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Ecology & evolutionary biology professor
‘WALL-E’ and the professor
Biologist James Hicks plays a behind-the-scenes role in Disney/Pixar’s popular animated movie (07.23.2008)
For three years, ecology & evolutionary biology professor James Hicks kept his colleagues, friends and even his wife in suspense about a top-secret movie he was involved in with Disney/Pixar studios. Was the project related to the tanks of young alligators Hicks keeps in his lab, they wondered? Something to do with his pythons, perhaps?
When the movie premiered June 23, they finally got their answer – and it was something of a surprise. Hicks worked as a consultant on “WALL-E,” an animated love story featuring not alligators or snakes – but robots.
Given that Hicks studies the cardiopulmonary systems of air-breathing vertebrates (he’s studying alligators because their hearts have four chambers instead of the standard reptilian three), one would think he’d be better suited to consulting on a remake of “The Jungle Book.” Instead, “WALL-E” producers sought his input on a different scientific topic: the long-term effect of microgravity, or weightlessness, on human physiology.
In the movie, humans have literally trashed the Earth and they’ve been floating around in a spaceship – a kind of zero-gravity Carnival Cruise – for 700 years.
“You have to consider that microgravity results in the loss of 1 percent bone density per month, and 2 percent muscle mass per week,” Hicks says. “From that, you can extrapolate the effects on human beings after that long a period in space.”
His scientific conclusion?
“They’d look like blobs,” he says.
Hicks happened to mention as much to the movie crew, and how humans in a weightless environment would have atrophied to the point that they could hardly lift a finger without the help of robots. When interviewed recently on National Public Radio, “WALL-E” director Andrew Stanton said Hicks’ analysis influenced the film’s portrayal of humans as bloated babies.
Hicks, whose name appears in the movie credits under “Special Thanks,” landed his plum assignment “by happenstance.” In the fall of 2005, the producers called Adam Summers, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, who served as a technical consultant for “Finding Nemo.” Summers figured Hicks would be the better resource, knowing he was interested in the effects of gravity on the circulatory system.
“They didn’t want the No. 1 expert in the field, they wanted someone knowledgeable who could distill the information,” says Hicks, who delivered a two-hour plus lecture to the crew – a role he’s used to as a UCI professor.
When he saw the finished movie, Hicks gave it two thumbs up – but he couldn’t help but critique it with a scientist’s eye. He noticed, for instance, that the spaceship did not have a completely zero-gravity environment – because people fall off their chairs.
“But they could have had an artificial gravity device,” he reasons.
Since the movie’s release, Disney/Pixar has called on Hicks again, asking him to defend the studios against some filmgoers’ complaints that the movie ridicules obese people.
“The atrophied limbs and weight gain are just a response to not being able to move around,” Hicks says. “We didn’t even touch on what would happen to humans who were exposed to cosmic rays for 700 years.”
That’s a topic for another movie.
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James Hicks with alligators