Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Making People Fly

The advertising tagline for the 1978 movie Superman
You'll believe a man can fly!
I grew up at a magical time for movies when special effects started to look almost realistic. The 15-year me was truly amazed that Superman actually did look like he flew, special effects done by careful camera work and very thin wires. Today actors where larger cables and harnesses digitally removed in post-production, unless the entire flying sequence is entirely computer generated.

Back then we still had limits to special effects which made movies like Star Wars all the more impressive. Back then hidden supports were needed to make the hovercraft float. George Lucas has since gone back and added digital creatures to the original films, blasphemous to us fans who grew up with the movie.

We have reached the point where special effect can achieve pretty much anything the director can imagine. This gives some advantages, forcing movies like Dark Knight, Iron Man and Spiderman to rely on strong stories, characters and actors since special effects alone no longer sells movies (see Speed Racer). But no longer can we amaze teen-age kids with new technologies that make the seemingly impossible that come to life. Kids who, amazed by some of this work, done by computers, made them a hobby and then a career.

Biomedical engineering seems to be the new expanding major, at least at Northwestern. Computer Science needs to regain that coolness factor to attract the CS majors we and society continue to need.


  1. Lance, that is a fine post.

    To the extent that getting a job offer is "cool", then mechatronic engineering is just about the coolest field around.

    The relevance to your post is this: modern mechatronic engineering is all about simulation science, not only as a design tool, but as a social tool for building confidence.

    To embrace and extend the tag-line to the Superman movies: "You will believe that the 787 will fly ... that Intel's Nehalem processors will compute ... that Craig Venter's synthetic bioforms will boot."

    And yes, people do believe that these wonders will happen (albeit, not without a lot of hard work).

    Only in Hollywood is modern simulation science all about realistic graphics ... globally speaking, simulation science is all about reality itself.

    Which is fun! And very good news for computational complexity research too.

  2. At least we're a lot cooler than Wall Street and hedge funds right now...

  3. Emily is not real - Lifelike animation heralds new era http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Gd6OgXNUdw

  4. I think that if you account for the proportion of bio engineering majors who are premed, you'll find the skew isn't quite as intense.

    Either way, is whats needed more computer science majors who go on to become computer scientists or rather folks who can design software systems intelligently? These two goals are related, but I think the distinction is important

  5. Ahh, the good old days...

    But things haven't changed that much since 2000 when vast numbers of students were choosing CS. We do need to make sure that the field is seen as exciting but we aren't doing as badly as you imply.

    Michael Mitzenmacher's post gives a more positive take

  6. In addition to collness, CS bachelors have one of the highest median incomes:


    No wonder more and more people are choosing CS as their major.