Melancholia Film Inspires Climate Change Theory

by Duane Nichols on December 2, 2018

Movie inspires math theory by physicist Valerio Lucarini

This article is based on fictional events, the Melancholia Movie

From the Arts and Science Blog of David Boyt, Physics World, November 20, 2018

Anyone who has ever been to the cinema or watched a film in the last 50 years is probably familiar with lines like “This film is based on a true story”, “A significant moment in human history” or “A breakthrough scientific discovery”. But what if it worked the other way around? What if cinema could inform truth, shape human thinking or inspire science?

That train of events can happen, as I discovered last week at an event at the Barbican Centre in London. Organized in collaboration with the London Mathematical Laboratory, the event was part of the Barbican’s Science on Screen season of films and talks, which seeks to uncover connections between science and the cinema.

Our speaker was Valerio Lucarini, a statistical physicist from the University of Reading in the UK, who in 2011 was working in Hamburg, struggling to define his latest research project. Ideas had been floating around his mind – fluid dynamics, geophysics, mathematical modelling, turbulence. But how did the individual pieces fit together?

One evening, his movie-loving wife suggested a trip to the cinema as a distraction. The film they saw was Melancholia by the Danish film director Lars von Trier. To Lucarini’s surprise, the film inspired in him a new way of thinking and provided the missing piece of the puzzle for his research. His findings resulted in a proper scientific paper, which was published last year in the IOP Publishing journal Nonlinearity,

The event at the Barbican saw Lucarini present the main findings of his paper, “Edge states in the climate system: exploring global instabilities and critical transitions”, before Melancholia itself was shown in full.

Released in 2011, this movie is about a giant planet – “Melancholia” – on course to collide with the Earth. But there are broader themes too, including mental illness, family relations, paranoia and existentialism.

The story is told in two parts, each focusing on one of the two protagonists: the sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the first part we see Justine, who is living with depression, attempting to navigate the logistical and emotional maelstrom of her wedding day, which her sister has lovingly organized. The film’s second part focuses on Claire who is already married – to an astronomer (Kiefer Sutherland) – and living a life of (material) comfort in a grand country mansion.

As the planet Melancholia moves visibly into the the Earth’s orbit, and the film draws towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion, we see the two sisters react and try to cope with the situation, often in contrasting and unexpected ways. I’m reminded of a line from Lucarini’s paper: “We find situations where the Melancholia state has chaotic dynamics.”

Before the screening, I caught up with Lucarini at the Barbican to find out more about the story behind this unusual research. “The director takes scientific ideas that are perhaps even beyond his understanding and renders them on screen with extreme accuracy,” Lucarini told me enthusiastically over coffee. Central to the film’s dramatic tension is a sense of waiting, an inability to predict what’s going to happen, and it’s this, Lucarini says, that provided the spark of inspiration for his paper: or, as he puts it, “a meeting of rigorous mathematical modelling with a new way of looking at climate change”.

The paper focuses on fluctuations in the Earth’s climate system between two stable states: a “snowball state” (like an ice age), and the warm climate we currently live in. The boundary between these two climatic states – the so-called edge, or Melancholia, state – is the paper’s central theme, taking direct inspiration from the film. It’s like the snowball and warm states are two mountains and the edge/Melancholia state is the valley in-between. As a system encounters the edge/Melancholia state, it becomes harder to predict what effect even the smallest forces, or perturbations will have on its overall stability.

It might all sound rather esoteric, but the Barbican event was packed with a mixture of film fans, Barbican regulars, Lucarini’s friends and science enthusiasts of varying ages. There was even a contingent of secondary-school children, whose audible amusement at some of the film’s more graphic scenes drew sharp shushing from some quarters.

“We can understand states – climatic or emotional – but what do we know about the transition between them, and what mechanism decides where we end up?,” Lucarini told the audience. “Science is about exploring the limits of what you don’t know.” It sounded profound at the time and, with hindsight, it feels like Lucarini may have been encouraging us to view the film with an open and inquisitive mind, which is good advice.

If you’re familiar with von Trier’s oeuvre, you’ll know that he seldom makes things easy for his audience, and Melancholia is no exception. The film is peppered with ambiguity, symbolism, nonsensical dialogue and unanswered questions. No doubt this is part of its appeal for some cinema-goers, including Lucarini himself, who told me with a smile how he likes “questions more than answers”. He was referring to scientific research but he could so easily have been extolling the film’s ability to raise questions in the mind of the viewer. For me, it was indeed a thought-provoking film, and visually beautiful to boot – if a bit long.

Both Lucarini’s paper and von Trier’s film emphasize the importance of the space in-between states; the former in its potential for understanding changes in climate, the latter in terms of understanding the human condition.

But what did the director make of a scientist taking inspiration from his work? Lucarini says he sent a copy of his paper to Zentropa (the production company behind the film) and received a nice response from von Trier to say he was surprised and proud.

Melancholia is not, of course, the first time cinema foretold the future. Were those iPads we saw in 2001: a Space Odyssey? Was Arnold Schwarzenegger riding a driverless car in Total Recall? Even James Bond’s jetpack now seems more science fact than science fiction. Those examples may be frivolous , but – as with Lucarini and his edge states – they’re all about fiction informing fact and about life (or science) imitating art imitating life.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: