Volume 90 Issue 38 | Web Exclusive | Reel Science
Issue Date: September 17, 2012 | Web Date: September 11, 2012

‘Dark Matter’

Tale of a Chinese graduate student studying physics in the U.S. deftly illustrates the trials of earning an advanced degree
By Jovana J. Grbić
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: Dark Matter, physics, graduate school

Benefiting from a compelling plot loosely based on factual events that occurred at the University of Iowa in 1991, “Dark Matter” is that rare science movie that balances a great story, factual accuracy, and impressive details even a scientist would approve of. In recognition of those elements, it won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Prize for best feature film dealing with science at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Director: Shi-Zheng Chen

Writing credits: Billy Shebar (screenplay and story) Shi-Zheng Chen (story)

Principal Cast:

Meryl Streep (Joanna Silver)
Ye Liu (Liu Xing)
Aidan Quinn (Dr. Jacob Reiser)
Lloyd Suh (Laurence Feng)
Peng Chi (Mama)

Topic: Science drama

Liu Xing (Liu) is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed “everyman” protagonist just starting his graduate career at a fictitious prototype of a typical large, prestigious US university. As a brilliant, underprivileged student in Beijing, he studied Reiser string theory, a cosmic string theory by Dr. Jacob Reiser (Quinn), his academic hero. Now, he is working for Reiser—a dream come true.

In a series of letters back home to his working-class mother (Chi), we learn that Liu is of modest means, has great ambitions, and is in the U.S. to establish himself. He is much the same as any incoming graduate student. Acting as a benefactor for Liu, along with a stream of incoming Chinese students, is Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy socialite and aficionado of Chinese culture. Under her wing, Liu transforms from a shy, subservient underling to an outgoing equal. Soon, he is developing independent, pioneering astrophysics thesis work about dark matter, a hypothesis that attempts to account for a large part of (invisible) mass in the universe. It just so happens to directly counter Reiser string theory.

As a scientific vessel, “Dark Matter” manages to succeed in both large scope and small details about graduate student life. Current and former grad students can vouch for common aspects like the search for free food, labs full of Chinese postdocs, staying up all night with some Ramen noodles to finish a critical result, and being told by a PI that “you have to pay your dues” before exploring a certain experimental path. Depictions of a typical thesis defense and thesis proposal, although short, are spot-on. And as a physics film, “Dark Matter” is surprisingly accurate. Many of the figures and slides that Liu presents could have been lifted straight from astronomy publications of the early 1990s. Liu’s explanations of the dark matter concept vary from easily understood by a layperson, such as Joanna, to advanced enough for the physicists on his thesis committee.

As Liu immerses himself in his studies and American culture, the film’s veneer of respect and idealism begin to transform into a gradual darkness that eventually overtakes Liu as he experiences a shocking and tragic downfall. First, he comes to realize that Dr. Reiser, far from being a hero and mentor, is a manipulative egomaniac. He exploits Chinese graduate students and postdocs for their work ethic but only to advance his own ideas. Indeed, Liu’s childhood rival, Laurence Feng (Suh), soon arrives in the lab and, despite far inferior intelligence and ideas, becomes precisely the cloying sycophant Reiser loves.

Later, as Feng ascends in seniority, Liu’s escalating hypotheses about dark matter are belittled and dismissed by Reiser. After Liu self-publishes a seminal paper in the Journal of Astronomy without permission, his thesis defense is failed by a spiteful Reiser. Feng is not only awarded a Ph.D. for useless work, he also wins the coveted Gelman Prize from the physics department.

A heartbreaking penultimate scene finds Liu visiting his dear friend Joanna as a shell of his former self. In a series of escalating lies to his parents back in China, a proud Liu cannot admit that he is degreeless and selling cosmetics to survive. But he is still brilliant and seething about his failure, leading to a surprise ending that the filmmakers modified slightly out of sensitivity to real-life events.

“Dark Matter” is a beautifully written, well-acted piece of cinema, but unlike other recent odes to the world of academia (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Good Will Hunting”), it’s also a realistic treatise on the unsavory aspects of the ivory tower. The cultural insensitivity that Reiser shows toward the Chinese students is an unfortunate reality in many large, competitive labs, especially in a climate of funding shortages and strong incentives to publish.

Even more important, as personified by Liu and Reiser, is the fragile relationship between mentors and their students. Do mentors have the right to exert unquestioned control over their students? What is the balance between mentors nurturing their own ideas and letting students grow as independent researchers? How is credit apportioned for breakthroughs, even in cases where a student provided the idea?

Finally, the film explores the idea of group-think conformity, currently endemic in high-pressure research science, where peers judge the success of both publications and grants. Reiser’s adamant refusal to consider Liu’s dark matter hypothesis, which was indeed controversial in the early 1990s (and continues to be), has much more to do with Reiser not wanting to embarrass himself by backing a radical idea than doubts about Liu’s brilliance or methodology.

Ultimately, “Dark Matter” serves as a great introduction to the life of graduate school for the uninitiated, a familiar journey for those who have survived it, and a somber reminder about the tragic paths that unencumbered pressure can lead to.

Jovana J. Grbić, Ph.D., is the creative director of Los Angeles-based ScriptPhD, specializing in science communication in entertainment, advertising, and media, and tweets as @ScriptPhD.

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