The Science of Hollywood


Agila Somasundaram photo As scientists, especially biologists, many of us were impressed with how the movie Contagion accurately depicted the scientific process of developing a vaccine to a deadly virus, and the response to a public health crisis. The vaccine was developed in an incredibly short time – hopefully we’ll get there soon! On Monday, I attended the session I was looking forward to the most at the BPS Annual Meeting this year – The Science of Hollywood! The session was moderated by Rick Loverd, Program Director of Science and Entertainment Exchange (SciEntEx). SciEntEx is sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, and its goal is to connect entertainment professionals developing science-based entertainment content with top scientists and engineers whose expertise can improve the storyline. Started in 2008, SciEntEx has many success stories including Contagion, The Big Bang Theory, Prometheus, and Eureka! The panelists comprised of scientists, and professionals from the entertainment industry.

While discussing the role of science in the creative process, Amy Berg, Film/TV Writer and Executive Producer, said that science should improve story telling, but it should not inform it. The goal of story telling is to give the audience what they can relate to. While story trumps science, science improves story. Dr. Jessica Cail, Professor of Psychopharmacology, Pepperdine University, and a consultant for many sci-fi movies and TV shows including the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., said that she tries to make the science as accurate as possible, and hopes that it makes it through the ladder of movie production before it hits the screens. Dr. Clifford Johnson, Professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southern California, indicated how nature and science offer innumerable creative opportunities for exciting stories. He cited the example of Dr. Kip Thorne, who conceived of the scientific idea that became the movie Interstellar. He said, “Science is not just a decoration, but the core of the story.” Mike Ireland, Senior Vice President, Production, 20th Century Fox, said that entertainment influences science too. Transparent Aluminium, of Star Trek fame, is a ‘new state of matter’!

When our favorite characters say or do something, we absorb it. How science, scientists and the scientific process are pictured in media can significantly affect public perception of scientific issues. So, does Hollywood have a role in informing society? Dr. Cail said that while the entertainment industry can do it, it is not their job. Mike Ireland remarked that Hollywood can provide sound science, but it would be hard to change deep-rooted public opinions on issues such as evolution and climate change. Depicting good science in children’s shows might be a way to educate the public. But the consensus was that it is essential that movies and TV shows accurately portray not just science, but also scientists. Dr. Johnson emphasized the importance of depicting the diversity (gender, racial, etc.) in science, so that people start thinking of scientists as ‘all kinds of people’, instead of stereotyping them. Dr. Suzanna Scarlatta, President-elect of the Biophysical Society, requested that the entertainment industry help the scientific community more by portraying the challenges involved in obtaining funding to do exciting science. There was a lot of excitement to the suggestion that entertainment professionals spend time in a real lab, to see how real science happens, including the failures. Reality show, anyone?!

Brainstorming in a multi-disciplinary environment is a big part of their careers, and all the panelists thoroughly enjoy it. Amy Berg remarked on how she looks forward to attending weekend retreats where scientists and writers come together to discuss ways in which they can help each other. Dr. Cail loves the various projects that she consults for, her roles as a mentor (for Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World Ultimate Mentor Adventure) and other roles (sometimes a villain!) that she gets to play in shows. Mike Ireland recounted with delight his experience with brainstorming how to build the futuristic motorcycle from Akira (one that you can actually ride without dying!). Dr. Johnson applauded The Martian for depicting the collaborative nature of science, where many different approaches are needed to solve a problem. The lone scientist stereotypes are long gone!

And as you many have already guessed, the panelists had their own inspirational characters and shows too while growing up! Dr. Cail’s favorite is Twister, Amy Berg loves Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Dr. Johnson fondly remembers the books he read as a child that constantly remind him of why he does what he does. I felt very proud about all the hours I’ve spent binge-watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Star Trek, and a ton of science-fiction movies – I was certainly a very well informed and inspired audience at the session!


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