Science in the Movies: Two Approaches

The National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences each are spearheading programs designed to get more accurate science into the movies, and they have two somewhat different approaches to this same "problem". Each presented its plan during a couple of sessions at this year's AAAS National Meeting. The National Academy of Sciences had a session on its "Science and Entertainment Exchange" program, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary. This program acts as a matchmaker service for Hollywood producers and directors, who can contact the Exchange and ask for an "expert" in some field to help with a film project. The National Science Foundation had a session that at first glance seems very similar: they are partnering with the USC Film School to create the Creative Science Studio: which pairs scientists with filmmakers to make more scientifically accurate films. Both are fantastic and long overdue efforts at tapping into the fact that much of the general public now gets its informal science education from entertainment. A number of elements in the two efforts, however, are quite different.

The Science and Entertainment Exchange has thus far largely centered on getting more plausible science into science fiction films. They acknowledge that Sci-fi is far from real science, but also acknowledge that Sci-fi films almost always contain a nugget of real science from which the fantastical non-real science is grown, and that even Sci-fi films with no accurate science in them can provide "teachable moments" - where one can discuss (with a class of students) the physics of how the Flash might really be able to stop a bullet, or what the gravity on Krypton must be like in order for Superman to have the apparent flight power he has on Earth. They also clearly understand that many people go into science because of really good science fiction, like Star Trek. The bulk of what seems to be going on so far, however, is helping filmmakers maintain some semblance of logic in their Sci-fi (which, unfortunately isn't quite the same as getting accurate science into the movies) -- although all of these efforts are highly laudable. Another of their higher profile activities currently is their involvement with the show In the AAAS Session they also talked about "The Big Bang Theory", which again they noted is a mixed bag: the show clearly has tidbits of highly accurate and sophisticated science scattered throughout it, but has also been criticized quite a bit for its very unflattering portrayal of astrophysicists.

The other effort, by NSF and USC, was just being unveiled at this year's AAAS Meeting and is called the Creative Science Studio (or CS-squared). The speakers in this session included the director Ron Howard, who is part of the collaborative, and who spoke about the preparations and hours of study he puts into films like "A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13", and even "Backdraft". Oddly, the moderator, upon introducing Ron also listed "Angels and Demons" among his "science films", but almost the first words out of Ron's mouth were that while he loves working with Dan Brown, that he really would never put "Angels and Demons" in such a category, even the first 8 minutes of it. The CS2 was effectively born at this session, so it doesn't have a track record yet, but their stated goals are to focus on movies about and containing real science, and to stay away from science fiction. They also state that they want to help scientists make better documentaries and better visual based teaching tools. To me, this sounds like a fabulous collaboration - and it will be very exciting to see how this effort develops.

Note: Strikethroughs and text in italics added after the original post, to correct and clarify the original post.


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In defense of Big Bang Theory... The unflattering portrayal isn't "astrophisicists" so much as Techers (as in Caltech). On that, it isn't all that unrealistic either ;)

On the general point... maybe some better basic science requirements in school would be the most effective approach. Not only make sure that people in film school have a clue, but also the audience.

Movie science is a thorny issue, and I'm quite torn on which is the best way to improve the representation of science in movies, mainly for two reasons:

- much of the 'problem' stems not from the representation of science, but of scientists. Rather than applying the scientific method to problems, movie scientists often just make authoritative statements without revealing their reasoning - but this doesn't happen because scriptwriters don't know better, it happens because they consciously use scientist character's authority to cover up plot holes. (i.e. the scientist character has to state "This is A! That must mean that B is the case!" not because that conclusion is really inevitable (or even logical), but because it's the easiest way to move the plot towards B.)

- is "better" science really preferable to bad science in a movie? With the Frankenstein/Godzilla class of B-movie science, there is at least little risk anyone is going to take it serious. If you strive to improve science in movies without going the full mile, you might end up spreading "almost science" - still basically wrong, but with enough of the trappings of actual science to be taken for the real thing by the audience.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 06 Apr 2010 #permalink

FYI, the Exchange has nothing to do with The Big Bang Theory. Bill Prady and his writers found their tech consultant by chance and it's one of the best collaborations I've yet seen between Hollywood and a scientist.

