Another 10 beautiful, er… minds

So recently we looked at the top 10 physicists in the world, using a fairly arbitrary but meaningful ranking system. All very impressive, but after seeing the movie Thor the other night, it struck me that there are plenty of worthy physicists in movies and television too.

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in the movie Thor
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, doing physical research with the god of thunder (played by Chris Hemsworth)

In Thor, Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, a young physicist who’s doing some sort of research that involves chasing dimensional portals around New Mexico. Which is actually pretty impressive, although maybe not up to the level of Juan Maldacena’s work.

But perhaps you might have noticed that Ms Portman – who, I should point out, is herself a published psychologist – has the edge on Professor Maldacena and many of his colleagues in another way. And interestingly, this is something common to a number of other fictional physicists.

Click through after the jump to see 10 of Jane Foster’s predecessors (presented in chronological order, so I don’t have to choose).

1. Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury), Doctor Who (1968-69)

Zoe Heriot, played by Wendy Padbury, in Doctor Who
Zoe Heriot, played by Wendy Padbury, who appears to be piloting Doctor Who's TARDIS

As evidence that this is a fairly old trope, I present Zoe Heriot from 1968. Noted for wearing sparkly jumpsuits, she was a young astrophysicist who the Doctor (then played by Patrick Troughton), picked up on a space station. Of course, this would be quite commonplace in the distant future of… the 21st century.

2. Dr Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), Moonraker (1979)

Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) with James Bond (Roger Moore)
Holly Goodhead, played by Lois Chiles, and James Bond, played by Roger Moore, both wearing spacesuits (but not for long)

What list would be complete without one or two Bond girls with ridiculous names? Case in point: Dr Holly Goodhead, an astrophysicist and undercover CIA agent who helped Roger Moore’s James Bond defeat an evil plot to wipe out all life on Earth – from spaaaace. And naturally, they celebrated their victory in the usual James Bond fashion.

3. Dr Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz), Chain Reaction (1996)

Rachel Weisz as Dr Lily Sinclair in Chain Reaction
Rachel Weisz as Dr Lily Sinclair in Chain Reaction, set in 1996 and not in the 1940s as it might appear.

A bit of a jump now to the late 90s, the golden age for hot physicists. I originally intended to rank them on the merits of their actual research, but that’s actually very hard to do as it’s usually kept sufficiently vague. Lily Sinclair, however, is working on using sonoluminescence (light emitted from collapsing bubbles caused by sound waves) to create nuclear fusion. She doesn’t succeed though: that honour goes to the much more believable Keanu Reeves.

4. Dr Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster), Contact (1997)

Jodie Foster as Dr Ellie Arroway in Contact
Jodie Foster as Dr Ellie Arroway, listening for alien radio signals (note: this is not how it's actually done)

OK, so she’s actually a radio astronomer working on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), but that’s closely linked to physics so I’m going to count her anyway. Based on a book by Carl Sagan, Contact attempted to give an accurate portrayal of SETI research. This was proven recently by the cancellation of one such research program due to lack of funds, just like in the movie (but unfortunately without the last minute discovery of an alien signal).

5. Dr Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman), The Peacemaker (1997)

Dr Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Devoe (George Clooney), in The Peacemaker
Dr Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman) and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Devoe (George Clooney) - he'd be the one in the uniform

A rare, dark-haired Nicole Kidman, Dr Kelly was a nuclear physicist who helped George Clooney track down stolen nuclear warheads, or something. All we really know was that there was lots of running away from explosions – which may be a cliché, but it’s better than running towards explosions.

6. Samantha “Sam” Carter (Amanda Tapping), Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Stargate Atlantis (2004-9)

Amanda Tapping as Samantha Carter, standing in front of a Stargate
Amanda Tapping as Samantha Carter, looking unimpressed with the Stargate that ruined her astrophysics career.

Just like Holly Goodhead, Samantha Carter is an astrophysicist with a change of career, this time into the United States Air Force. Fortunately, she was able to use her previous qualifications when extraterrestrial gateways to other worlds were discovered. Except that they basically proved that everything she’d learnt about astrophysics was wrong.

7. Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), The World is Not Enough (1999)

Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones
Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones, ready for science

Hot movie physicists were such a marketable trend that they could only be stopped by Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones, another nuclear physicist tracking down stolen nuclear weapons, opposite Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond. But although it may seem impractical, her style of tank top and short-shorts was later worn by Lara Croft, aka Tomb Raider, an archaeologist. So maybe it is a legitimate science suit after all.

8. T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-5)

Jolene Blalock as the Vulcan T'Pol
Jolene Blalock as the Vulcan T'Pol. Not exactly Mr Spock.

With movies ruined by Dr Christmas Jones, that leaves us with television. Yes, T’Pol is a Vulcan, and they’re basically all scientists, but some guy on a Star Trek forum claims she has a PhD in “sub-space physics”. So that’s good enough for me.

9. Winifred “Fred” Burkle (Amy Acker), Angel (2001-4)

Amy Acker as Fred Burkle, in a lab coat
Amy Acker as Fred Burkle, wearing a lab coat, which is probably inadequate protection from demons (she should be wearing safety goggles too).

You may have noticed that a lot of the entries on this list don’t get to do much in the way of the actual physics they’re trained to do. Fred is no exception: while studying quantum physics that for some reason involved books on demon languages, she was sucked through a magical portal to another dimension. But she eventually came back and resumed a science career, assuming by “science” you mean vampires, ghosts and magic.

10. Alicia Nash (Jennifer Connelly), A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash, in A Beautiful Mind
Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Lardé, seen as a physics student at MIT, paying earnest attention to Professor John Nash, whom she would later marry.

OK, so Alicia Nash, nee Lopez-Harrison de Lardé is a real person, the wife of mathematician and schizophrenic John Forbes Nash, Jr. So maybe she shouldn’t count. But Jennifer Connelly’s only other scientist role was as an astrobiologist in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and I’d hate to see her miss out.

So counting Natalie Portman, we’ve actually got 11 hot, screen physicists. If you’re really bothered by that, feel free to remove one of my borderline choices. But just remember, I did leave out Jessica Alba, from Fantastic Four (2005). She was only a geneticist.


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