Science  01 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5863, pp. 553

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    SHIMMER. The raging sea in Pirates of the Caribbean isn't really made of water, but it's still a knockout. Its creators—Stanford University computer scientist Ronald Fedkiw and Frank Petterson and Nick Rasmussen of Industrial Light and Magic—will receive an Oscar next week for advancing the science and technology of special effects.

    The liquid terminator in Terminator 3, the sea in Poseidon, and similar watery effects in nearly 20 other blockbuster films all rely on a fluid-simulation method developed in Fedkiw's lab in the early 2000s as a tool for computational physics, with funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. It generates smoother and more detailed fluids than its predecessors.

    Petterson and Rasmussen have applied the method, now used by the Navy to simulate explosions, to filmmaking. The method's big splash on the silver screen “was just luck,” Fedkiw says.



    QUID PRO QUO. Here's an idea for drawing attention to your research: Lend a hand with promoting a movie whose plot is tangentially linked to what you study. Jeff Kimble of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and Max Tegmark and Edward Farhi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge are doing just that by helping to create a buzz about Jumper, whose protagonist can “teleport” himself instantly through space by dint of special mental powers.

    In 1998, Kimble performed a less dramatic form of teleportation by transferring the quantum state of one photon to another a distance away. He has volunteered to field phone calls from reviewers and journalists about real teleportation research. Theorists Tegmark and Farhi participated in a 16 January panel discussion hosted by an MIT student group at which scenes from the movie were previewed.

    All three researchers say they were concerned that their participation could be misinterpreted as endorsing the scientific validity of the movie. “There's benefit and risk,” Kimble says, “but I think there is a responsibility to convey to the public what's really going on in science.” To maintain independence, Kimble declined compensation. Tegmark and Farhi insisted on a “no holds barred” discussion—but accepted an undisclosed appearance fee. “I told [the promoter], ‘You're promoting a $100 million movie; I want to be paid,’” Farhi says. The movie premieres on 8 February.


    TAPPING METHANE. Research teams at Cardiff University in the U.K. and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, are the inaugural winners of the Dow Methane Challenge. The chemical manufacturing giant started the competition last year to promote research on converting methane into a raw material for chemical feedstocks, which could open the door to tapping natural gas reserves around the world for chemicals and alternative fuels. The two groups, whose proposals to work on the problem were chosen from nearly 100 submissions, will share $6.4 million to do research in collaboration with Dow's chemists and engineers.



    FAME INFLATION. Forest ecologist Steven Running isn't a Nobel laureate. But try telling that to his employer, the University of Montana, Missoula.

    Running was feted as a recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize at an all-university lecture shortly after the awardees were announced in October. Then there was the “2007 Nobel Peace Prize” engraved on his parking space, and, his favorite, his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize bike rack. Eventually, reporters—from the local newsweekly to the New York Times—were calling him a Nobel laureate.

    Why all the confusion? Running was a leading participant in the fourth assessment of the state of climate science issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the Nobel Peace Prize last fall with Al Gore. But something like a couple of thousand scientists have done much the same IPCC work over the past 20 years. “Trying to explain that to the press doesn't work,” he says. “People just don't make the distinction between real Nobel Prize winners and IPCC.”

    He speculates that his notoriety may be due in part to the fact that, around thinly populated Montana, he's “about the closest thing they ever had” to a Nobel Prize winner. Still, he's found an effective way to deflate people's misperceptions. He just tells them: “No, I don't get any of the money.”