And you are greatly over-simplifying what the Science & Entertainment Exchange is about. The Exchange is about much more than tech consulting. That's part of it, to be sure, but the idea is to foster creative collaborations of all kinds between scientists and Hollywood. It's not about fact-checking or finger-wagging, but of demonstrating to both scientists and the entertainment industry that each has much to learn from the other -- and getting them all in a room together so that interaction can happen naturally and real relationships can form. We also hold in-home salons, special events, screenings/panel discussions, and so forth -- anything that fosters collaboration and enhances understanding between these two incredibly smart, creative communities. I say this over and over and over again, in interviews, in talks, etc;, but somehow all anyone ever seems to take away is "They want to get accurate science in movies."

Film and TV are entertainment. Nobody wants to turn them into documentaries, least of all the Exchange. We want plausible yet inspiring stories that incorporate science (and scientists) in a fun memorable way without clubbing everyone over the head with a "message."

BTW, I'm excited about the USC/NSF program, too. I think it's a fine complement to what the Exchange is doing, building on what we've already done. Except, once again, you misunderstood the intent of that program. They are not providing technical consulting for what you describe as "movies about and containing real science, and to stay away from science fiction." That also falls under the Exchange's purview.

Anyone interested in a more thorough writeup of the Exchange's AAAS session, can find it here:….

Sadly, most of the science press coverage of this session focused primarily on the talks by Jim Kakalios and Sid Perkowitz (and taking some of the latter's comments out of context). I love Sid and Jim, they always give fantastic talks, and they've been incredibly supportive of the Exchange. But hardly anyone in the science press (with a couple of exceptions) even mentioned what the Hollywood writers had to say -- it didn't fit within the pre-existing "frame", I guess. That's also part of what we're trying to change.

Hi Jennifer,

I'm glad you commented. I certainly don't want to "diss" on the Science and Entertainment Exchange. As I said in the post I think it and the CS2 are both "fantasitic and long overdue efforts". But I would have to say that based on your comments that the Exchange does a very poor job of presenting themselves. I saw the presentations at both the 2009 and 2010 AAAS meetings, and in both meetings all anyone talked about for the entire time was Sci-fi films and helping them be more "consistent" with their science. One talk in 2009 presented "getting a Kimwipe box on the set in Jurassic Park" as a key accomplishment for accuracy. In 2010, you yourself spent part of your introduction talking about the "Big Bang Theory" which is why I got the impression the Exchange was involved (and you even noted that the portrayal of astrophysicists on "Big Bang Theory" is problematic, which I thought was a really nice point in your talk). And Sid Perkowitz's talk (both times) focused almost exclusively on Sci-Fi, and now adding Jim Kakalios talk on superhero science, and the producers of "Heroes" in 2010 -- well, I'm sorry, but you really very very strongly set up a super-glued association between the Exchange and "better Sci-Fi". I personally have been wantng to talk to you and Ann Merchant about how I might participate in the Exchange (I've had several science plays produced and one recently published), but each time I get close, and I go to your website, and look at the notes from the AAAS meetings, I decide that it is too much about Sci-Fi and too little about real science. I really want what you say in your comments to be true!!! But the way you guys have been portraying yourself, and the projects you've interfaced with, and the speakers you have at your presentations, all strongly contradict this. No matter which perception is accurate -- I still want to emphasize that even the perception I have of the Exchange's accomplishments so far still make me believe it is a "fantastic and long overdue" effort that I strongly suport -- and certainly to improve the public understanding and appreciation of science, and to make more young people want to go into science, will take lots of different approaches-- it just doesn't appear to me to be the same effort that I am involved in, or that the CS2 presented itself as wanting to become involved in.

The Exchange didn't have a session at the 2009 AAAS session, Vince -- we were barely 3 months old -- so I don't know what you're talking about on that score. We kept the 2010 session focused on the superhero theme because it was just that: a theme. Since you can't even keep straight who's doing what at which meetings -- never mind the missions of two different but complementary programs -- how can you expect me to take your critique seriously? Don't use "poor messaging/presentation" as an excuse for your faulty assumptions and poor reporting, please.

