You can almost see scientists rubbing their hands (or groaning) whenever a new Hollywood film rolls out, riddled with scientific errors. But one astronomer recently voiced a possibly blasphemous suggestion – maybe it's ok if a movie flubs the facts, as long as it gets the big picture right about science and scientists.
Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute comes with his own experience on Hollywood sets, having served as scientific advisor on the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. His biggest problem wasn't with the alien technology of Klaatu, the extraterrestrial harbinger of doom played by Keanu Reeves. Instead, he fought for the filmmakers to stop showing the scientists as number-crunching stereotypes.
"Real scientists don't describe an object entering the solar system as 'notable for the fact that it was not moving in an asteroidal ellipse . . . but moving at nearly three times ten to the seventh meters per second,'" said Shostak in his LiveScience movie report. "More likely, they would say that there was 'a goddamned rock headed our way!'"
Shostak appears to have taken this lesson to heart as part of a panel on Hollywood science at this past weekend's AAAS conference. Besides trying to make his fictional counterparts more recognizably human, he emphasized the need for films to focus on conveying the scientific method rather than quibble over details. Case in point—Shostak noted how even bad monster flicks inspired him to pursue a scientific path when he was young.
Another panel member disagreed, saying that inaccurate science could have consequences beyond fictional settings. Wayne Grody, a physician at UCLA who has consulted on shows such as CSI and Heroes, suggested that wrong depictions of medicine could confuse viewers.
Perhaps some people do take away more science than they should from their favorite films or television shows, although I'd like to see the court case where someone successfully sues Grey's Anatomy for misleading them on a medical condition.
However, Shostak's point seems valid on the whole. Even medical educators have used shows such as House and "Scrubs to engage medical students to grapple with bioethical issues. The power of big or small screen drama comes from compelling characters that may represent hotshot doctors or scientific geniuses, but also have human quirks that allow viewers to empathize.
Such stories serve the purpose of helping demystify science. Moviegoers watch the paleontologists at work in Jurassic Park or the Sunshine, and think hey – those are some neat people doing interesting things.
After all, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said that sufficiently advanced technology (aka science) could become as mysterious and impenetrable as magic. Storytellers may help shine a light into the murky temple by creating relatable characters that practice science. Science journalists play a part in the demystification as well, except the job description weighs more heavily toward "inform" rather than "entertain."
So if storytelling requires having space battles in Battlestar Galactica play out more like fiery operas rather than silent ballets, that's ok. Time travel on Lost is no problem, either. There are still plenty of science journalists ready and willing to explain the science that did (or didn't) go into a story.
For other PopSci takes on Hollywood science, see:
Doesn't he mean The Day the Earth Stood Still?
Exactly what I was wondering.
Mea culpa! Thanks for the sharp eyes.
I'd like Hollywood to get librarians right. I'm not one, but I work in a library, and they are not bun-wearing quietmongers. Far from it.
Actually, if we are on the topic of getting the science right, let's start with quotes. It was Arthur C. Clarke (not Isaac Asimov), in "Profiles of the Future," who made the statement that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
As for Battlestar Galactica, it's done much better with science than its previous incarnation did. They may have sound in space and unexplained artificial gravity and FTL drives, but the creators and writers of the show do have an understanding of astronomy terms. A couple of weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised when, following their discovery that Earth was not suitable for a colony, the Admiral and his crew decided to look for an "F, G, or K class star." For anyone familiar with the HR spectral scale of stars, these are the stars most like the sun, and most likely to have planets similar to earth (the sun is G class -- F is slightly hotter and brighter, while K is slightly cooler). So it might be a small detail, but it does give a show like Galactica a more realistic feel when you recognize actual science terms, and not technobabble.
I've always wondered why directors who, in some Regency bodice-ripper will go to extraordinary lengths to get the color, fabric and style of the bodices historically exactly right, then leave their brains behind when anything vaguely scientific or technical is needed. Explosions are an area with big problems. The YouTube shots of IEDs show a vastly different picture. No running away from real PHOOMs!! Just once I'd like to see a car wreck that the hero doesn't walk away from. They can manage gore when bodies are being snatched, but accurate rendition of real car accidents might shake a few drivers' ideas up on their own mortality. And after the gun-fight in the saloon, have the hero spend the rest of the movie deaf and complaining of ringing in his ears.
I could not disagree more! I am a mechanical engineer and deal with cold hard facts every day. The last thing I want to do after work is entertain myself with reality. (If your looking for reality watch a documentary, that is what they are for, or sit on your front porch and watch the grass grow.) What I really want is to see the kind of stuff that will never happen, like surviving a crash that would normally result in the human body being rapidly transformed into a red mushy paste. And who would want to watch a movie where the "hero", after a gun fight, walks around for the rest of the movie saying "WHAT DID YOU SAY"....sounds like my grandpa.
Also, I find it comical that someone can watch sci-fi where the most off the wall things are normal and complain about scientific inaccuracies........Most scientific "truths" will be disproved by the time we can travel at warp speed anyway.
Bring on the bullet bending, building jumping, car crashing, flying, space exploring, warp speed action!!!!