The National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences each are spearheading programs designed to get more accurate science into the movies, and they have two somewhat different approaches to this same “problem”. Each presented its plan during a couple of sessions at this year’s AAAS National Meeting. The National Academy of Sciences had a session on its “Science and Entertainment Exchange” program, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary. This program acts as a matchmaker service for Hollywood producers and directors, who can contact the Exchange and ask for an “expert” in some field to help with a film project. The National Science Foundation had a session that at first glance seems very similar: they are partnering with the USC Film School to create the Creative Science Studio: which pairs scientists with filmmakers to make more scientifically accurate films. Both are fantastic and long overdue efforts at tapping into the fact that much of the general public now gets its informal science education from entertainment. A number of elements in the two efforts, however, are quite different.
The Science and Entertainment Exchange has thus far largely centered on getting more plausible science into science fiction films. They acknowledge that Sci-fi is far from real science, but also acknowledge that Sci-fi films almost always contain a nugget of real science from which the fantastical non-real science is grown, and that even Sci-fi films with no accurate science in them can provide “teachable moments” – where one can discuss (with a class of students) the physics of how the Flash might really be able to stop a bullet, or what the gravity on Krypton must be like in order for Superman to have the apparent flight power he has on Earth. They also clearly understand that many people go into science because of really good science fiction, like Star Trek. The bulk of what seems to be going on so far, however, is helping filmmakers maintain some semblance of logic in their Sci-fi (which, unfortunately isn’t quite the same as getting accurate science into the movies) — although all of these efforts are highly laudable.
Another of their higher profile activities currently is their involvement with the show In the AAAS Session they also talked about “The Big Bang Theory”, which again they noted is a mixed bag: the show clearly has tidbits of highly accurate and sophisticated science scattered throughout it, but has also been criticized quite a bit for its very unflattering portrayal of astrophysicists.
The other effort, by NSF and USC, was just being unveiled at this year’s AAAS Meeting and is called the Creative Science Studio (or CS-squared). The speakers in this session included the director Ron Howard, who is part of the collaborative, and who spoke about the preparations and hours of study he puts into films like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13”, and even “Backdraft”. Oddly, the moderator, upon introducing Ron also listed “Angels and Demons” among his “science films”, but almost the first words out of Ron’s mouth were that while he loves working with Dan Brown, that he really would never put “Angels and Demons” in such a category, even the first 8 minutes of it. The CS2 was effectively born at this session, so it doesn’t have a track record yet, but their stated goals are to focus on movies about and containing real science, and to stay away from science fiction. They also state that they want to help scientists make better documentaries and better visual based teaching tools. To me, this sounds like a fabulous collaboration – and it will be very exciting to see how this effort develops.
Strikethroughs and text in italics added after the original post, to correct and clarify the original post.