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One of the most anticipated (and advertised) films of the holiday season was Les Miserables, a film adaptation of the stage musical, which itself is an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Set in 19th-century Paris, the story of tragedy and triumph, loss and redemption, is all told with barely a spoken line of dialogue. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean (or Prisoner 24601), and Russell Crowe as Javert, the police officer who relentlessly pursues Valjean for breaking parole. We see Valjean’s life at three points: on the day of his parole; eight years later, when he is a successful factory owner living under a new name (Monsieur Madeleine); and finally, 10 years after that, as he is caught up in the June Rebellion of 1832.
As Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean owns a factory that makes rosary beads, and its employees include Fantine, a young woman. When Fantine is revealed to have an illegitmate daughter, Cosette, the factory foreman fires her. To support her daughter, Fantine sells her hair and some of her teeth and finally turns to prostitution. Fantine does not survive this life for long, and just before she dies, Valjean finds her and pledges to take care of Cosette. His tenure as Cosette’s guardian begins when he “buys” her from the dishonest innkeepers Fantine had been paying to look after her. Valjean then raises Cosette as his daughter, and the remainder of the story tells of a love triangle among Cosette, Marius (a student), and Eponine (the innkeepers’ daughter).
It may be hard to imagine how a science teacher could use a musical set in early 19th-century France, but the story offers some nice astronomy, physiology, and biology. It is also important to note that students excited about Les Mis may be a different group from those who enjoy action or science fiction films.
Javert, the police officer who pursues Jean Valjean throughout the film, sings a stirring solo while standing atop a building in Paris. As he walks along a high ledge, he delivers the following lines:
In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night
You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!
Javert apparently knows that stars “fill the darkness with order” and “… hold [their] course and [their] aim.” The arrangement of the stars relative to one another does not change, though they appear to move together around the Earth each night. (Of course, it is the Earth turning on its axis that makes the Sun and stars appear to rise in the east and set in the west.) The regular arrangement of stars contrasts with that of planets, which do not always remain in the same place in the sky. In fact, the word planet comes from the ancient Greek for “wandering star.” Stars are so far away from us that their motion relative to one another is not visible on human time scales, while the motion of planets around the Sun, combined with our motion around the Sun, causes a complex apparent motion of the planets.
Different stars are visible in different seasons because the Earth is in a different part of its orbit around the Sun, and night falls when the Earth is facing in a different direction in the summer than in the winter. (The line “… each in your season/Returns and returns” conveys this dynamic.) A good example of this is that the constellation Orion is not in the sky at the same time as Scorpius, as they are on opposite sides of the Earth. Most people in the Northern Hemisphere see Orion in the winter and Scorpius in the summer, as that is when they are visible in the evening.
Finally, Javert equates a “falling star” with Lucifer, saying that both “fall in flame.” The expression “falling star” is a common term for what scientists call a meteor. Meteors are small chunks of material (consisting mainly of minerals and metals) that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up before they reach the ground. Those large enough to reach the ground are called meteorites, which can cause significant damage on impact. Meteor Crater in northern Arizona is one example, and a meteorite impact is one possible explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
When Fantine is fired from her job in the rosary factory, she does everything possible to raise funds to support her daughter, including selling her hair and some teeth. While this sounds incredible to us in the 21st century, it was not uncommon in the 19th century for women with long hair to sell it to wig makers. Even more bizarre, a market for used teeth existed, and some street-physicians attempted to transplant teeth immediately from the seller to the buyer. This proved a more effective way to communicate disease from person to person than to replace teeth, though. Another source for replacement teeth was corpses, and war provided a substantial supply of relatively good teeth, as soldiers were younger and better fed than the average citizen. For a time in 19th-century England, false teeth were known as “Waterloo teeth,” because the 1815 defeat of Napoleon had resulted in a large supply of teeth.
Cosette singing through the wisteria in Les Misérables.
The revolt at the heart of Act 2 of Les Mis is the 1832 June Revolution, during which hundreds of college students built barricades in the historic city center of Paris to protest the monarchy. Though the revolt did not last long, some background imagery in the film sets the season quite accurately in June in France. At this point in the story, Cosette has fallen in love with Marius, a student caught up in the revolt. They sing to each other through a gate in the wall around Cosette’s home, and all around you see wisteria in bloom. Wisteria, a member of the pea family, is a climbing vine native to North America and Asia that also grows well in Europe. Wisteria blooms from spring into early summer, so the film is botanically correct. (A biologist colleague used to complain regularly that he could tell movies were filmed on the “wrong” continent by the plants in the background.)
Science teachers who want to connect with students interested in the arts and music can use Les Mis to discuss astronomy, physiology, and botany.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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