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Top biographical films about scientists

A trailer recently dropped for Christopher Nolan’s next film, Oppenheimer, depicting the eponymous scientist and his role in the creation of the atomic bomb. As a Nolan film, it’ll likely be an epic in every sense of the word – but it’ll also likely be a strong entry in the canon of films about scientists and their lives. There have been many great films in this field (although some do have looser relationships to history than others), so to mark the conversation about Oppenheimer, here are a few of my recommendations if you fancy learning a bit about famous scientists at the cinema.

A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)

In an Academy Award-nominated performance, Russell Crowe plays John Nash, a mathematician who made significant advances in game theory and won the Nobel Prize in Economics. It sees Nash arrive at Princeton with a scholarship for mathematics, developing what would ultimately become the Nash equilibrium, his work at MIT and the Pentagon studying encrypted telecommunications, and his romance with one of his students. But it also paints a terrifying picture of Nash’s battles with schizophrenia, using fictional characters and set-pieces to disorientate the viewer like the mathematician.

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

One of the smash hits of 2016, Hidden Figures takes us back to the Space Race, and follows three black female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson – who use their knowledge to help the US effort to put a man in space while facing racial discrimination. Despite the hideously cringeworthy line “at NASA, we all pee the same colour”, the film is a really engaging watch and one that recognises three figures whose role in one of humanity’s greatest achievements had been hitherto unknown.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

Perhaps the most famous film about a scientist, Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Like A Beautiful Mind, the film charts Hawking’s student days and his conception of theories that would change science, as well as his relationship with his wife and his battles with illness. For many viewers, Hawking is probably the most famous popular scientist (helped, in no small part, by his appearances in The Simpsons, Futurama and The Big Bang Theory), and this film is a wonderful example of the combining of advanced science with an intimate look at the figure who pioneered them.

Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1973)

Here’s a bittersweet but really touching film, and one that I think deserves far more attention. Based on the neurologist Oliver Sack’s memoir of the same name, the film follows Malcolm Sayer (a character based on Sacks, played by Robin Williams) who discovers the beneficial effects of a drug called L-Dopa in 1969. He administers it to patients who are catatonic after the sleeping sickness epidemic, helping them ‘awaken’. Tragedy arises, though, as Sayers and the patients learn the cure is only temporary… A biography in all but name, Awakenings showcases both the promise of science and, sadly, its limits.

Agora (Alejandro Amenábar, 2009)

I want to wrap up with something completely different, and a film that takes us back to the late fourth century. Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer in Roman Egypt, who finds flaws in the heliocentric knowledge of the day while working to save classical writing from potential destruction. Now, I have to be honest here – much of the film was criticised for its historical inaccuracy, and it’s unlikely that Hypatia would have made all the discoveries and advances attributed to her. But I raise it here because it really foregrounds questions about the need to interrogate received knowledge, an important idea for scientists to keep in mind.


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