly altered reality."
After scientists told Liman that Bourne couldn't get that kind of amnesia from just a bump on his head, he tweaked the story; instead, Bourne's brain was altered in the CIA secret program Treadstone.
"I could ground the rest of the movie in the science of the CIA. ... What's in the movies that's not in the book is the sense of some kind of high-tech brain-altering process that Jason Bourne was put through -- a kind of fantasy thing, so his amnesia could be connected to that, rather than a run-of-the-mill trauma," Liman said. "It just means that when I learn that what I want to do could never [happen] in real science, I'll just adjust the movie ... so that I'm remaining honest even if I'm distancing the truth."
According to Dr. Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the amnesia exhibited by Bourne in the film, while not common, is certainly a realistic depiction of a condition known as dissociative amnesia.
Dissociative amnesia is generally caused by a "psychological conflict," Tononi said, in this case, Bourne's moral discomfort with his transformation into a brainwashed international assassin.