Science and Literacy Points on The Golden Compass

Popular culture is a 24/7 stream of information broadcast through TVs, cell phones, music players, movies, radios, and over the Internet. Its messages inform how we spend, speak, learn, dress, communicate, relate to one another, and form opinions. This constant stream is not all fluff. Teachable science and learning concepts emerge when serious ideas make the news, even if the ideas are part of a controversy or coverage of a celebrity. In this column, we investigate popular culture offerings about the Arctic and Antarctic regions to give teachers background information to inspire critical classroom discussion and thinking based on entertainment and news media that students are exposed to outside the classroom.


Polar bears and penguins seem to be everywhere these days – pictured in icy environments as poster critters for zoos, as warriors in blockbuster movies, as child-friendly adopt-a-toys, as mischievous kids in soft drink commercials, and as feature illustrations for articles in magazines and newspapers. These iconic animals simultaneously appear as emblems for International Polar Year research as scientists attempt to make objective sense of current information about the polar regions. How or why do natural world animals and environments make the jump to popular culture superstardom – and what’s the latest buzz?

The ubiquitous appearance of animals or climates as icons for threatened environments is not new. Apes and rainforests held the spotlight in the 1990s when deforestation jumped to the forefront of popular thought. The idea that the loss of rainforest acreage might mean a reduced global ability to process carbon emissions linked the human need to breathe clean air with the fate of rainforest dwellers like the big apes. Current common perceptions that more water in the oceans, as a result of melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, may threaten coastal communities underscore the significance of human connection to the natural world, and specifically to the poles in 2008.

Dramatizations in literature and popular entertainment that highlight our intertwined destinies are well received because there are elements of truth in even the most preposterous popular culture depictions. The 2004 adventure film The Day After Tomorrow begins as a climatologist warns his audience at a research conference that a new ice age could be abruptly triggered because melting ice caps are pouring fresh water into the oceans. He concludes that diluted salt levels have caused ocean temperatures to drop rapidly.

In a 2004 press release from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, scientists responded to fictional scenarios from the film.

At the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), scientists who study the impact of rising industrial emissions on the world’s climate say it is impossible for an ice age to strike within days, as happens in the movie. They warn, however, that climate change may have significant consequences for society in coming decades.

While confirming that a sudden ice age is not possible, scientists went on to explain that some of the effects of a warming world described by the movie scientist were real.


Humanized Polar Bears and Dancing Lights in The Golden Compass

Hybridized science-like narratives abound in popular culture offerings–from commercials featuring lifelike, yet anthropomorphized, computer-generated polar bears frolicking with soft drinks to talking penguins with personal identity issues. Yet another variation on humanized polar bears is represented in The Golden Compass. The movie, released in December 2007, fascinates moviegoers with science-fiction puzzles to test their knowledge of themes ranging from natural selection to quantum physics theory.

The movie is about a plucky young girl named Lyra, who finds herself in a somewhat mysterious and sheltered existence as an underage resident of a “college.” The scholars who are charged with educating her don’t seem to have much interest in tracking her adventures with her friends in what looks something like Oxford in a parallel universe. Each character is accompanied by an animal daemon that embodies the character’s inner spirit. A multitude of bunnies, dogs, rats and birds tumble along with the characters in the plot, growling and cavorting as their human counterparts go about their lives.

As Lyra’s dashing uncle departs for an adventure of discovery at the North Pole, a Mrs. Coulter shows up to take Lyra on a different kind of adventure to the North Pole. As Lyra is about to be taken from her college garret amid mysterious kidnappings of her mates, a professor brings her a golden compass-like alethiometer, which he begs her to keep secret. He explains that she was meant to have this marvelous device that will, “Tell the truth.”

The movie is based on the first book in an acclaimed children’s fantasy and science-fiction trilogy titled His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Even before the movie was released, controversy erupted between those who felt that Pullman’s portrayals of quasi-scientific and spiritual concepts such as “Dust” were in direct opposition to some religious principles and others who believe that the trilogy is a story based loosely on scientific and social theory – as are many works of literature. Pullman commented, “What I did try to do is get the science right – though not for a scientific purpose: for a storytelling purpose.”

Does Golden Compass science stack up with anything that scientists are discovering about the poles? The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials by Mary and John Gribben (Random House, 2003) offers analysis for young people of some of the phenomena portrayed in the movie and opens with the line, “Science is explainable magic.” The Gribbens offer a good explanation of the quantum physics of dark matter as a different kind of cosmic “dust.” On the other end of the spectrum, the giant polar bears in this movie are fierce and imposing, but have little resemblance to actual polar bears in habits or physical size.

The aurora borealis is portrayed as a way to view a parallel universe in The Golden Compass. As the fictional heroine in the book journeys north and sees “great curtains of delicate light” for the first time, she imagines that she can see a city in the aurora.

And as she gazed, the image of a city seemed to form itself behind the veils and streams of translucent color; towers and domes, honey colored temples and colonnades… (p.161)

Scientific explanations about what causes the northern lights – that negatively charged electrons and positive ions are blown by solar wind along magnetic lines at the poles where they collide with gas atoms that cause them to give off light and form beautiful patterns – are almost as lyrical as Lyra’s imaginings.

If recent audience numbers are any indicator, popular culture movies and books about the poles like The Golden Compass are here to stay. As evidence of warming temperatures and shrinking glaciers point to the reality of climate change, our thoughts turn to the fate of natural environments at both ends of the earth. The Golden Compass is a fantasy lens through which to allow polar information to come into focus, almost as if looking into an alethiometer.


This article was written by Carol Minton-Morris. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Carol at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org .

Copyright March 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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