Sidney Perkowitz is a physics professor at Emory University, and the author of several books that blend science and pop culture, including Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a science advisor to multiple films, including Contact and the 2008 re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Together, they fight crime.
Okay, that last part isn't technically true. But it does make for a good story, and, in that, it actually does a really good job of showing you what these two men actually do. Both Perkowitz and Shostak work to bridge the gap between the people who do science and the people who make science fiction. They're involved in the Science and Entertainment Exchange — a National Academies of Sciences effort to bring scientists together with directors, producers, and writers. The goals: Help scientists do better public communication and make sci-fi more awesome. But there's a catch here, because "awesome" and "totally 100% accurate" are seldom the same thing.
This week, I spoke to Perkowitz and Shostak about what happens when science and entertainment cross streams, how you illustrate things nobody has ever seen, and why — even when the science in the movies is bad — science still wins.
Maggie Koerth-Baker: First, let's get some background. How does the relationship between Hollywood and science work?
Sidney Perkowitz: All I can really comment on is what the Science and Entertainment Exchange does. There are two main modes of interaction. First, the Exchange is open to having a movie maker or a TV maker call them up and ask for a suggestion of a scientist who could advise them on a specific issue. And the Exchange will give them a name. There's hundreds of interactions like that. The second thing is to have these soirees to bring science and entertainment people together. Those allow people to communicate and it builds trust between the two sides.
Seth Shostak: [When you work as an advisor to a specific project] it's usually more in-depth, rather than a quick question. The minimum I've done is an hour-long talk. They want to hear about the general subject area and marinate in the subject a bit. It's background research for them and the studio is enlightened enough to think that's worth the plane tickets. [Shostak had just finished spending the morning with a movie team that flew up from L.A. to meet him before he and I spoke.] More often, though, the National Science Foundation buys me a ticket down there.
Normally they don't want to know how to illustrate an idea — they know how to illustrate things — but they have quesitons about details. How do we make the dialog sound like it's real scientists, for instance. If aliens invaded Earth, why would they come here? And what sort of weapons would they have? As if we know. They're looking for something to hang a plot point on. So I advise them and then they take maybe 30% of my suggestions.
MKB: Seth, I'm curious how you'd answer that question. What sort of weapons would the aliens have?
SS: Probably very poorly. If I knew, I'd be working for DARPA. But I'll make some general observations. Like, say, our weapons work basically by hitting pieces of metal and throwing throwing them at someone else. It's all based around projectiles. But that's kind of silly. They can't move very fast and they're very inaccurate. It's crazy, when you think about it, that we build a whole aircraft carrier, for billions of dollars, and we put it out in the ocean and its only function is to move us a little closer to the enemy so we can throw bits of metal at them. It's so primitive.
So I'd just assume that the aliens have gotten away from bullets. Maybe they're using lasers. Maybe they have launchers on the Moon or their planet and you don't have to build these big ships to get right up close. But, you know, [the entertainment people] aren't thinking outside the box like that. You ask a caveman, what weapons will the aliens use and he'll tell you, "Well, they'll have bigger clubs." They're thinking bigger artillery. So it's my job to step back and say, "Well what is it you really want to accomplish and what are some other ways we could do that."
MKB: What happens when they want to know what something looks like, and nobody know what it looks like — like, you're talking about something that's still theoretical, or something that can't be observed directly.
SP: With particle physics, a lot of science fiction shows the outcome, rather than the particle itself. You have this miraculous particle that makes a weapon. They don't often try to show the particle itself, they show the weapon. The example that comes to mind, though, is from the other end of the scale — not particles, but at the cosmic level. Go back to Star Wars. Every time they go into overdrive, traveling faster than light, what you saw through the windscreen was stars stretching out. That was a great impressionistic way to show what was going on without trying to explain what was actually going on. They were expressing the idea of faster-than-light travel in visuals, in a way that's good enough to keep audience happy.
SS: Getting it correct is less important than conveying what is going on. During the making of Contact, I was one of the people called up by folks at Warner Brothers asking questions. They asked me what it looked like when you fly through a wormhole. Well, nobody knows, of course. And it's not clear you could even do it. But it is true that when you go faster than the speed of light the universe collapses into a bright point of light ahead of you and a bright point behind you. I told them that and then I told them that, usually when someone illustrates it though, they use something that looks like a pig's intestine. But this would be more accurate. So they said, "Thank you," and we hung up, and they made it look like the pig's intestine.
But that's okay. They're going for the pop culture, the iconic depiction of the thing. It's really a shorthand, so that when you, the audience, see something like that, you get it. They don't need to spend a lot of screen time explaining what it is. There's a different intent and a different audience. In the question, "What does it look like", the important point is "like".
