Stealing Science

Aliens of the Deep, the Imax Attack, and the Aliens of the Christian Right

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #1274, April 10, 2005, posted at

"I'm an explorer," announces the young woman scientist sitting at the controls of an ocean diving "submersible" headed two miles straight down to the bottom of the sea.

The film is Aliens of the Deep—a spine-tingling 3-D Imax documentary that transports you into a dark watery world where sunlight has never reached, a place where towering volcanic chimneys belch out black smoke plumes that reach temperatures far beyond boiling, around which are clustered living things that look like no fish or plant you've ever imagined.

And the most amazing thing is that this is not science fiction. It's all real. And it's happening at one of the volcanically active locations somewhere deep in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

"I'm an explorer." Her simple declaration could be lifted out of my 1950s Weekly Reader, but this morning I'm sitting in this theater alongside 200 enthusiastic Black school kids, wondering if the life of an such an explorer of the natural world will even be a permissible option by the time they graduate high school.

Alarmist? Consider this: On March 19, the New York Times science editor, Cornelia Dean, reported that several Imax theaters in the south have decided not to show Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, a kind of sister film to Aliens of the Deep . (Both films are produced by Titanic director James Cameron.) Dean reports that these theaters, many of which are in science centers, are "refusing to show movies that mention evolution— or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth—fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures."

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea makes a connection between human DNA and microbes inside undersea volcanoes—apparently sufficient reason for Lisa Buzzelli, director of a Charleston, South Carolina Imax theater to reject the film: "We've got to pick a film that's going to sell in our area. If it's not going to sell, we're not going to take it. Many people here believe in creationism, not evolution. Being in the Bible Belt, the movie does have a lot to do with evolution, and we weigh that carefully."


Truth is, the religious dogma of the flat earthers really can't stand up to the excitement generated by these undersea films about what lies out there in the "reality-based" physical world waiting to be observed, explored and understood—especially the reality of evolution.

And I can't remember a more thrilling experience in a movie theater than the 48 minutes I spent with James Cameron and his engaging young crew of scientists.

In the Aliens of the Deep Educators Guide it describes the deep undersea trenches where this courageous film crew went to bring back this wonderful experience for us:

"If you looked at the Earth from space, and could make the ocean invisible, you'd see huge ridges running like zippers along the floor of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. These are chains of underwater volcanoes where the Earth literally spreads apart at the seams as magma presses up from deeper within the crust to form a new seafloor surface.

"Dives from the Aliens of the Deep expedition took place at several volcanically-active areas. In the Atlantic Ocean, dives were made at Lost City, Snake Pit, and Menez Gwen. In the Pacific Ocean, dives were made at 9 degrees North, at 21 degrees North and at Guaymas Basin." (See map located online at under Educators Guide [a PDF] on page 5)

They take us down to a completely black deep-sea environment where photosynthesis1 has never taken place, and chemosynthesis2 is the process by which life continues, or I should say thrives . The sulfurous emissions from volcanic seams in the seafloor nurture this rich "dark life."

The film takes us there, right into teeming schools of a trillion white eyeless shrimps and crabs crowding around hydrothermal vents that spit black smoke from craggy grey spires. We encounter a grove of vertical six-foot high alabaster-white sea worms with bright red heads (or are they tails?). At one point, a creature I can only describe as a floating bridal veil passes before us with the propulsive rhythm of a caress. In the next moment, we're face-to-face with the ugliest fishlike thing I've ever seen whose jaw on-screen looks approximately 100 feet wide and headed for my midsection.

As the submersible hovers over the spewing volcanic vents, the narrator announces that the 750-degree emission heat could melt the vehicle's glass window. My whole upper body jumps back.

For my tastes, this is a meshing of art and technology and science that is just rare and wonderful. The kids on either side of me seem to agree, as we all squeal and go speechless by turns, living proof of Cameron's comment: "You turn toward the arts and somehow there's this thought that you can't do both, that the human brain just can't hold the arts and the sciences at the same time. That's just not true."

A premise of the film and the expedition is that exploring the deepest levels of the earth's ocean can offer clues to the possibilities of life in outer space. So, besides marine biologists, planetary scientists, and geophysicists, Cameron has brought along astrobiologists (scientists who search for signs of life in space), and the film moves from the ocean- depths to a tripped-out (animated) journey to Europa, a moon orbiting Jupiter, where vast oceans are thought to lie beneath its miles-deep covering of ice.

The whole theater erupted in applause at the end of this one.


Back to life on distressing and distressed planet earth.

An alarming aspect of the whole episode with these Imax films is that theaters are making these self-censoring decisions largely on a pre-emptive basis, or in response to comments from a handful of fundamentalist Christians. The marketing director for one Texas museum, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, told the New York Times that they decided not to present the movie after prescreening it to a sample audience. Of the 137 viewers who participated in the survey afterwards, she reported that many liked it but a few called it "blasphemous," offering comments like, "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact."

In the case of Fort Worth, news got out about the rejection of the film, and it caused such an uproar that a few days later—in a welcome development—the museum reversed their decision, issuing a public letter stating: "We want to ensure that the public knows the Museum supports the position that evolution is a major unifying concept of science. We use scientific evidence in our wide-ranging presentations and interpretations of how life has changed over time." But the fact that the film was pulled—even temporarily—because a few Christian fundamentalists in a focus group objected is a warning of the anti-scientific atmosphere that is being imposed on the country.

