Scientists Go to the Movies

by Cassandra Willyard
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hollywood’s sometimes sloppy depiction of scientific concepts often galls scientists. Some productions strive for accuracy; others — well, they wing it. Not surprisingly, there are gaffes. Movie stars burst through glass without a scratch, plants grow where they shouldn’t and woolly mammoths help construct the Egyptian pyramids. Now, the National Academy of Sciences is fighting back.

In November, NAS launched a new initiative designed to foster collaboration between the scientific community and Hollywood. The Science and Entertainment Exchange, based in Los Angeles, Calif., can make introductions, schedule briefings and arrange consultations with scientists for those creating films or television shows with scientific content. “Scientists, directors, producers, writers and set designers — they need to be talking to each other,” says science journalist Jennifer Ouellette, head of the new exchange, “not just when they need a quick fact check, but all the time.”

That hasn’t always happened. “It’s a national pastime for the geek community to make fun of errors in film and television,” Ouellette says. Unfortunately, “it doesn’t always go beyond that.” Scientists have largely cut themselves off from the entertainment industry, she says.

So when Hollywood needs to attach a severed hand, blow up a nuclear reactor or land on the surface of Mars, it can be difficult for entertainment professionals to get accurate scientific information. “If you’re Steven Spielberg, you call up the head of NASA,” says producer Janet Zucker, vice chair of the exchange’s advisory board. But “if you’re a young writer, you probably wouldn’t have that kind of access,” she says. “A lot of times it’s just too hard [to reach a scientist], and so they just make something up.”

Even well-known figures in Hollywood don’t have it easy. Zucker says that Doug Liman — director of “Swingers,” the “Bourne” series and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” to name a few — had a difficult time finding scientists to talk about the physics of teleportation for his 2008 movie “Jumper.” And, she says, “this is a guy who has had a lot of success.”

The Science and Entertainment Exchange aims to change that by putting the entertainment industry directly in touch with the scientific community. In fact, the exchange has already made one successful match, linking Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming film “Watchmen” — based on a comic book series of the same name — with physicist James Kakalios, author of “The Physics of Superheroes.”

But both Ouellette and Zucker see the exchange as much more than a matchmaking service. They would like to promote lasting ties and, over time, change the way Hollywood portrays science and scientists. And that, in turn, could influence how the public views science. “Over the last decade, [scientists have] realized they need to be better at communicating,” Ouellette says. “And who better to do mass communication than film and television?”

But it’s not just science that could benefit from the partnership. “Today’s audiences are very sophisticated, and there’s a certain level of messing up the science below which you cannot go before the audiences reject the movie,” says Sidney Perkowitz, an Emory University physicist, member of the exchange’s advisory board and author of the book “Hollywood Science.” So, he says, “it might even be to the moviemakers' benefit to lend some air of authenticity to things.”

Whether the exchange will succeed in its larger goals, Perkowitz says, remains to be seen. But, he adds, “when the National Academy of Sciences gets involved, you know you’re getting the heavy hitters.”

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