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Secret Science Nerds: Jonathan Nolan’s 21st Century Sci-Fi on Big and Small Screens

Secret Science Nerds: Jonathan Nolan’s 21st Century Sci-Fi on Big and Small Screens

If you’re a fan of films like MementoInterstellar, and The Dark Knight trilogy, then you’re likely quite familiar with the name Christopher Nolan. Someone you might not be as familiar with, however, is his younger brother Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan. That’s a shame since Jonah is every bit as responsible for some of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century as his big brother. His varied interests in everything from the effects of amnesia, to theoretical physics and space travel, to ubiquitous surveillance and artificial intelligence easily qualify Jonathan Nolan to be one of our Secret Science Nerds.

Though Jonah’s academic background isn’t rooted in any scientific discipline — he attended Georgetown University as an English major — it’s quite clear from his body of work that he has a penchant for tackling tough scientific concepts. Back in 2000, Jonah’s short story Memento Mori, about a man with severe anterograde amnesia who keeps track of facts by using tattoos and is searching for the man who murdered his wife, would serve as the source of inspiration for his brother’s breakthrough directorial effort, Memento. Jonah got the idea while taking a general psychology class in college. Of equal importance to the movie’s inspiration, the affliction and its effects on the film’s protagonist were considered to be “an honourable exception” to similar movies dealing with memory by clinical neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale since “Memento accurately [described] the problems faced by someone with severe anterograde amnesia.”

Six years later, the Nolan Brothers again collaborated on a film rooted in science but masquerading as a magic show. While The Prestige, an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s fantasy novel of the same name, certainly wins points for featuring the late, great David Bowie as cult-favorite scientist Nikola Tesla (that was Christopher Nolan’s doing), it does overstep the bounds of believable science. What’s worthwhile, however, is the film’s theme of advanced science and technology being mistaken for magic by the uninformed masses.

After The Prestige, Jonah took his talents to television with the long-running, Primetime Emmy-nominated thriller series, Person of Interest. The series focused on an operative who worked on behalf of a billionaire to prevent violent crimes by using a mass-surveillance computer system dubbed the “Machine.” This highly useful and yet frighteningly realistic device featured an advanced artificial intelligence, a rich topic of interest that was explored at length in some of the show’s more critically acclaimed episodes. Watch Executive Producers Nolan and Greg Plageman talk about the show’s increasingly realistic science-fiction concepts here.

Back in the feature film world, Jonah co-wrote the 2014 space-travel film Interstellar. At its start, this would be the Nolan Brothers’ most hardcore science-backed film yet, thanks in part to a collaboration with Caltech theoretical physicist and science consultant Kip Thorne. Originally developed as “a space exploration film grounded in good physics”, Jonah confirmed that they “tried to speculate only in places where there [was] room for speculation.” If only we had seen the screenwriter’s original ending

Nolan’s most recent effort, along with his wife Lisa Joy — who happens to be a Harvard-educated attorney as well as a writer for Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice — is easily his most scientifically ambitious to date. HBO’s Westworld is about to wrap its first season but has already gotten people talking about such heady topics as artificial intelligence, reality vs. perception, destiny vs. free will, and a whole host of ethical quandaries. If you haven’t been watching the show, now’s the time to get into it before Westworld takes an extended break between seasons. The 90-minute finale should provide answers to many burning questions, say Nolan and Joy, but here’s hoping the intelligent, mind-bending show is just getting started.

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

Image: Francois Duhamel, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures

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