Until recently, one might have thought we dwell in a land where such bland and obvious declarations would not be controversial. Welcome to 9th century America, a place where the penetration of Biblical literalists into the body politic has reached such a level that the New York Times feels compelled to state for readers of a news article in their science section the unassailable truth that "There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that all living things evolved from common ancestors, that evolution on earth has been going on for billions of years and that evolution can be and has been tested and confirmed by the methods of science." They also report a National Science Foundation survey that reveals a bare 53% of the population agree with the statement "human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals." This "sets the United States apart from all other industrialized nations" where typically 80% accept the idea of evolution (in Japan it's 96% and even in predominately Catholic Poland it's 75%).

This widespread American ignorance is not mainly the result of a movement "from below." For decades now these people who are grouped around Bush and the kind of people that they represent have been working and preparing a whole infrastructure in society that could move this society towards a theocratic state.

In just the past few months, the pace of this crusade has accelerated to the point where even websites devoted to "theocracy-watching" can barely keep up. In science education, longstanding efforts to take material on evolution out of high school textbooks are starting to succeed wildly, alongside campaigns to sticker textbooks with warnings that evolution is just "one theory" of many. More insidious, the New York Times recently reported that a large number of biology teachers are quietly just skipping over discussion of the chapter on evolution to avoid tangling with zealous principals and parents. And if you live in a so-called "blue state," check out your state laws—you may be horrified to find that evolution is a banned word in the schools.

In talking with an educator who advises science museums in the U.S., I found out that there are almost no exhibitions on evolution at science centers, which are the institutions most likely to house Imax theaters. In fact, he said you will not even find the "e-word" in the label text at these centers. "That's the problem, if you start leaving out the science you haven't got a leg to stand on when these fundamentalists come in and demand that you take out more of it."

He explained that there are many such science centers scattered throughout the country, mostly in smaller cities and towns. They sprang up during the '60s and '70s in the excitement over teaching the sciences, and in the last 20 years many people in these communities have looked toward the centers as one way to deal with the deterioration of science curriculum in the public schools. But these centers do not typically have their own in-house collections or scientific specialists on staff, and are largely dependent on contributions from local businesses and ticket sales. This makes them highly vulnerable to the well-orchestrated public opinion campaigns from the extreme right. He also makes the heavy point that "This assault on science and critical thinking would be bad anywhere, but these science centers are among the few places where the masses have access to something that resembles science."

And it's not just evolution that's under attack at these science centers. Many of their exhibitions are geared toward teenagers and health matters, but the question of contraception is never talked about, much less reproductive health or sex. "I visited the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science which had a terrarium housing a couple of live frogs, and the label text said, 'If you see these frogs one on top of the other, don't worry about it, they're not hurting each other.' Nothing about mating. It gets ridiculous, but it's serious because when you go into a forum with the imprimatur of authority like a museum or science center, there's some expectation that what's being presented is an accurate reflection of reality. So what people encounter there helps set the terms for them developing their own worldview. Science is not just some 300 factoids; it's a whole way of understanding the world. That's what concerns the religious right who fear the idea of people acquiring a critical and materialist perspective on the way the world works. The danger here is unfortunately not yet widely understood in the science center community."

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, said Dr. Richard Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer who was chief scientist for the film. The New York Times also reports that "religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including Cosmic Voyage, which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies, and Galápagos, about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution."

There are so few Imax theaters in the U.S. that these controversies heighten the risks astronomically for making any science films that venture into subject matter which could be deemed offensive to the fundamentalists. And giant- format science documentaries "are generally not big moneymakers" anyhow, according to Joe DeAmicis, vice president for marketing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. "It's going to be hard for our filmmakers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know going in that 10 percent of the market will reject them."


I'm thinking about all those kids whose teachers took them to Aliens of the Deep, and the highly placed forces who are right now preparing a deadly future for these youth—no science, no documentaries, no deep-sea diving.

I'm dreaming about the power of art and imagination—can it ignite people to join the political battle to turn back this dangerous situation before it's too late?

I imagine these kids running into their science class next week and angrily demanding that their teachers start teaching science .start telling the truth about the world.dare to say the "e" word.or get the hell out of the classrooms!

And, still dreaming, I contemplate what wonders could that theater full of kids be unleashed to create if the masses of people ran society?

My educator friend sends an email saying that in the past couple days there's been a push among professionals on a science center list serve to get Volcanoes booked into more centers as a way of taking a public stand. An official from the Ft. Worth Museum reports to the list that the museum received 75 emails encouraging them to show the film, and that this was pivotal in turning around the decision. More food for thought.

As I return home from the multiplex on the subway, my eye travels to a poster featuring a robot-type vehicle with an outstretched mechanical arm and prehensile metal fingers. I'm on automatic, thinking, "Cool, another explorer vehicle," when I notice that this robot is gingerly picking up a black briefcase left on a train platform. A new installment in the city's propaganda campaign to train every citizen to be a snitch in the "anti-terror" war. Their slogan, "If You See Something, Say Something."

I mentally erase the offending poster, replacing it with a poster of a pencil with a cross-shaped eraser rubbing out pictures of the amazing sea creatures I have spent the afterrnoon with. I make a mental note: "If You Understand Anything About The Real World, Shout At The Top Of Your Lungs."

You can see trailers and theaters where the films are playing at these websites:

Aliens of the Deep:

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea:


1 Photosynthesis is the process in green plants and certain other organisms by which carbohydrates are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water, using light as an energy source.

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2 Chemosynthesis refers to the synthesis of carbohydrate from carbon dioxide and water, using energy obtained from the chemical oxidation of simple inorganic compounds. This form of synthesis is limited to certain bacteria and fungi.

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