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Secret Science Nerds: James Cameron Dives Deep into the Science of Cinema

Secret Science Nerds: James Cameron Dives Deep into the Science of Cinema

With blockbusters like Titanic, Aliens, Terminator, and Avatar under his belt, James Cameron could be called Hollywood’s most successful living filmmaker. Part and parcel to Cameron’s big screen success is his background in science. Sticking with him through his childhood, his short-lived academic career, and his early days in the movie business, Cameron’s lifelong scientific curiosity has led to numerous inventions of cutting-edge filmmaking technology. That’s why he’s one of our Secret Science Nerds.

A common theme that arises among many of our Secret Science Nerds is a parents who occupies a scientific position. In the case of Cameron, his mother was an artist and a nurse (and a stock car driver, a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and a science enthusiast herself), while his father was an electrical engineer. An upbringing that combined art and science encouraged Cameron’s early drawing talent, and along with his brother Mike—who would grow up to become an engineer himself and build James’ impressive technological constructions—a childhood spent tinkering, building and inventing. Perhaps Cameron’s passion for all things science-fiction started when he came across instructions for building a fallout shelter when he was only eight years old. This was just one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis; finding the pamphlet in the family living room made the dystopian horrors of Cameron’s beloved science-fiction books hit home as a possible reality.

Seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 14 ignited Cameron’s passion for science-fiction world-building and movie-making, but he was still on a science track at the time. In an interview with Syd Field, Cameron said the following about his competing interests: “I’ve always liked science, and when I first started out, I thought for a time that I might want to become a marine biologist, or physicist. But I also liked to write, so I was pulled in a lot of different directions … Gradually, I saw that the medium of film could accommodate both my interests in science and art.”

Though he enrolled in Fullerton College to study physics, Cameron soon dropped out and took up a series of blue-collar jobs. His interest in science never wavered, however; he just opted for self-instruction over a more traditional education: “I’d go down to the USC library and pull any thesis that graduate students had written about optical printing, or front screen projection, or dye transfers, anything that related to film technology … I literally put myself into a graduate course on film technology. I didn’t have to enroll in school because it was all there in the library.”

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Cameron’s childhood fascination with scuba diving led to him developing an expertise in deep-sea exploration, most notably seen on screen in his 1989 film The Abyss, the 1997 smash hit Titanic, and his 2003 3D documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss. In 2010, he actually offered his expertise and use of his submersibles to help solve the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, but was rebuffed; the federal government later used the same suggestions he’d made 60 days earlier. Cameron’s experience also includes work with Russian-made Mir submarines on lease from the Russian Academy of Sciences and alongside fellow-Canadian Phil Nuytten, a designer of remotely- and human-controlled deep-sea vessels. The culmination of this pursuit came in 2012 when Cameron not only solo-piloted the Deepsea Challenger submersible five miles down to the bottom of the New Britain Trench, he later became the first person to solo dive to the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench. The data he collected while exploring the Deep included a number of new species of marine life.

Out of the water, Cameron is also on NASA’s Advisory Council and has collaborated with them to investigate cameras to be used for a future manned Mars mission. He’s also given speeches on behalf of the non-profit Mars colonization organization, Mars Society. Cameron’s filmography has explored the depths of the ocean and the far reaches of space, but his imagination and scientific curiosity are boundless.

Now that you know James Cameron is one of our Secret Science Nerds, who else would you like us to profile? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Buena Vista Pictures, Walden Media, Paramount Pictures

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