Queens' master of 'Disaster'

Greg Pillar uses movies about natural upheavals to start a reaction in students' minds

02/27/2011 9:30 PM

02/27/2011 9:43 PM

Bona fide cinematic science: The pyroclastic flow when the volcano erupts in "Dante's Peak," and bursts of dense hot gas traveling up to 200 mph produce a blast zone where nothing can stand the heat.

Bonehead cinematic science: An automobile carrying a family rolls over a bed of freshly boiling lava, yet the tires don't erupt in flames, and the gas tank doesn't explode. The offending film? "Dante's Peak."

"In almost every movie, some of the science is accurate and some is exaggerated," says Greg Pillar. "It's a game to try to pin down where the dividing line is."

Pillar plays that game at Queens University of Charlotte, where he's an assistant professor of environmental science and chemistry.

He's teaching Honors Seminar 220 this semester, a course titled "Recipe for Disaster: Hollywood vs. Reality." His course may be unique among area colleges - a quick survey of Charlotte and the Triangle area turned up nothing like it - and Pillar has refined it in its third incarnation since 2007.

"It's an exercise in developing critical thinking, in not taking what we see for granted," he says. "If a box of cereal tells you it 'helps with immunity,' what's the proof? If you see 'fat-free,' and you think a company is interested in your health, has that product been filled with sugar to make you want to eat it?

"I don't want students to lead paranoid lives. But they need to question everything they see."

Don't believe everything on film

Anyone dopey enough to get all his "knowledge" from Hollywood fiction might also buy oceanfront property in Iowa. But Pillar likes to relate an experiment, in which fifth-graders in an Earth science class watched a movie called "The Core." (Scientists in it "re-start" the Earth's dying core with a nuclear explosion.)

"Those students had a better understanding of Earth's composition," he says. "But they were way off base on other aspects, such as magnetic fields. Some of what they'd heard was true, so they assumed everything from that point forward was correct, even if it was a little bit more outrageous."

Pillar has been getting to the core of scientific truth since he was a boy in West Allis, Wis. (Yes, he's a Cheesehead who exulted after this month's Super Bowl. The picture on his Facebook page shows son Nathan holding a Packers helmet.)

Little Greg grew up loving both movies and the outdoors. And after he collected a B.S. in environmental science from the University of Minnesota and an M.S. in agronomy (soil science) from Kansas State, those paths began to come together.

Pillar was getting a doctorate in agronomy (environmental chemistry) at the University of Georgia about the time people were buzzing over the new TV show "MythBusters," where widely held beliefs were confirmed or debunked. Wouldn't it be cool, he thought, to teach a class on this basis?

When he was hired at Queens, he could. He introduced movies in his geology classes, then team-taught Honors 220 with biology prof Carrie DeJaco in 2007. He took it on alone in 2008 and this semester.

The course was never designed specifically for science students or any student, except those with inquiring minds. (It fulfills no major requirements.) It meets once a week for two hours and 40 minutes, and it's usually limited to 10 people. They watch a movie with Pillar's interjections on back-to-back weeks, then spend Week 3 sharing ideas.

Students are expected to do research on natural disasters and blog about course-related concepts at quscimedia.wordpress.com. Mostly, though, they're expected to think about the way they think.

Thinking like a scientist

"In my environmental science class, I talk about contaminants," says Pillar. "I tell them about dihydrogen monoxide: It's used to make styrofoam, it's a fire suppressant, consumption leads to bloating, it's regulated by every municipality in America. I ask how many students think this is a contaminant. And every year, 16 to 18 hands out of 20 go up - and the others aren't sure.

"Then I explain that dihydrogen monoxide is water, and they groan. I didn't deceive them; I just provided the information I wanted them to have. That's why it's always healthy to question - even to question me, because I have biases, too."

Early versions of Honors 220 featured films about natural disasters ("Twister") or things likely to end life as we know it ("Deep Impact," "Armageddon"). As Pillar notes, "It's funny how often nuclear weapons are the solution to destroying a meteor or an asteroid or starting a reaction at the Earth's core."

Pillar still shows cataclysmic dramas, such as the laughably fascinating "The Day After Tomorrow." But this year, he has introduced movies that lead to philosophic discussions about how humanity might behave under psychological stress, as in "Children of Men" or "Idiocracy."

Pillar has noticed a sad trend: In apocalyptic pictures, scientists are heroes whose advice is followed. But in real life, where responses to climate change and other problems involve huge expense and lifestyle changes, scientists often get treated as an inconvenient annoyance.

"A movie like 'The Day After Tomorrow' is so extreme that people can shrug it off," he says. "There's no sense of urgency to fix the problems (it brings up), because they don't have immediacy. Disastrous results are way down the road."

That's why Pillar hopes students leave not only with healthy doses of skepticism but a healthy respect for the way science works.

"Even if you're not a scientist, you should understand basic principles of science and the scientific method (of inquiry)," he says. "That way, you won't be pulled in by a complete piece of baloney."

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