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Scientists talk science in movies

Men in Black (1997)

- Will Smith stars as James Edwards, an N.Y.P.D. police officer who joins a top secret organization that polices and monitors extraterrestrials on Earth. -

▲ Agents J and K, armed to the teeth, awaiting an unfriendly cosmic arrival.

Energy plays a fundamental role in Barry Sonnenfield's 1997 movie. A rogue alien lands on Earth with a clear and determined purpose of seeking an energy source that will sustain its world but, as a consequence, obliterate ours. Energy is also of vital importance to the world we all inhabit, none know this more so than Ph.D. student KIM Jung Ho who studies the vast intricate electrical properties of 2D transition metal dichalcogendies hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN), molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) and black phosphorus (BP) – metals known as 'materials beyond graphene. "Graphene is basically a fantastic metal," says Jung Ho from the N Center of Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon. "It still has marvelous physical characteristics but no bandgap so it's rendered useless as a semiconductor. I study the electrical properties of 2D materials and their applications in energy devices that, if treated properly, have the potential to quench the enormous appetite we humans have for non-renewable energy." By harnessing the gargantuan power of the biggest and brightest energy source in our solar system – the Sun - a whole country, indeed the entire planet could be self-sufficient and no longer rely on non-renewable carbon emitters like coal and gas and oil.

▲ The 1997 blockbuster featured a vast array of colorful and intriguing aliens.

Jung Ho's drive to utilize the power of the sun is not completely driven by a career or his interest in science. In 2008, while serving in the Korean military he volunteered for a tour in Erbil, Iraq, a strategic city and capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. Erbil lies some 80 KM from Mosul, the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Iraq and a scene of intense fighting today. Jung Ho was part of a peacekeeping contingent tasked with building relations with the locals and providing medical treatment and constructing infrastructure. His time in the country left a profound effect on the young Ph.D. student. "I volunteered and went through six weeks of intense Special Forces type training; we learned about the culture in Iraq and Erbil itself, which is quite diverse, a lot of different languages and cultures. It was exciting but nothing like you think it will be or how it's portrayed on TV. We were strictly part of a peacekeeping mission and mad e that very clear from the beginning." Jung Ho's English ability allowed him to communicate with the locals and he was struck by the similarities between modern day Erbil and post war Korea in the 50's. "My grandparents told me stories from the Korean War and how desperate things were for people. They told me how thankful they would be from the smallest gesture made by allied forces, I handed out some pencils and paper to some kids and they were so happy and thankful to receive something so small. It stuck with me for a long time."

▲ Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) about to zap Laurel Weaver, soon to be the latest addition to MIB.

There are myriad arguments for and against the war in Iraq but oil, the precious and easily accessible source of energy, is always at the center. By witnessing the utter destruction in the country and all seemingly for oil, Jung Ho was jolted into action and after completing his military service graduated from SKKU with a degree in mechanical engineering. "It wasn't the entire reason for me wanting to find an alternative energy source but it was a factor. There is so much power in the sun that it seems remarkable we haven't tapped into it before. I want to apply what I've learned at the Center for Integrated Nanostructure Physics and build optoelectronic devices which will enrich people's lives, society and save lives."

▲ Ph.D. student Kim Jung Ho at home in his research lab in SKKU, Suwon.

His movie of choice, MIB, ponders the same question of energy. In the movie Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones must battle against a marauding cockroach-like alien who arrives on Earth to steal an energy source – a lost galaxy – there is a pivotal scene in which Agent J (Will Smith) asks, his superior, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) if it is all worth it? To join MIB one must forgo a 'normal' life and keep their work secret from family and friends; while Jung Ho is not part of any secret organizations he often questions if his research is really worth it. "When you begin research it's very hard and the hours are brutal and you question if it's all worth it. You begin research without knowing the outcome and invest so much energy and time but the result might be redundant and useless. It's very challenging and you need to be mentally strong and have self-belief, it is however very interesting."

It is reassuring to witness such a bright young research speak about his goals with such clarity and passion. Jung Ho has a little under a year left before he qualifies with his doctorate and no doubt a bright future awaits the young Korean scientist.

Men in Black (1997)


Director: Barry Sonnenfield

Screenplay: Ed Solomon

Based on a comic by: Lowell Cunningham

Will Smith - James Darrell Edwards/ Agent J
Tommy Lee Jones - Kevin Brown/ Agent K
Rip Torn - Agent Zed, head of the M.I.B.
Linda Fiorentino - Laurel Weaver/ Agent L
Vincent D'Onofrio - Edgar the Bug

Loosely adapted from the Men in Black comic book series, the popular 90s movie follows the adventures of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent J (Will Smith) part of a private agency code named the 'Men in Black' (M.I.B). The agency is a top secret extraterrestrial surveillance corporation based in New York City. M.I.B.'s top agent, Agent Kay recruits a new addition in Will Smith's character just before an alien spaceship arrives on Earth with a sinister plan. The spacecraft is piloted by a cockroach-like alien bug that's intent on retrieving an energy source for its planet. The bug-like-alien acquires a human body from an unfortunate farmer and travels to New York. He is searching for an energy source called "The Galaxy". Now, Agents J and K must stop the bug before it can escape with the galaxy and destroy Earth.

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