SEEx

By Sean Carroll | November 18, 2008 11:14 am

My one big brush with celebrity since moving to LA came over a year ago. I was contacted by Brad Grossman, cultural attaché to Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment. (The position of “cultural attaché to Brian Grazer” is sufficiently interesting the search for Brad’s replacement after he eventually left became the basis for an article in The New Yorker.) Grazer is one of the biggest producers in Hollywood — he’s the partner of Ron Howard, who does the directing. Think A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 — entertaining movies that can also make you think a bit.

Of course, they were also responsible for The Da Vinci Code, which was neither very entertaining nor especially thought-provoking. But it sure did make lots of cash. So they signed up to make a film of Angels & Demons, the sequel. This time they really wanted to do a better job, but the raw material was not great; author Dan Brown is not known for putting a lot of work into accuracy and all that nonsense. So, among other things, they were talking to physicists — one of the major characters in the book is a physicist, and the opening scenes are set at CERN, and involve antimatter and baby universes. CERN even set up a webpage dealing with some of the physics issues.

So I got to have lunch with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and talk about what would happen if you dropped a gram of antimatter in the river, and generally had a good time. Then the writers’ strike happened, and eventually they made the movie — I didn’t have any further involvement, and have no idea how it’s going to turn out. We’ll find out this spring.

But here is the point: sure, if you are Brian Grazer or Steven Spielberg or someone at that level, you can afford to hire a person whose sole job it is to hook you up with expertise in whatever field your latest movie or TV show happens to involve. But for the overwhelming majority of Hollywood projects, neither the time nor the money nor the knowledge is available to make that happen in any reliable way. We all have seen plenty of bad science in movies and on TV. Some of it is because the creators aren’t especially interested in getting it right — but increasingly they are. Too much of the bad science is just because the writers and directors didn’t know any better, and didn’t know how to find out.

No more! Tomorrow is the launch event for the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a new initiative sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. It’s a brand-new program, based in LA, to provide appropriate scientific expertise to all sectors of the entertainment industry. Not just making sure that a particular scene doesn’t violate the laws of physics too egregiously, but helping conscientious filmmakers accurately portray the culture of science — how those mysterious scientists really think and talk and dress. (I think it’s pretty obvious that the acronym for the new effort should be written as SEEx, which has the useful resonance with “seeks,” which is what a good scientist does. It also has some resonance with “sex,” which is less directly related to the scientific enterprise, but won’t hurt with the Hollywood crowd.)

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SEEx is off to a great start, as they recently hired the lovely and talented Jennifer Ouellette to be the director of the new program. Jennifer was brought in a bit late, but has big plans for bringing together both sides of the cultural divide between these two glamorous and creative fields of human endeavor. Personally, as spouse of the head honcho of the program, I’m hoping to also benefit; in particular, I’d like to get to meet Jodie Foster some day. Just because she was such a positive role model of a scientist in cinema, you understand.

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  • Spiv

    Nice, so how do various scientists/experts get into the rolodex for their area of knowledge?

  • Brando

    This is great news! I often find myself shaking my fist at the screen over egregious misrepresentations of science (and the military) – and I work on the visual effects side of the biz.

  • macho

    Great — having just been stuck on a plane with “The Big Bang Theory”
    tv show (great title, awful stereotypes) it would be wonderful to have someone inject a little more reality into the portrayal of scientists and science culture.

    (And like everyone else, happy to volunteer as an expert advisor if you need help with this!)

  • Allyson Beatrice

    I so totally could have done that Grazer job.

    And now I shall make it my mission to find a way for Sean to meet Jodie Foster. Maybe we can say you’re dying and that you’re just a very odd looking Make-A-Wish kid.

    It worked for Bobby Brady in that episode with Joe Namath, and Joe wasn’t even that mad when he found out it was all a scam.

  • Dirk

    This sounds like a great idea. I can immediately think of several movies that could have benefitted from it (hint: Kevin Costner as a prosecutor). I wonder if this will be the death-knell for time-travel movies; one can hope.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Perhaps this is too cynical a question, but I have to ask: Why are these Hollywood types suddenly interested in scientific realism? I don’t see much evidence the level of technical accuracy is in any way correlated with putting bums in the seats. My youthful anecdotal experience with trying to get my friends into “2001: A Space Odyssey” has led me to suspect that the average moviegoer couldn’t give a rat’s tail about keeping the physics or any other aspect of science real (my favorite comment, during the attempted rescue of Frank Poole: “Dude, why is there no sound???”) As for my wife, well, Kubrick’s heroic efforts in making day-to-day affairs aboard the Discovery as realistic as possible were inversely proportional to the amount of time her eyelids stayed open. If I were a Hollywood marketing type, and I saw these boneheads watching what is arguably Kubrick’s magnum opus, I’d be running away from the professors as fast as I could, and churning out “Star Wars” knock-offs as quickly as possible. Which, for the most part, appears to be exactly what they’ve done.

    So why the change all of the sudden? I mean, not that I don’t totally applaud it, but what’s in it for them, anyway?

