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A Little More “Sci,” a Little Less “Fi”

Photonics.com
Jun 2012
Jun. 15, 2012 — How would you feel if Neil deGrasse Tyson called you out publicly on your knowledge of astronomy?

Now, how would you feel if you spent the better part of a decade and untold millions of dollars making a big sci-fi movie and Neil deGrasse Tyson called you out publicly on your knowledge of astronomy … as reflected in the movie?

That’s what the astrophysicist and science communicator did to poor Ridley Scott, or to whatever screenwriter was responsible for the words coming out of Charlize Theron’s mouth in the recently released Prometheus. Tyson went to see the movie last weekend and afterward promptly tweeted: “Prometheus goes 35 light yrs into space, but CharlizeTheron gaffes ‘We’re a half billion miles from Earth’ — just past Jupiter.”

It’s a minor quibble, quite possibly a persnickety one. But it underscores a curious development in Hollywood: In recent years filmmakers and scientists alike have been asking for greater scientific accuracy in movies. So if you make a movie and happen to slip up — even in throwaway bit of dialog, as in Prometheus — you can be sure someone somewhere is going to call you on it.

Why? you might ask. Why does it matter if, for example, the laser systems used to suck people into computers in Tron: Legacy are somehow grounded in reality? As for Hollywood, we can only assume that filmmakers appreciate the added sheen of verisimilitude. And from the perspective of the scientific community, the sprinkling of real science in movies — however subtle — might just encourage young fans to explore the scientific ideas on their own.

Seth Shostak of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence noted this last month in an interview with Wired. Shostak served as a scientific consultant on the beleaguered Battleship; the alien antagonists in the movie hail from Planet G, an actual planet in the Gliese 581 system — somewhere in the Libra constellation — whose Earth-like properties have attracted SETI’s interest.

“People don’t learn science in movies,” he said. “You don’t go to the movies thinking, ‘I hope I learn some quantum mechanics this afternoon.’ But on the other hand, movies are instrumental and influential in getting young people interested in science.”

Indeed, this is one of the goals of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, the organization through which Shostak has landed a number of consulting jobs on movies and TV shows. The Exchange is a National Academy of Sciences program that serves to connect entertainment industry professionals with expert scientists and engineers “to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV programming.”

Launched in 2008, it has already contributed to 450 projects on both the small and big screen: from The Big Bang Theory, Heroes and Fringe to Terminator Salvation, Tron: Legacy and Thor. (The bioluminescent alien bacteria you saw in Green Lantern? You can thank an Exchange consultant for that idea.)

This summer alone, its members have lent their expertise to The Avengers, Battleship and — somehow — the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The program has been so successful that scientists and artists in the UK are trying to find ways to replicate it. In April, a number of them gathered at a symposium held at the University of Manchester to discuss how to guarantee scientific accuracy in fiction and to lay the groundwork for establishing a UK organization like the Science & Entertainment Exchange in the US.

“As British science fiction writers, we are continually forced to balance scientific practice, current knowledge and future developments with the demands of fine storytelling,” a group of authors who attended wrote in a letter to the Manchester Review. “Getting that balance right is hard, but worthwhile, because credibility is so important both to audiences and the scientific community.”


GLOSSARY
fringe
An interference band such as Newton's ring.
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