People like the Ghostbusters for different reasons. For some, it is the comedic genius of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis, while for others, it is the practical effects that, even today, stand the test of time. What cinched it for me as a child, was the science behind the show. Though fantastical in some regards, the science in Ghostbusters is grounded in reality. And then there is the scene when Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) says, "Back off man, I'm a scientist."
I have always been a bit of a science nerd growing up. I loved TV shows like Star Trek, Stargate, and MacGyver, which all shared a few things in common. For one, most of the science portrayed in these shows were accurate, for the most part. The second was that scientists, or or the characters who used science, were the heroes in these stories. Ghostbusters did that and more!
Like any fan of the show, I admit I was apprehensive when the reboot was announced. This was not just any movie. As a child, when my friends and I played and imagined we were Ghostbusters, our conversations were peppered with scientific terminology; we learned what protons, electrons, and positrons were and frequently used these terms in our imagined adventures.
This meant that, for me, it was not just about finding the right comedic talent for the reboot. They needed to get the science right as well and it looks like they did. While the whiteboard equations might look confusing to some, I took enough physics courses to know someone put some serious effort into this.
This desire to learn how the show's writers integrate science into the new movie lead to a series of articles. The first article, The New Ghostbusters Are Women And Why It Matters, was written while I was part of the MPU program. I was not satisfied with just doing an op-ed piece. I needed to go further. I contacted the Science and Entertainment Exchange who put me in touch with someone in Sony Entertainment who put me in contact with both of the movie's science consultants: Drs. James Maxwell and Lindley Winslow.
I was surprised how helpful everyone was as I am practically a nobody when it comes to this type of writing and reporting. This collaboration lead to three articles on the science behind Ghostbusters: The Science of The Ghostbuster's Proton Pack, An Interview with the Real Scientist who Redesigned the Ghostbuster's Proton Pack, and An Interview With A Particle Physicist On What It Takes To Become A Ghostbuster. During the process of covering this story, I picked up a few things about the reboot.
Exploring the Science behind Ghostbusters
The one thing that stood out while interviewing both Drs. Maxwell and Winslow was the passion they felt for the movies, both the originals and the reboot. As Dr. Winslow says in her interview:
I think a lot of children don’t exactly know what scientists do. Of course, this is a little “out there” but it shows the possibilities of what you can do with your life, and you know, seeing women up there, having fun, being smart, and doing science, is all in there.
Science has a women problem. While the numbers of women majoring in STEM fields have increased, they do not always stay. There are many reasons for this but one of the biggest problems is the perception that women just don't look like scientists. One of the awards that Dr. Winslow and the fictional Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) as won is the L'Oreal Women in Physics Prize. This prize, which comes in the form of a grant, is designed to encourage more young women to pursue STEM fields where they remain underrepresented.
Some People really dislike the Ghostbusters reboot, while some can't do Maths
To say that some people hate the reboot is an understatement. James Rolfe explained why, on his YouTube channel, Cinemassacre, he won't be watching the movie when it comes out. Rolfe cites his loyalty to the 1984 movie and his desire that any movie feature the originals passing the torch to a new group; in essence advocating for a Ghostbusters 3 rather than a reboot.
Rolfe has been heavily criticized for his opinions, some calling his views misogynistic. This has also lead to many of those against to defend their views as not being misogynistic. This does not mean there haven't been anti-feminist reactions to the reboot. Philip Mason, best known for his YouTube channel, Thunderf00t, produced not one, but two videos highlighting everything he think's is wrong with the reboot - it's feminism.
In his first video, Ghostbusters (GIRL POWER version) EPIC FAIL!, perpetuates the stereotype that women can't do math to his viewers. The problem with Thunderf00t, who holds a PhD in Chemistry, is that is calculations are wrong. I imagine that, in his glee to find something incorrect, he did not look as carefully as he should have.
Thunderf00t's mistake is not that he gets the maths wrong. The problem is that he completely ignores the terms in parentheses and square brackets (seen in red and blue). This means that the y he shows in the denominator in his video in both of his equations are not equalent. We know this because we know the relationships of the the variables on the whiteboard which I have boxed in red.
To further make matters worse, Dr. Mason makes further calculation mistakes. Three multiplied by 157.9 divided by 22 gives (approximately) 21.5 but the second value he calculates, 18.8 divided by 11, does not give 1.5 but 1.71!
