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National Academy of Sciences goes Hollywood

Photonics Spectra
Feb 2009
Laura S. Marshall,

Look out, Hollywood, the scientists are coming.

Fed up with science fiction that’s a little too heavy on the fiction, the National Academy of Sciences is sending a dedicated task force into the heart of the entertainment industry, and the group has one goal: to save the world from bad science.

FTmovies_iStock7922886.jpgWell, not really. The newly formed Science & Entertainment Exchange actually is a formal collaboration between science experts and the people who create films, TV shows and video games – it’s about working together, not fighting each other.

The advisory board is made up of representatives from both groups and includes such big names as director Jerry Zucker and his wife, producer Janet Zucker; neurologist and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks; actor Dustin Hoffman; and Secretary of Energy and 1997 Nobel Prize winner in physics Steven Chu. The Exchange’s formal connection process is streamlined, designed to bypass the hit-or-miss friend-of-a-friend approach of the past, and it calls on the vast range of knowledge held by National Academy of Science members. Organizers also plan to host salons, workshops and screenings.

“There’s always been a synergy between the two fields, along with a long-standing tension, one might say,” said Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Exchange, which has a start-up office at California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I think science is experiencing a resurgence of interest and, well, respect in Hollywood at the moment, evidenced in part by the large number of tv shows with a scientific bent to them – and primary characters who are practicing scientists.”

There are a number of reasons for this. “For starters, it’s great drama,” she said. “And, frankly, real science is so much cooler and weirder than anything a writer could make up.

“Audiences have also become more sophisticated. They expect a believable story line and dialogue. Really, there’s only so far a filmmaker [or] writer can push the boundaries of plausibility these days.”

Travers Naran is living proof of this sophistication. The Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, computer programmer and self-described science geek runs a blog called “Sci-Fi Science Blunders Hall of Infamy” in his spare time. The whole focus of the site is to deconstruct bad science in sci-fi movies and TV shows.

“My motivation was simple: I wanted better science in TV and movies, and I figured the best place to start was to increase the demand for it by educating the fans first,” Naran said. “If the fans want it, they will get it.”

He described an episode of the new “Battlestar Galactica” series in which a cybernetic Cylon connects to a network using a fiber optic cable in her arm. Naran said he watched in disbelief. “Really, Cylons’ left arms have fiber optic transceivers, but the humans still can’t tell humans from Cylons even with an x-ray?”

One of Naran’s biggest concerns about implausible science in sci-fi is that it can spread misconceptions. He said he wishes that the writers and producers of certain programs would work to make the science more realistic. “I know ‘Lost’ and ‘Fringe’ are actually fantasy shows, but I worry that people will form their opinions of scientists, and science’s motives in general, from these shows – which show them in a very scary light.”

Ouellette said she believes that reaching the public was another reason scientists were interested in joining the Exchange. “I think the scientific community is becoming more open to these kinds of outreach efforts, recognizing the value of popular culture in reaching the hearts and minds of the general public, rather than dismissing it as merely frivolous.”

There have been other attempts to bring experts together with entertainment professionals, most notably Hollywood Health and Society, which provides medical information to writers of soap operas and one-hour TV dramas. “We’re trying to do the same thing for science,” Ouellette said.

But the evenly mixed science-and-entertainment advisory board makes the National Academy of Sciences’ cultural exchange program different, she added. “We wanted to avoid any hint of condescension, giving the impression that scientists planned to invade Hollywood to ‘save’ film and tv from bad science.

“We emphasize that this is a win-win partnership: Scientists can provide useful technical expertise so writers, directors, set designers, etc. can bring more realism and plausibility to their projects. And Hollywood can bring its expertise in communicating to mass audiences to bear on the problem of communicating science more effectively – and changing some of those time-honored negative stereotypes in the process, perhaps.”

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