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Using of Science in Hollywood, TV Proves Valuable Public Engagement Tool

SAN DIEGO--From a Central American island with an out-of-control Jurassic park to a time-traveling Delorean that takes you back to the future, there's plenty of science in movies and television.

Obviously no man has ever shot super-strong spider webs from his wrists, and no one can fly faster than a speeding bullet without an airplane. But in American superhero history, there may be more science than meets the eye. And the contemporary artists who produce comic books and blockbuster films are often deeply concerned to get the science, more or less, right.

Speaking Friday morning during a symposium at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego, a panel of scientists who have worked with filmmakers along with writers from the NBC superhero drama Heroes said that portraying science correctly-- at least partly--can be as important as other production values.

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They also said that while Hollywood occasionally misappropriates science, allowing super-humans to shoot spider-webs from their wrists, for example, the use of science in movies can serve as an important public engagement tool.

Sidney Perkowitz, a professor of physics at Emory University, said that with the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, novelist Michael Crichton and director Stephen Spielberg made DNA, the genetic building blocks of life, a household term. While the idea of extracting DNA from blood ingested by pre-historic mosquitoes trapped in sap is a little far-fetched, the scientific concepts are accurate, he said.

"Every superhero or science fiction movie is allowed one major suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story," said Perkowitz, who published a book on the topic entitled Hollywood Science (1997). "But even with an exaggeration or distortion of science, it's not a tragedy because the movie is still a chance to educate as well as entertain."

He called science fiction "a true cultural force reflecting society," with science playing a major role in 19 of the top 50 all-time grossing movies.

Crichton eventually became unpopular in much of the scientific community, especially for his attacks on the science of climate change. Jim Kakalios, a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and a consultant to the recent Superman and Spiderman movies, said that filmmakers have a vested interest in getting the science right. He was more recently approached by production designers for the film Watchman to build a scientific laboratory for one of the main characters, Dr. Manhattan.  

"Every time the audience sees something that is clearly inaccurate, it takes them out of the story," said Kakalios, who teaches a freshman class entitled "Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading a Comic Book." Kakalios said that the trick to using science in a movie or comic book is to "convey the essential concepts without dumbing it down or turning people off with complicated details."

Kakalios cited a comic book featuring The Flash in which the superhero catches a bullet aimed at bystanders. The author of the comic book explained that The Flash moved his hand as he caught the bullet, much like a baseball infielder catches a hard-hit ground ball.

Kakalios also developed a Youtube video explaining science in the movie Watchmen. Viewed over 1.5 million times, he said that he would have to teach for 15 centuries before he reached that many people while teaching.

Janet Ouellette, symposium moderator and director of the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange, said "great things happen when you bring scientists into the same room with filmmakers." Describing her center as a "1-800-Find-A-Scientist," Ouellette said that entertainment producers or writers can contact her program and be paired with a scientist with relevant technical knowledge.

"Science in movies is incredibly powerful as many scientists cite movies or books in their early childhood as inspiring them to pursue science," she said. "We try to foster a collaboration that brings in good science without the ridiculous  . . . and make sure not to wag our scientific fingers." Ouellette cited a trend of having scientists offer commentary on DVD bonus discs including for the TV shows Lost (ABC) and Fringe (FOX).

Joe and Aron Coleite, producers and writers for the show "Heroes" on NBC, said that science in Hollywood is a balance between reality and art.

"We always try to stay true to scientific accuracy while occasionally diverging for emotion or story-telling," said Pokaski. "We have enormous respect for scientists and if the science seems off, the audience is going to tune out."

Coleite said that because "Heroes" is about a group of humans that can fly, stop time, or change the temperature of a room, "there is obviously some scientific inaccuracy." Despite powers that defy science -- like invisibility-- the show's writers try to remain consistent with their "bending of science."

"We've spent hours in unpleasant rooms discussing if clothes are visible on an invisible person, or if anything the person touches also becomes invisible," said Coleite.

Despite the dangers of confusing the public with incorrect science, Perkowitz said that Hollywood's use of science is a good tool for engaging the public-- even with science's occasional misrepresentation.

While he understands why Hollywood may fuss with the laws of science to make its summer thrillers more, well, thrilling, he joked that he would look forward to someday reading an important notice notice as the credits roll at the end of a movie: "No scientific concepts were harmed in the making of this film."