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Scientists Talk Hollywood Consulting and Turning Movie Magic Into Movie Science

By Wesley Fenlon

Hollywood's depiction of science and real science are usually two different things, but sometimes they call on the experts to fit a little truth into their films.

There's a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth, gentlemen, and not even our best scientists have the technical skills to operate heavy drilling machinery. If there's any hope of planting a nuclear bomb in that rock and blowing it to smithereens, we're going to have to teach some deep-sea oil drillers how to become astronauts.

Armageddon's ridiculous plot may have set a record for mixing a real-world setting and Hollywood nonsense, but all sci-fi dabbles in the absurd while dropping in little bits of reality. Some unreality we accept without thinking, like the artificial gravity and space battle sound effects that make Star Wars and Star Trek fun to watch. But films set closer to our own time and place have to steer a little closer to the truth, which is where the Science and Entertainment Exchange comes in. In a recent interview on BoingBoing, two members of the Exchange talked about their jobs consulting with Hollywood moviemakers to help make sci-fi a little more science and a little less fantasy.

The Science and Entertainment Exchange consults with movie and TV productions to help them nail down the details of their productions. What do scientists talk like? What would alien weapons and ships look like? How do we depict travel through a wormhole?

Ironically, it seems like most sci-fi movies are defined by moviemakers ignoring the advice they're given. "Getting it correct is less important than conveying what is going on," Seth Shostak told BoingBoing. "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."

Still, in the rest of the interview the two members of the Science and Entertainment Exchange are great sports about how silly sci-fi gets, and they approach movies the right way. Instead of worrying about the advice that's ignored, they're just happy to see some science done right, even when it's surrounded by absurdity. One example: the laser-powered fusion experiments in Spider-man 2, which are based on reality. Of course, the whole "spider man" part is absurd, but they'll take what they can get. They even praised The Day After Tomorrow for raising awareness about global warming, even if all of its events happened on an absurdly accelerated timescale.

And sometimes absurdity works out for the best, anyway. The Exchange wants to see more kids grow up to become scientists, and sometimes it's the Star Wars space battles, not the realistic physics experiments, that make kids fall in love with science to begin with.