Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow

UFO galaxy - image from Hubble Space Telescope

The UFO galaxy (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

I’m soooo looking forward to seeing Prometheus, the new Alien (it’s definitely not a) prequel. I’m expecting a beautiful, scary, portentous film about the idea of human life being seeded by an alien race – I can’t wait!

But I stumbled across Men in Black on TV this weekend and I realised that some of my favourite science fiction moments come from a rather silly comedy featuring giant cockroaches and Will Smith.

Take this beautiful exchange between James Edwards (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), as Kay explains how the Men in Black exist to police the many unnoticed aliens who make Earth their home.

Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

I can’t convey the way Tommy Lee Jones delivers this onscreen, with his world-weary, cynical and yet wondering tone (watch it here). But what a great quote! “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow” should be the tagline for the whole of science.

Men in Black has more imagination in its throwaway lines than some sci-fi movies have in their entire concept. When Kay’s showing Jay around MIB headquarters, he picks up a universal translator and explains a little bit about it, waffling on to say that “…human thought is so primitive it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies…”

This concept isn’t mentioned again, it’s just one more facet of the MIB universe. Even though the movie is a comedy, it’s still thought-provoking – with galaxies the size of marbles, and some surprisingly imaginative aliens (“Humanoid?” “You wish. Bring a sponge.”)

But the thread that runs through the whole film is the idea that there is much more out there than we realise. For most of the movie this means goo-filled aliens, but overall it’s not a bad concept to live by – it’s what science is all about. It’s amazing to know that there are worlds out there we can’t conceive of – and that fundamental concepts we believe are true will be overturned in the future. We just don’t know which ones. How’s that for something to get you out of bed in the morning?

So, much as I love the Alien universe and its terrifyingly beautiful H R Giger creatures, the movies don’t have a great message. ‘Big corporations are bad and aliens are f*cking scary’ isn’t exactly groundbreaking (although the original film certainly was). I’m still stupidly excited about Prometheus, but Men In Black will always have a special place in my heart – sci-fi doesn’t have to be dark and scary. It can be funny and true, with a message about why science is so important and exciting. So thanks Kay – I can’t wait to find out what I’ll know tomorrow.

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One Response to “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”

  1. Science and culture – a symbiotic organism | The Science Bit Says:

    […] But the fun (or scary) part is that no-one knows. Science keeps muddling on, both hampered and fuelled by the times we’re living in. To bust out another favourite quote of mine, ‘imagine what we’ll know tomorrow’. […]

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