More broadly: We get a lot of requests for sci-fi because those are folks who first think to call us, and they're the most high-profile to date (and the projects coming out this year), Many of our other consulting efforts are still in development and hence we cannot legally discuss them publicly because of various non-disclosure agreements still in effect. But if you followed our blog, The X-Change Files, and read about the salons and screenings, those have decidedly NOT been science fiction. Because we very much want to convey to Hollywood that science is not just for sci-fi. I say this over and over and over again in talks, interviews and so forth, in many different ways. I just have no control over what people choose to report. And invariably, particularly with the science press (perhaps because they tend to be sci-fi fans), that's what they all hone in on.

And incidentally, if you've been wanting so badly to know more about the Exchange, why HAVEN'T you contacted us, instead of making assumptions and then not probing further? I was at the AAAS meeting, interacting with folks, for three whole days. You could have approached me for a quick coffee at any time if you were interested in learning more.

There's no need to become involved with the Exchange if you don't feel it jibes with your interests. The CS2 program very much needs the support of scientists, too, and there's plenty to go around. But it bugs me that you seem to have some sort of "purity test" for the kinds of things you will become involved with. What do you mean, "real science"? It's all fiction. it's all entertainment. (Unless it's documentaries or CS2's excellent mission of bringing Hollywood filmmaking talents to bear on the atrophying field of educational films/materials.)

And frankly, if you're truly interested in reaching out to Hollywood, you can't just insist it's only on your own terms. You'll fail. If a writer or director needs you to consult on a sci-fi film or series, and you say no because you're "only" interested in working on "real science," you've just lost a tremendous opportunity to forge an ongoing relationship with that person -- a relationship that could lead to a film or TV project with your beloved "real science", and perhaps even a film version of one your plays.

Hi again Jennifer,

Yes, it looks like the 2009 session was hosted by NSF, it was called You Ought to Be in Pictures: Science as Entertainment in Movies and Television (on this page you need to scroll down to session 71, AAAS cut the individual permalinks to each session). Sorry about that, I had assumed the Exchange had something to do with it since you guys handed out flyers to everyone who entered that session. That's two things I've credited to the Exchange that it didn't do. I'm sorry that I'm not keeping straight your particular slice of the ongoing efforts, but I've gotta say, it certainly isn't easy. If I, and "invariably" the science press, and "anyone" and everyone (according to you) keep getting the same (incorrect, according to you) message, this does begin to somewhat implicate your messaging. I'm actually trying hard not to make any assumptions about the Exchange, because my assumptions want to see the Exchange as much more "pure" (i.e. about pushing for "real science" movies), and the message I keep seeing is that it simply is not. I did approach you and Ann Merchant at the 2009 meeting and you guys just handed me another Exchange flyer and said you had to run at that time. And the early apparent focus hadn't seemed to change in 2010, and seemed, as even your own linked article shows clearly, even more heavily Sci-Fi centered. I agree you cannot choose who contacts you, but you can put some up front requirements for your services. As I understand it (although please don't hesitate to correct me if I'm wrong), this is public money from the National Academies -- you don't have to work with every Sci-Fi film that calls you, especially if the eventual efforts are only marginally more accurate science (only time will tell). Giving Hollywood some free scientist set designers might be a necessary place to start, but eventually we need to see some real improvement in the science literacy of Hollywood movies, otherwise it's just free consulting. I find it unfortunate that I've seemed to upset you, since I really am, as objectively as possible, responding to the message I've been getting about the Exchange. And even in a single session I didn't get the same message from CS2, nor have I seen the same message from the Sloan Foundation, nor from the Imagine Science Film Fest, nor even from the Sundance Institute's science centered film efforts -- all of which do seem to be pushing quite clearly for more and improved "real science" movies. I'm also sorry if I've upset you, because I do believe you are one of the most active, visible, and productive people in trying to crack the nut of the portrayal of science in the movies. Perhaps I just don't understand your particular language, and I'm sorry if I don't, but it is the message I'm getting. Like I said, however, it's going to take many approaches to eventually crack this nut.