In which I SEE the light

By Phil Plait | May 25, 2012 1:00 pm

The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a program run by the National Academy of Sciences (!) to hook up entertainment professionals and scientists. The idea is to get better science in movies, and a better portrayal of scientists themselves. The win for science is obvious, but it also means better movies – a lot of folks in Hollywood want the science in their movies to be better – and better stories. Everyone wins!

Marty Perreault, the SEE Director, asked me to write an article for SEE’s blog, and not being a fool I agreed. I figured I’d write about how I used to be kindof a nitpicky science accuracy Nazi when it came to movies, but then figured out (with some help) that maybe there’s more to movie-making than educating people about science.

The article — "How I Stopped Worrying (About Science) and Learned to Love the Story" — is now online. It’s relatively short, but I think you’ll like it. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Movie after movie came and went, and I watched each in the darkened theater, off to the side, hunched over my notepad with my pen clicked and ready, and – literally – a flexible red-filtered flashlight wrapped around my neck like a scarf to illuminate my writing in case the scene I was destroying was too dark for me to see my own words.

Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Well, actually, the epiphany was forced on me…

Head on over there and see the rest!

I’ll add that I was on a panel sponsored by SEE recently called A Night of Total Destruction, where several scientists talked about apocalyptic scenerios to a room packed with writers and directors. That was fun — apparently, they were very impressed with gamma-ray bursts — and I had a great time chatting with them afterwards.

I’m enjoying working with SEE, and the folks in Hollywood. It’s something I’ve always wanted to be involved in, so this really is a dream come true.


Related Posts:

- Science and Entertainment Exchange… from their mouths
- In which I SEE and agree with Dustin Hoffman
- Comic Con 1: Abusing the Sci of SciFi panel

Comments (23)

  1. ctj

    so does this mean we’ll get more BA movie reviews! they were one of the best features of the old website.

  2. Timothy from Boulder

    I’ve been involved with the SEE since its early days, having volunteered my expertise in optics and remote sensing when I first heard about their mission to bring credible science to entertainment. I’ve only had the chance to do a little bit of consulting on one project, but it was just recently released so I’ll plug it shamelessly– Hugh Sterbakov’s debut novel “City Under the Moon.”

    It’s always gratifying to see artists *want* to get the science right — or at least plausible. The story rarely suffers from an abundance of attention to detail.

  3. VinceRN

    Getting the science right can improve a movie with a good, or even a so-so story. Getting the science wrong enough can ruin a movie with a good story. Story comes first, because a bad story should never be made into a movie, but after you have a good story and are making a movie how you portray the science can make or break the movie.

    Certainly some science has to be wrong, else there would be no zombies, no FTL ships, no time travel, etc, etc. But the science that isn’t fiction in a movie should still be done right.

  4. Chris

    So that telescope guy is the person to blame for you stopping your movie reviews?

  5. Chris A.

    I think a distinction needs to be made between movies whose plots turn on bad science (e.g. the oft-cited Armageddon), and those who include bad science in a way that would not significantly alter the plot if eliminated or corrected (e.g. Apocalypto’s full moon following within a day of a solar eclipse). The former galls me more, simply because there’s so much good science out there, around which stories could be built, that it shouldn’t be necessary to rely on bad science. (Could we, please, JUST ONCE, see a realistic depiction of a black hole in a movie, for example?!)

    Plus, I empathize with the science consultants who point out the silliness, only to be told “That’s nice, but your science and our artistic(?) vision are incompatible, so we’re not going to fix it. Here’s your money, now go away and try not to be depressed about your name appearing in the credits of this crime against science.”

  6. Matt B.

    Any bad science that would change the course of the story when corrected is very bad, with an exception for things that are presented as loopholes in current understanding such as FTL and time travel, so long as they don’t examine it too closely. Most SF shows get to a point where they decide to get into esoteric details of a fictional device, and it just ruins it because they usually dig down to a contradiction in the concept. Star Trek has done this with the transporter, and Stargate with the stargate.

    As for the telescope with meaningless electronic boxes on it, how would you know they don’t belong there? New technology is developed all the time. A telescope with a laser shooting at the sky would have seemed ridiculous 20 years ago. It’s when the bad science is explained that it makes movies bad, or when it’s so bad that an in-movie explanation isn’t needed for the audience to see it for the crap it is (such as when they plant a nuke 1% of the way to the core of an asteroid).

