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How Science Informs the Stories On Hollywood’s Silver Screen

Photos: Aidan Monaghan; TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Films

If you watch television or go to the movies these days, chances are you’re soaking in some science. Whether you’re hearing about the Einstein-Rosen Bridge on “Thor,” artificial intelligence in “Prometheus,” or loop quantum gravity on “The Big Bang Theory,” it’s easy to immerse yourself in an escape that’s a little more thought-provoking than quarreling housewives or budding ninjas.

Science as a story

If all this Hollywood science sounds like a “thing,” that’s because it is. “We’ve seen a trend toward more film and television that includes science characters and themes, and science-motivated narratives,” reflects Ann Merchant of the National Academies of Science (NAS). “And we’ve seen that filmmakers are trying to get it right.”

That’s really good news for science, Merchant says. “The best way to communicate science is through stories.”

But, if the success of shows like “Criminal Minds” and movies like “The Martian” are an indication, science is also good for entertainment. And, in an effort to help Hollywood tell engaging stories accurately, the NAS launched a program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange in 2008 with the goal of connecting entertainment industry professionals with scientists who can help them create engaging stories using accurate science.

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It’s a relationship Merchant says is beneficial for storytellers as well as consumers. “Partly, it enhances the narrative and makes a richer story,” she says. “But, it also exposes people to science that they engage with on a deeper level.”

One example of that, Merchant says, is a recent storyline on “The Good Wife” involving a Google-like company called Chumhum that explored the potentially problematic nature of search engine algorithms—something that directly affects all of our lives. If you were watching the show and didn’t know what an algorithm was, you would have benefited from accurate scientific information as well as quality entertainment.

Technology has made it easier for Hollywood to incorporate science into their work. “The world has changed,” Merchant says. “There is a push in this country for an emphasis on STEM-related activities. In the past, it was much harder to get details. Science journals were not online, and you had to work harder to get the information. Our exchange tries to make it really easy to get in touch with experts who can communicate science concepts.”

A new accountability

Of course, not all science presented on television and in films is totally correct, and some viewers love to point the finger when things don’t add up. Merchant says, “The internet is responsive, and fanboys can check on things quickly, so you don’t want to go far from accuracy or you’ll be called out.”

At the same time, though, Merchant acknowledges that the story will always trump the science—and that’s okay. “Our perspective is that, even when something is not wholly accurate, it is beneficial if people see a movie and get excited about science.”

For example, while the movie “San Andreas” was not completely factual, Merchant says, “So much was written about earthquake science and safety because of the film that there were many benefits.”  

In some cases, however, Merchant contends that accuracy is more important. “When it comes to public health, you don’t want to contribute to a situation where people have a misunderstanding of something fundamental.” For example, she says it was important that the movie “Contagion” got all the basics right so people could understand how infectious disease can be transmitted and moved through the population, and how it can be contained.

As a consumer, it’s important to recognize, for example, that the “Lost” marathon you’re binge-watching is just television. At the same time, though, you might just learn something about alternate universes—and that’s pretty awesome.

Jill Cody Smits, [email protected]

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