When Science and Entertainment Work Together

“We’re here to inspire filmmakers,” says Rick Loverd, Program Manager of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’re here to provide mainstream media content creators with great science.” Launched in 2008, the Exchange works to connect writers, producers, and industry executives with scientists and engineers, both to improve the overall quality of science in mainstream entertainment and to break down negative stereotypes of scientists themselves. On this week’s podcast, we delve into the world of science consulting, exploring what it takes to pull off a successful collaboration. According to Loverd, the key is to put the story first and try to find organic ways to ground it in science. “I don’t think you can steer Hollywood creatives toward something. You can just give them a better idea.”

That’s how the 2011 Marvel blockbuster Thor ended up with a backstory grounded in theoretical physics. When Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll suggested that the title character travel to Earth via an Einstein-Rosen Bridge — a wormhole — the character of Jane Foster, originally a nurse, became a particle astrophysicist instead. That gave her a plausible reason be out in the desert of New Mexico when Thor arrives, explains UCLA postdoctoral scholar Kevin Peter Hickerson. Thinking through the physics to flesh out the backstory, Hickerson helped Marvel producers construct Jane Foster’s laboratory, which (in the movie) relies on high energy physics to detect signatures of dark matter coming from Thor’s hammer. “That was the sort of way in which, very organically to their creative process, a scientist was able to drop some facts and help the filmmakers make something feel slightly more plausible,” says Loverd.

The Jane Foster character also allowed Disney, in partnership with the Exchange and others, to launch the Ultimate Mentor Adventure, a contest aimed at empowering girls to explore careers in science and engineering. “To be able to have a strong female character in a summer popcorn movie talking about Einstein-Rosen Bridges can really do a lot to get kids interested in science,” says Loverd, “and once that character exists, you can leverage that opportunity to create all sorts of teachable moments.”

Among recent science fiction movies, last year’s Interstellar stands out for its physics-driven plot and stunning visual effects. Hickerson, who has engaged in several lively public debates on the science of Interstellar since its release, thinks the bar has been raised for science in Hollywood. “I think you can see now that audiences respond to it,” he says, and besides, “It’s making everyone in Hollywood treat scientists like rockstars now, and I have zero complaints with that!”

Podcast and post by Meg Rosenburg

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