“This is not a war any more than there's a war between men and maggots … This is an extermination.”—Harlan Ogilvy in War of the Worlds.
Reviewing Journey to the Center of the Earth last month piqued my interest in other recent versions of frequently adapted science fiction classics. The 2005 Tom Cruise/Stephen Spielberg blockbuster War of the Worlds came to mind, so I picked up a copy and found some scenes certainly worth your attention as a science teacher.
H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, depicted a Martian invasion of England “in the early 20th century.” The story has inspired many adaptations over the last 110 years, including the famous 1938 Orson Wells radio play, which caused a minor panic in the US, and the 1953 film classic starring Gene Barry. In this latest movie version, Spielberg has brought the story into the early 21st century and centers the action in the Northeastern US, though the invasion is a global event.
As the alien invaders rampage across the land, crane operator Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is attempting to take his children from New Jersey to Boston to reunite them with his ex-wife, their mother. Along the way they meet Harlan Ogilvy, a deranged former ambulance driver played by Tim Robbins. Just as defeat at the tentacles of the aliens seems certain, the creatures and the “red weed” they brought with them begin to die off. The concluding narrative (voiced by the always reassuring Morgan Freeman) tells us that the aliens fell victim to Earth-bound microorganisms, invaders that humans can fight off because of our long history together. We are introduced to these important players at the start of the movie.
The opening shot of the film pulls the camera out from the scale of chromosomes in the nucleus of a paramecium, to dozens of the single-celled creatures, to the drop of water they are all living in. This beautifully animated sequence made me want to go get a drop of pond water and look at it under a microscope, so you might be able to generate interest in a microscope activity by showing this clip. (Though you will have to explain that your classroom microscope cannot show individual strands of DNA …) The film ends by reversing the shot, zooming back in on the microbes that saved humanity from the alien invaders. For an excellent extended version of the zoom in and zoom out, check out Ray and Charles Eames’s film Powers of Ten.
In addition to the opportunities for life science teachers to discuss scale and microorganisms, Earth science and physics teachers have some material to work with here. A key plot point is that the aliens arrive in artificial lightning storms that have some peculiar properties. First, the lightning is not accompanied by thunder, just a sizzling noise. Second, there is a significant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that causes a blackout and stops all the cars on the spot. These oddities together cause people to be confused, alarmed, and stuck in the world’s largest traffic jam. But you and your students might discuss whether they make sense scientifically.
While the details of lightning and thunder are still being explored by atmospheric scientists, you can think of lightning as a huge arc of electricity jumping between two charged objects, either two clouds or a cloud and the ground. That arc is so hot (around 30,000ºC) that it ionizes the air molecules it passes through (stripping off electrons) and creates a shock wave that expands outward. A second shock wave is formed as air rushes back into the gap the arc passed through. We hear the two shock waves as thunder. So if the aliens were making giant sparks, there should have been thunder too.
Since the large atomic bomb tests of the 1950s and '60s, scientist have understood that nuclear detonations can cause a pulse of electromagnetic energy that can destroy power grids, fry electronics, and generally wreak havoc on electrical devices. The systems that appear to be most vulnerable are long electrical transmission lines and modern microcomputers. Many movies have made use of the EMP trick, but rarely do movie EMPs act like the ones scientists study. War of the Worlds is no exception. The EMP at the start of the film would likely have disrupted the electrical grid of the entire northeastern US, not just New Jersey. The first cars that would be likely to get back on the road would be older cars that lack computer controlled ignition. Sorry, but your computer-controlled hybrid would be stuck, while your neighbor’s vintage VW Beetle would probably be up and running.
As a modern adaptation of a classic novel, Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds makes use of some spectacular special effects and so could help you generate interest in microbial life, questions of scale, and foster discussion of electrical storms.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science
and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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