The Scientists Behind the Movies

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Without science, there would be no science fiction. Here are some stories of real life researchers whose work was the inspiration for literature and eventually the Hollywood treatment.

John C. Lilly was a physician, psychoanalyst, and scientist who studied sensory deprivation, dolphins, and LSD over his lifetime. His early work for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) included the development of the isolation tank for the study of sensory deprivation. He later added the use of LSD to the isolation experiments, using himself as a guinea pig. These experiment inspired the Paddy Chayefsky novel and 1980 movie Altered States starring William Hurt as a professor who does the same thing.

In 1955 Lilly began research on the brains of dolphins. He became convinced that one of his subjects was trying to imitate the speech of the humans around him. Lilly quit working for the government and threw his entire life into dolphin research, particularly in communication. In 1961 he published Man and Dolphin, Adventures of a New Scientific Frontier in which he was the first to theorize that dolphins are highly intelligent and can be taught to communicate with humans. Lilly's 1967 book The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence was the book that inspired French novelist Robert Merle to write Un animal doué de raison (A Sentient Animal) which was adapted into film as The Day of the Dolphin. The plot was changed significantly for the movie, which involves talking dolphins. As Lilly almost single-handedly popularized dolphins as intelligent beings, he is also indirectly the inspiration for the 1963 movie (and later TV series) Flipper.

Dr. Joseph Bell was a physician who lectured at the University of Edinburgh during the second half the 19th century. He taught his students the art of forensic pathology, which was in its infancy. Bell encouraged them to look for clues and deduce what they meant in order to know all they could about the patient before producing a diagnosis. In 1877, Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student in Edinburgh and eventually worked as a clerk in Bell's clinic. Conan Doyle received his medical degree in 1881. When Conan Doyle first wrote about the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes in 1887, Dr. Bell's technique was transferred to forensic police work, with Conan Doyle putting himself in the place of his colleague and student Dr. Watson. Dr. Bell was rather proud to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus in 1817, she was inspired by quite a few doctors and scientists. Erasmus Darwin, a friend of her father, wrote about animating muscles with electricity, a practice known as galvinism. James Lind, one of her husband's teachers, also experimented with electrical stimulation of muscles and early electroshock therapy. Another inspiration may have been Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist who was born in castle Frankenstein and was rumored to have robbed graves for his experiments. Several other scientists may have also influenced the the story of reanimation of the dead.

Colonel John Alexander was one of group of paranormal researchers that inspired the 2009 The Men Who Stare at Goats. After years of service in the Special Forces in Vietnam, Alexander received a PhD from the New Age school Walden University in 1979, and started working for the Pentagon developing non-lethal weapons, which included mind experiments: psychokinesis, remote-viewing, and mind reading. Alexander wrote about the work in his 1990 book The Warrior's Edge.

Journalist and filmmaker John Sergeant produced a documentary series for the BBC about the army's paranormal experiments, which inspired Jon Ronson to write the 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was adapted into the 2009 movie of the same name starring George Clooney. Alexander retired from the military in 1988 and went to work at Los Alamos developing non-lethal weapons. He is now a private consultant and is working on a book about UFOs.

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September 14, 2010 - 5:52am
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