  7. JediBear

    I have to agree that there’s a difference between bad science that isn’t even part of the story (sound in space, 99% of the time) and bad science that’s embedded in the plot.

    Star Trek (2009) was probably the worst Star Trek film to date on science, despite being the first to depict space as a soundless void.

  8. I go to the movies wanting to be entertained and I can go with FTL spaceships and matter transporters and other gizmo’s that the plot requires but to me it is very jarring when they throw in obvious mistakes that have no plot significance. It gets my thinking bits engaged and the entertainment value plummets.
    @Jedi
    Sound in space is actually necessary, how boring would the Darth chases Luke scene be if it was silent, non aerodynamic (vector xxx,yyy,zzz thrust 1400K for 35 seconds) and you couldn’t see the laser fire? We’d all have fallen asleep!

  9. Chris

    @7 JediBeer

    I remember seeing the Star Trek (2009) and thinking, “Black holes don’t work that way!” Especially the red matter. I would have bought them using strange matter and having that turned the planet into some hyperdense matter. OK still not realistic but at least hypothesized. Although probably the lay audience would probably think strange matter was a stupid name.

  10. H2opolopunk

    Not to be a semantic NAZI, but the word NAZi should always be capitalized because is an anagram. FYI.

  11. H2opolopunk

    PS – I hate commenting on my phone because I always fudge something up. Like omitting “it.”

  12. Satan Claws

    The article — “How I Stopped Worrying (About Science) and Learned to Love the Story”

    Does that mean you’ll take up a new alias such as “Dr. Strangescience” or something like that? You should Tweet for suggestions.

  13. Good article, Phil. Note: some problem with the SEE site prevents all but the first two comments being seen.

  14. mike burkhart

    Good , May be we can finally get rid of the mad scienceist movie genera :In witch a mad sciencetist kidnaps people and lockes them up is a seceret lab and performs horriable expariments on them . Now to be fair this sciencetist is often protryed as an outcast form the mainstrem witch is why he or she dose what they do to “show those fools who ridiclued me that I ‘m right” . Off topic : I downloaded Stlerium , an interactive planetium program for your computer I highly recamend it for all Astronomers who have computers . You can set it for any time zone , and date .I set it to 5000 years ago and saw the night sky like the ancient Egyptans saw it wile building the Pryamids (witch they alinged to those stars) .

  15. Joe

    I’m that way abour airplanes A different one lands tan took off. Wrong engine sound, you name it. Most continuity directors wouldn’t know one from another if you landed on his face.

  16. Gary Ansorge

    Gamma ray burster. What a great name for a movie…

    Gary 7

  17. Nigel Depledge

    Iain (8) said:

    Sound in space is actually necessary, how boring would the Darth chases Luke scene be if it was silent, non aerodynamic (vector xxx,yyy,zzz thrust 1400K for 35 seconds) and you couldn’t see the laser fire? We’d all have fallen asleep!

    Films like 2001 managed perfectly well with no sound in space. Admittedly, the experience is more cerebral than visceral, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other.

    Also, Apollo 13 was a damn’ fine film, with pretty exciting sequences (in particular, I’m thinking about the scene in which the crew manually burn the LEM descent stage engine to accelerate and shorten the time it takes them to return to Earth), and it was full of technical detail.

  18. Nigel Depledge

    H2opolopunk (10) said:

    Not to be a semantic NAZI, but the word NAZi should always be capitalized because is an anagram. FYI.

    Erm, no.

    First, you failed to fully capitalise your second use of the word “nazi”.

    Second, it’s not an anagram. Well, I guess it might be (it is an anagram of zain, if that is a word), but there’s no reason to capitalise it because of its being an anagram.

    Third, maybe you meant acronym (i.e. a word formed from the initial letters of other words), like laser. However, once an acronym has established itself in the language, it no longer needs to be capitalised. I guess this is because at that stage the acronym represents the concept that was initially encapsulated by a longer phrase that was abbreviated into an acronym in the first place. For example, would anyone under 30 really think immediately of a laser when you use the phrase “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”?

  19. Matthew Ota

    NAZI, Nazi, nazi…the Brits call NASA Nasa. I say tomayto you say tomotto, lets call the whole thing off..