Calling Rolfe a misogynist is tenuous at best. As a fan, he is entitled to his opinion and whether he will ever see the reboot. The biggest problem is with views and comments like Thunderf00t's. Whether or not he promotes his credentials as a Chemistry PhD, his followers and supporters are aware of his academic background and this gives weight to what he says. When he ridicules women and feminists for their inability to do mathematics, he perpetuates the damaging myth that men are better at maths than women; his followers believe in their intellectual superiority as a result. It is interesting that none of Thunderf00t's fans even bothered to fact-check or do the calculations themselves.
Are the Ghostbusters the Heroes we need Today?
The one thing that stood out to me while interviewing Drs. Maxwell and Winslow was their passion for the movie and their dedication at getting things right. They also talked about Paul Feig's passion for the original and the efforts he made in getting the science as correct, or as believable, as possible. This is important to me for many reasons.
Heroes are important. They inspire us, show us what is possible, even if what they do is unrealistic. Science fiction TV shows, movies, and comics are just some of the things that got me interested in science, and I am not alone. An anonymous contributor to the Deep Space 9 & Voyager Confessions writes:
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher told me that boys were just inherently better at math than girls and that I shouldn’t even try studying science or math. That same year Star Trek: Voyager premiered. Seeing Janeway, B'Elanna, Kes, and Seven all working in science and engineering helped inspire me to keep pursuing my dream of being a scientist. Today I’m an astrophysicist.
Dr Winslow explains why she is excited to see an all-woman cast in my interview with her. She says:
I think a lot of children don’t exactly know what scientists do... it shows the possibilities of what you can do with your life, and you know, seeing women up there, having fun, being smart, and doing science, is all in there. I know when I talk to the MIT undergrads, there is a lot of love for Star Wars and Star Trek and the Ghostbusters . Something percolates in the minds of young people and brings them to our fold where we can train them up to do it in real life.
And I couldn't agree more. Those franchises were one of the things that piqued my interest in science as a child. Comic books also played a part. Spider-Man was one of my favorite heroes growing up. He showed me that I did not have to be the brawniest guy to be a hero. Brains count as well.
But I also get why so many fans are angry. Ghostbusters was an important part of their childhoods as it was mine. Reboots like the Ghostbusters feel like a violation and is best left alone as a timeless classic. But should it be left alone?
There is no easy answer to this question. As much as I would love to say that classics should never be rebooted, and the original will always be the best, that has not always been the case. Batman Begins (2005) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) both helped invigorate flagging characters. Nolan's Batman brought a gritty realism that made it feel like Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was a real man running around the streets of Gotham. Gone were Burton's goth and Schumacher's nipples. Louis Leterrier's portrayal of the Hulk (Edward Norton) as a hero is difficult proposition considering the creature known for mass destruction and little else. This is the reboot that also launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, something we might not have had with Ang Lee's Hulk. Of course, some reboots have failed spectacularly. A reboot does not have to mean Hollywood has run out of ideas, or that they are out to make a quick buck. A reboot can bring new ways of looking at a franchise.
Part of what makes Ghostbusters so popular is the nostalgia behind it; the movies have been an integral part of many people's lives growing up. But the franchise is firmly rooted in the 1980s and this is something many younger movie goers are not going to identify. If they do, it might be because their parents were fans and were able to pass that love on to their kids.
Until the movie comes out, no one knows whether this is going to be good or not. We can not judge a movie's quality from its trailer.
Not only could the reboot introduce a new generation to the franchise, it can also introduce children to some of the latest advances in physics. While not entirely a new piece of technology, the new Proton Pack is built on a synchrotron, not the cyclotron we know in the original movies. Based on my interview with Dr. Winslow, it seems the movie could incorporate Grand Unified Theory in some way. This is a theory in particle physics that says how the three main forces in our Universe - the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces - become unified into one single force.
I love the intersection between art and science seen on television and movies as I believe it gets people (somewhat) interested in what happens behind the curtain. This is one of the reasons why, as a science writer, I have chosen to focus on how science is portrayed in popular entertainment. It is one of the reasons why my blog Science vs. Hollywood exists.
Movies that are timeless classics are like great works of fiction. We all agree they are great but not many of us have seen or read them. Such works of art are relevant to a few. Rebooting this timeless classic may seem like the new team is taking something away from those of us that grew up watching this movie but that does not have to be the case.