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Sean Carroll Bridges Spacetime between Science, Hollywood and the Public

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll is willing to accept that Hollywood is not always going to be scientifically precise. But there is one thing he wants film and TV makers to get right: the spirit of science.

Take the movie “Iron Man,” for example. While building a flying suit out of scrap metal in a cave in Afghanistan is fantastical, Carroll applauds the process that the main character goes through. Experimentation, trying, failing, trying again, until finally, a working solution emerges.

“That’s not magic,” Carroll said, “that’s science.”

Sean Carroll
Sean Carroll. Credit: Rachael Porter.

To help improve the representation of science and scientists in pop culture, Carroll volunteers as a science consultant for movies and TV shows. Producers, directors and screen writers can contact him when looking to fill holes in a script or work through some scientific concepts.

“Usually, by the time you are brought in as a science consultant, they know what they want to happen,” said Carroll, a physics professor at Caltech and AAAS Member. “What they want is to make it scientifically respectable.”

Carroll has volunteered as a television and film science consultant for about 10 years. One of his first calls was for the 2011 movie, “Thor.” The Marvel Studios team wanted to know how they could transport Thor from his world of Asgard to Earth. In the original comics, Thor does this via a dimensional energy enabling instantaneous travel called the Bifrost Bridge. The filmmakers wanted a transport mechanism that sounded a little more scientific. To Carroll, the obvious choice was a wormhole.

“They said wormholes are too ‘90s,” Carroll recalled. So, he suggested for the "wormhole" to be called an "Einstein Rosen Bridge," which was the term Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen gave it when they first wrote about wormholes in 1935.

When the movie came out, and Thor arrives on Earth, Natalie Portman’s character theorizes that he might have arrived via an Einstein Rosen Bridge.

“A what?” asks her assistant.

Another scientist starts to explain in detail and Portman adds, “It’s just a wormhole.”

And that is the type of effect a science consultant can have on a film, Carroll half-jokes. It might be small, but sometimes it can help shape plots or provide more realism, even in fantasy or science fiction.

Marvel Studios called Carroll back for the more recent “Avengers: Endgame” film. They hadn’t finalized how they were going to send characters back in time. Carroll advised the simplest solution: characters can travel to the past but can’t change it; that’s why movie plots like “Back to the Future” shouldn’t work, he noted.

Two years and a finalized movie later, Paul Rudd’s Ant Man character exclaims on the “Avengers: Endgame” big screen: “So ‘Back to the Future’ is a bunch of bullshit?”

Carroll is quick to point out that several scientists were likely consulted about time travel theories. And although there is no way to trace the overall plot structure and the “Back to the Future” line back to his specific meeting with the scriptwriters and producers of “Avengers: Endgame,” Carroll is satisfied that he may have contributed to the film nonetheless.

Besides helping clarify scientific concepts, Carroll engages in many forms of pop culture to help humanize scientists and spread the spirit of science. He tries to highlight the scientific method as a collaborative and gradual process of experimentation.

"In part for dramatic reasons and in part because people are lazy, the process of doing science is woefully misrepresented on TV,” Carroll said. Scientists are also often misrepresented, he said. “It is usually a lone genius who is a theorist and an experimenter and an engineer and they do everything based in laboratory.”

But while pop culture representations of science still have a long way to go, Carroll thinks they are improving. In the past, Hollywood types thought scientists were there to scold them on how badly they were doing. Scientists happily obliged. Most didn’t realize there was a productive middle ground.

Now, The Science and Entertainment Exchange, supported by the National Academy of Sciences and originally led by Carroll’s wife, science writer Jennifer Ouelette, provides a database of experts willing to talk to the arts and entertainment community.

There is typically neither payment nor credit for these ad hoc services, just a small token of appreciation for an afternoon of one’s time and expertise. And, while scientists can now contribute to the creative process, it is also important to realize that movies and TV shows are not always going to be scientifically accurate or realistic.

When Carroll invited a group of graduate students to join him to discuss a film idea where gravity pulls up rather than down, the students immediately dismissed the idea as impossible. Carroll had to nudge them towards a more accepting approach. “Don’t think of the script as a theory, think of the script as data,” Carroll told them. “Use your brain power to figure out how to make sense of it.”

The amount of time Carroll spends on consulting is minimal. He uses most of his time researching the foundations of quantum mechanics, specifically working out how the Many-Worlds Theory – in which a nearly-identical world is produced with every quantum measurement – is a likely solution for understanding quantum mechanics. His forthcoming book, “Something Deeply Hidden,” is a way of doing this research in public, where readers can debate the idea of many worlds and join the process of discovery.

Carroll feels it is imperative that the public be informed about the science they ultimately support, and truly enjoys engaging with the public. He tweets regularly and gives TED talks, but he wasn’t always the best public speaker. In fact, his high school debate team told him he was downright awful.

“I was told over and over again, ‘what you’re saying is interesting, but your delivery is abysmally bad. You are the most boring speaker we’ve ever heard,’” Carroll recounted.

He practiced — a lot — and eventually was able to relax and have fun, finding what worked for him and the audience. The speech and debate training also helped him to think quickly on his feet, which no doubt helped with fielding crazy questions on The Colbert Report or even with interviewing guests on his own podcast, Mindscape.

Carroll started the weekly Mindscape podcast a year ago to talk to thinkers, ranging from neuroscientists and biologists to trumpet players and poker players. Carroll’s goal is to not just help lower barriers between disciplines amongst academics, but to get his 75,000 listeners talking more about science.

“I want physics, and science more generally, to be part of the broader cultural conversation,” he said. “I don’t want it to be separate from economics and law, I want it to be part of what people talk about when they go to the bar for a beer after work.”

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