  20. Infinite123Lifer

    Inevitably I will not be able to sufficiently pose this question or sum up all of the factors which might be related but I am one confused land faring creature at this point.

    At what point does “getting the science right” in fictional movies become detrimental to the public as a growing whole? Is it possible this is a legitimate concern?

    I have to agree that real science in movies is a tantalizing bonus in films but is there a point when a director takes advantage (for the worse) of what they have learned of science?

    Example: Mermaids: Body Found.

    Despite the disclaimers, despite the fact that actors played in the . . . thing, despite the fact that I know I am being lied to, I still have trouble converting what I saw in the thing into my “fictional stuff” memory banks. It seemed like they were trying to report a scientific based study on remains found in a shark. I kinda want to puke, like vertigo or something, its tough to discern up from down, real from not, mock from doc. If I am having trouble relegating its sustenance, millions others have surely fallen victim as well (ok, I know that line of reasoning is not sound but for the sake of the argument). Victims of a lie. As comments I have read tend to sustain that assumption of mine. I have seen this compared to the Dragons, The Blair Witch and the 4th Kind but Mermaids: Body Found struck me as even more shady, even more seemingly articulate, even more convincing. It’s Animal Planet! I know that should not be surprising and much of what I have written is pure naivety, but I offer a wager . . . have your kids watch that documentary without saying a word to them, jeez have your average person or student watch and if they come off skeptical I will eat a post it with the words “I was wrong” on it, on the other hand if they instantly think that science has discovered mermaids than I challenge you to write or voice or do something about the insanity of a project like this. Surely I will be eating post-its for the skeptics, but I move that millions of letters would be written in accordance with the wager.

    First off, I am not saying the science was by any means “right” in this . . . this . . . mockumentary? i see it being called. But, they did a real number in faking “real science” for as far as I can tell in an attempt to trick people into watching or possibly believing in what was presented as a scientific hypothesis. I was half way through this ferociously bold attempt at entertainment before I had to hit the computer and search out some commentary. I see half the comments I have read support the . . . mockumentary as being real and true. Facepalm. Sigh. Sadface. o_O

    I am at a loss to understand why Why WHY there exists such a thing as “mockumentaries” (more extreme naivety, I know). Ok, I know it is for ratings and because people buy into and watch these sorts of things, but at what price has the director made some bucks. I am still asking myself if this is real, kinda. NOAA, scientists, government, whales, evolution, its all fantastically put together in an effort to . . . to . . . entertain I suppose.

    I suppose there is nothing going on here but more of the same old snake oil just repackaged in a nice fresh new box. Perhaps my reason for such concern is because the “faked science” was so convincing to my untrained mind that for a moment, I almost bought a bottle with the last of the families money.

    I am not so sure now how enthused I am about the exchange of science and entertainment, while I agree with Phil’s enthusiasm and the comments at 2 and 3 having just watched this Mermaid Animal Planet thing I am looking at this in a different light. I suppose I cant let one bad apple. . . or a basket of bad apples ruin the positive aspects of getting the science right. Maybe now I can sleep.

  21. Infinite123Lifer

    Maybe programs like SEE are the only way we SEE our way through this insanity. Then again . . .

    “The win for science is obvious, but it also means better movies – a lot of folks in Hollywood want the science in their movies to be better – and better stories. Everyone wins!”

    Phil, maybe the win for science is not as obvious on second glance, maybe not everyone wins as plainly as it would seem. Maybe Hollywood and or TV for that matter is going to continue to use what and whom they can to create ever more realistic rubbish. I can only speculate.

  22. Matt B.

    “and a better portrayal of scientists themselves”

    What, Natalie Portman wasn’t enough? Or did that only make up for Denise Richards?

    @10 H2opolopunk (and Nigel, a little bit): Nazi is not an acronym, it’s a truncation (by pronunciation) of the German phrase “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.” By the same logic, “zoo” would have to be in all caps.

  23. Nigel Depledge

    @ Matt B (22) -
    Yeah, I was guessing that maybe H2opolopunk meant “acronym” as a reason for claiming that nazi should be capitalised. However, I did not look into the derivation of the word nazi, so that’s my bad.

    But it being a possible anagram is certainly not any reason to capitalise the word.

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