Science and Celluloid: A Match Made in Hollywood

"Other aspects of his memory are perfectly intact, for instance, what is usually called working memory," Tononi said.

Bourne remembers phone numbers and license plates. He also remembers old skills, such as how to tie a knot, but he doesn't know why or how he learned them.

"That kind of memory is typically preserved. People very well remember the tasks of tying knots or playing the piano or playing a video game," Tononi said. "They forget about the episode [of learning], but they don't forget the skill."

But Tononi didn't buy everything in "Bourne," especially the main character's fighting ability.

"I've not seen anybody behave the way he does when in a fight," he said.

Liman also consulted scientists when making his sci-fi teleportation flick, "Jumper," earlier this year. In the film, the main character, David Rice, has a genetic mutation that allows him to teleport, or "jump," from place to far-flung place instantly, just by thinking about it.

With "Jumper," "it was the same kind of consultation. Go see a scientist, be told what I'm doing is total hogwash and then do it anyhow," he said. "I come from a passion for science and so I'm being a little bit glib when I write off the scientists, but I try to keep it as close to the science of 'could it really happen?' as opposed to saying it could never and just stopping."

In the movie when Hayden Christiansen jumps there is evidence of some kind of atmospheric disturbance — papers shuffle, furniture is knocked over, bystanders hear a dull roar — but it's more like a strong gust of wind than the atomic bomblike energy it would actually produce.

"In a person there is enormous amount of energy. If I just converted you all into random energy, it would be like a huge hydrogen bomb went off. In order to just remove a whole person, you have to get rid of all the megatons of energy to go somewhere," MIT physics professor Max Tegmark told me in an interview earlier this year. "I think Doug Liman is making it as realistic as he can, but I loved how he phrased 'slight implosion' [in the script] as Hayden Christiansen rushes out."

In the end, however, despite the scientific flaws in "Jumpers," the film, like other science fiction before it, will continue to inspire both aspiring lab rats and experienced scientists, according to Tegmark, who has been similarly inspired by writer Isaac Asimov.

"I think it's great when directors … try to put as much physics as they can" in movies, he said. "Sci-fi doesn't just get people into science. Sci-fi can ask scientists to ask really basic questions about the nature of reality and sometimes that can lead to really useful applications. Teleportation is a case in point."

Similarly, Kakalios uses sci-fi movies as a teaching tool in his classes at Minnesota.

"You talk to people and they're very insecure about their math and science knowledge. But if you start talking about Spiderman or Superman, they don't expect it to find physics," he said. "In this weak moment, you can actually teach them something."

You can see Dr. Giulio Tononi and director Doug Liman talk about the science of "The Bourne Identity" at the World Science Festival.

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