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"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"—Sherlock Holmes in "The Sign of the Four"
The new Sherlock Holmes film, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, is the latest in a long line of film and television depictions of the classic detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 Holmes stories (including four novels) from 1897 to 1927. Movie adaptations began in the first decade of the 20th century and have continued without significant interruption ever since. Although not based on any of the stories written by Doyle, this film includes several of his characters and references to events in some of the famous stories.
As the movie opens, Holmes catches a serial killer, Lord Blackwood. The plot advances several months to find Holmes despondent over Watson's impending departure from their rooms at 221B Baker Street and engagement to Mary Morstan. Apparently at loose ends, Holmes experiments on a pistol silencer, testing it indoors—to the discomfort of Watson's patient and the resident landlady when it does not work.
Blackwood, who received a death sentence at trial, is executed, but he appears to rise from the grave and break out of his tomb, causing panic in London. Blackwood appears to be using “black magic” in an attempt to gain control of the British Empire. He eliminates two enemies through apparently magical means, securing some allies in high government positions. Holmes and Watson, working with Irene Adler (played by Rachel McAdams) and Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsden) seek clues to how Blackwood performed these feats. The final confrontation on the nearly completed Tower Bridge brings Blackwood to justice (of course) and leaves the possibility of a sequel wide open.
Robert Downey, Jr., in Sherlock Holmes (2009).
The idea that Holmes uses science to explain events others see as supernatural is not unique to this film. In one of Doyle's most famous novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes investigates a mysterious creature with glowing eyes that appears on the moors of southwestern England. Though some believe it to be a supernatural creature fulfilling a curse on the Baskerville family, Holmes establishes the creature is a large dog with a phosphorous compound painted around its eyes and mouth. White phosphorus glows as the element slowly oxidizes, which would be quite dramatic on a dark English moor.
In this new story, Holmes again uses scientific detection to try to solve the crime. He collects data, then looks for patterns and connections. Holmes cautions Dr. Watson against “theorizing in advance of the facts,” pointing out that thinking we know the result we are looking for can influence what we see. Students designing an experiment in an inquiry-based science class should be similarly cautioned. Scientific questions are supported by a theory, but the investigator must accept the data collected, not discard it if it does not fit the theory.
Holmes drinks a drugged 1858 Margeaux wine, which he refers to as a “comet vintage.” Winemakers have a longstanding tradition that wines produced when a significant comet was observed are particularly good, though no evidence exists a comet would actually affect the growth or maturation of the grapes. This example illustrates the kind of thinking Holmes cautions against: If we think “comet vintages” are better than others, we'll remember the years that fit the pattern, forgetting the ones that do not.
Late in the film, Blackwood attempts to use a radio signal to activate his “doomsday device,” and though Holmes is able to thwart the plan, the radio signal basically works. I initially thought the filmmakers were rather fancifully moving 20th-century technology into the late 19th century (based on the state of the construction of Tower Bridge, the film appears to be set in 1892 or 1893). However, Nikola Tesla publicly demonstrated a wireless radio transmitter in 1893, making it plausible for Blackwell to use a similar tool in his plot.
A nineteenth-century taser?
Electrical devices appear in one of the home laboratories Holmes and Watson uncover, including a metal fork with a wooden handle that seems to be able to store a very large charge. Holmes is able to use this as a primitive electroshock weapon in a fight against a much larger opponent. Capacitors have existed since the 18th century (known as Leyden jars or condensers), and modern capacitors can certainly store lethal amounts of energy, but Sherlock's fork is an unlikely weapon for the 19th century.
In contrast to the proto-electroshock weapon, the home laboratories depicted in the film are quite realistic. Many scientific advances in chemistry and physics during the 18th and 19th centuries came about through investigations in private home laboratories of wealthy men. Universities were not centers of scientific study at the time, instead largely focused on languages, history, philosophy, and mathematics. The addition of science to high school and college programs is a 20th-century development.
Irene Adler is a character from the original stories, and the only woman to have outwitted Holmes (as Watson points out in the film). I appreciated her inclusion, not least because she is able to physically defend herself through most of the movie. She reminded me of the New Woman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: an advocate for women's suffrage and rational dress (discarding corsets and bustles for trousers and other, less restrictive clothing).
Science teachers could use the latest Sherlock Holmes film to spark conversations about the history of science, the interaction of theory and observation, and the beginnings of forensic science.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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