Professors help theater auds get the whole picture

According to a 2008 Harris survey, 40% of Americans believe that dinosaurs roamed the Earth at the same time as people.

Though the average American’s grasp of basic scientific principles might be spotty at best, our appetite for science-fiction films is robust, considering such summer box office hits as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “X-Men: First Class.”

If only auds could leave a theater knowing the difference between a quasar and a quark or the theories behind traversable wormholes.

Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theater thinks it has found a way to simultaneously entertain and educate on scientific matters. The arthouse mainstay is about to launch its seventh Science on Screen series, which brings together popcorn fare with world-renowned experts like Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and technical advisor to Stanley Kubrick on “2001.” Like others in the series, Minsky’s day job is teacher at a nearby university — MIT. Topics covered include time loops (“Groundhog Day”) and neural processing (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).

“It’s an unusual combination,” admits series curator Elizabeth Taylor-Mead. “There’s a perception that people who are interested in the arts are not interested in science, but that’s not the case. If a program is presented in an elegant way and is well done, people are open-minded. They say, ‘OK, I’ll give you 20 minutes to talk about quantum mechanics.’?”

In fact, “Science on Screen” has become so popular, often prompting lines around the block, that Coolidge and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are now helping eight arthouse cinemas replicate the series.

The geographically diverse theaters, which include Tucson’s the Loft Cinema and the California Film Institute in San Rafael, will each receive $7,000 to defray startup marketing costs.

Taylor-Mead says scientists are more than game to impart their knowledge to moviegoers.

“Typically, scientists don’t get asked to speak in movie theaters,” she says. “They love it. Most are already movie buffs.”

Still, the professors will have their work cut out for them when it comes to counteracting Hollywood’s frequent scientific transgressions — after all, that sizable slice of Americans who think that man and dinosaur co-existed might have watched Raquel Welch dodge angry triceratops in “One Million Years B.C.” one too many times.

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