MKB: So it's okay to get the science wrong?
SP: You have to bend accuracy. Entertainment starts with an assumption that a lot of scientists don't start with: The story and the science have to somehow blend. You can't just insist the science be 100% accurate. It's better to have some science in there that's more or less accurate, than to have it badly done or not there at all. So [as advisors] we'll bend some in return for having some input.
Almost all of the superhero movies have some of this in them. You take being bitten by a radioactive spider in Spiderman. There's no scientific sense to it. But it starts the story going, and maybe along the way you can fit in real science. In Spiderman 2, we're way beyond his origin story now, and he's dealing with a scientist who wants to create fusion power and the way he does it is meaningful — using lasers to induce fusion is a real, ongoing scientific operation. There's real science in there. I think a really hard-nosed scientist might say you have to throw the whole thing out the window. But the Science and Entertainment Exchange says let's accept the bad part and see what we can fit in that works reasonably well.
SS: Scientists like to whinge about accuracy. And it's true, particularly years ago, a lot of sci-fi was just bonkers. I mean, it's still bonkers. But even more back then. But [the entertainment industry] aren't in the business of science education. They're in the business of entertainment.
I was the science advisor for The Day The Earth Stood Still, and one of the things they had me do was redline the scripts and help them make the dialogue sound more realistic. And they have these lines, like one scientist saying to another, "Professor Sputnik, there's an asteroid on a hyperbolic trajectory" and they rattle off all these numbers. Well, that's not how scientists talk to one another. What they'd say is, "Bob, there's a goddam rock headed our way!" But they don't take all my advice on that because they're trying to make those characters sound "like" scientists, not sound like actual scientists.
MKB: If they don't have to get it right, though, what's the point of involving scientists at all?
When I was a kid, you'd see something in a movie and realize it wasn't right, but it's coming off the supply reel at 90 feet a minute there's no backing it up to see what you'd missed. Now you can just hit a button, stop, back up and play it 20 times and see exactly what's wrong. And then you go on your blog and say it's wrong and stupid, and that has actual consequences for the filmmakers, which it didn't in the past. Before the one percent who noticed a mistake didn't have a platform to tell ayone else about it. Now there's much more interest. People do have a platform. And so the National Academy of Sciences set up the Science and Entertainment Exchange down in L.A. to bring filmmakers and scientists together when they're in early stages of a film and can still change things. It's better to get it right than wrong. But to say it's going to make a big difference in science literacy is probably not true. Nobody going to say, "I don't want to be a scientist because I saw this movie and they got all the science wrong." What's important is that it grabs you at emotional level, not intellectual one. That's what got me interested in science, in fact. Seeing silly science fiction films as a kid.
MKB: Okay, but what does science really get out of this relationship? Why is it worth your time to keep them from being picked on by the Internet?
SP: Here are some of the pluses. Science gets exposure. One of my favorite movies goes back a few years — The Day After Tomorrow. It was partly right and partly wrong on climate science, it had things unfolding over a matter of days that would take years, for instance. Purists were upset. But a more flexible scientist would say it got some of the basic ideas across. And in surveys since, we see that it did raise consciousness about global warming.
The other thing is that you get kids turned on. If some 16-year-old girl sees a film about neuroscience and it's wrong, but she grows up to become a neuroscience who does science right, that's a net plus. There's anecdote after anecdote of scientists getting into science because science fiction got them as a kid.
SS: I think this is good to do, but in the end, storytell is about the emotional content. If they've got the technology accurate, but the movie isn't interesting, it doesn't matter. I think advising for films is one of those things that it's better to do than not. It's like table manners. On the other hand, the real value is when you bring scientists and filmmakers together they might expose the filmmakers to new science that they didn't know about and that might be really interesting. Sci-fi tends to follow these tried and true formulae because they don't know what's going on in science. What was there before the big bang? They don't know that's an active area of research. It's valuable to do it simply because it might give them an idea of a new story. So the real value may be exposing people who have ability to present stories to the public to new ideas in science — especially if those ideas might interest next generation of scientists.
MKB: Have there been times when you've seen Hollywood get the science really spot on in a really clever way?
SP: One of my very favorite examples really shows how creative people, if they want to, can do science right and make a good story. Do you remember A Beautiful Mind. In real life, John Nash won the Nobel for a math theorem and I'm sure you know that's the hardest thing to express in a pop culture way. But they had a scene in which he was trying to make choices out of multiple possibilities. They illustrated that in a scene where a bunch of male math students went to a bar and tried to figure out how to connect with pretty young women in the bar. That director found a really clever way to act out an abstract idea and get it right. So it can be done.