  • spyder

    Low Math asks a reasonable question. Me thinks part of the new allure has to do with the post-election movement in identifying various cultural niches that seemed to have arisen in prominence. I mean, come on, 48% of the electorate (some 58 million people) seem quite content to live in an alternative universe dominated by lies, deceit, fraud, corruption, and some invisible, masculine, anthropomorphic omniscient energy entity….

  • Anne

    Jodie Foster is indeed cool. But speaking of realism in movies, it seems radio astronomers really don’t take audio seriously as a representation of data. Why is that?

  • delurker

    Just don’t shoot the president. I’ve heard that it really doesn’t impress Jodie as much as you might think it does.

  • Belizean

    [blockquote]Too much of the bad science is just because the writers and directors didn’t know any better, and didn’t know how to find out.[blockquote]

    They didn’t know how to slip a grad student 50 bucks? Hate to be pessimistic, but Low Math is right. I mean, have you ever watched the SciFi Channel?

  • http://page3.com/ I.P. Freeley

    Way to make a timely post–seex has a symposium starting tomorrow. That would have been a lot of fun to crash, but no chance to make it to LA in time now.

  • Julianne

    Anne — It takes time for your brain to process audio. In contrast, you can look at a plot in a microsecond, and quickly scan between interesting features.

    It’s the difference between a transcript and Youtube.

  • Jan

    Dirk, the time-travel movie Primer actually portrays the culture of science rather nicely. But then, that’s an indie sleeper hit – I think the consulting fees for SEEx would’ve exceeded the total budget of 7000 USD.

  • The Almighty Bob

    It may not give you a lot of data, but some space features sound interesting. Particularly quasars. (“,

  • Kevin

    The irony is that the field Jodie Foster represented in the movie, namely Radio Astronomy, they don’t actually listen to the incoming signals as portrayed by the photo and now Sean is perpetuating the myth!!

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m honestly genuinely interested in what not only this new effort to improve science and scientist representation in the entertainment industry, but what is also an apparent increase in interest on the part of the entertainment industry in this service. It’s the other half of the equation I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised about. But, yeah, it would be quite a surprise for precisely what Belizean also alludes to, in support of my own experience: The deplorable state sci-fi is not only a supplier-driven phenomenon. Audiences seemingly eat the crap up, and historically have shown little demand for improvement. If there’s interest in the entertainment industry in more accurate portrayals, does that reflect a changing trend in consumer demand? Because I can’t imagine what else would push the industry in that direction. It’s a hopeful question I’m asking, despite my congenital pessimism showing through.

  • http://www.dudleyobservatory.org QuasiStella

    Look at the Goals & Objectives for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) http://www.astronomy2009.org/general/about/goals/
    Among them are:
    # Increase scientific awareness.
    # Promote widespread access to new knowledge and observing experiences.
    # Support and improve formal and informal science education.
    # Provide a modern image of science and scientists.
    # Improve the gender-balanced representation of scientists at all levels and promote greater involvement by underrepresented minorities in scientific and engineering careers.

    These would all be furthered by having science and scientists portrayed accurately in the media. If we want our kids to become scientists, or even to enjoy science, we need to put a human face on it with which they can identify. Jodie Foster rocks!

  • GR

    Oddly enough, I attended a talk by the director of SETI, on which Carl Sagan based Jodie Foster’s character in the book. Most of her talk ended up being bashing the movie for various inaccuracies. I think my favorite was the characters using portable radios near the Arecibo dish…

    I think this just goes to show that drama will always win out over scientific accuracy, at least in big-budget productions. Too many people unfortunately have inherited the idea that science is just what it was in that boring introductory physics class, and miss out on the joy and excitement of research. So the producers/director/writers have to “sex it up”.

    I do second the recommendation of Primer as a great example of how science in movies really ought to be done. It’s a fantastic movie, and you really ought to see it.

  • Roman

    What is wrong with the SiFi Channel? Doesn’t Fi in the name mean “fiction”?
    The way modern science works is boring – introductory physics class was actually fun. The only way to make it interesting is to sex it up. It’s just a question how they do it.
    Increase….awareness…, Promote….access…, Support….education, Provide….,Improve…..representation – looks a lot like 5-year plan of party propaganda in some soviet tractor factory.

  • http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com judith weingarten

    If our experience in the fields of classics and archaeology is anything to go by, not even SEEx will make the slightest difference. Look at films such as Gladiator and Indian Jones — with renowned experts cited in the credits = good fun but, in the truth scales, what crap. The producers paid no attention to them, even if they paid them a crust or two.

  • My-Name-is-Kenneth

    Carl Sagan complained to Contact Director Robert Zemeckis that radio astronomers don’t listen for signals with headphones. Zemeckis said that only a few geeky radio astronomers would know the difference.

    Had Sagan not been there (at least as much as he could be), I dread to think what Contact might have turned into. At least it was better than most genre films. Too bad it had to come out right around the same time the first Men in Black did.

    The Big Bang Theory portrays science geeks and their relationships (if you can call it that) with beautiful women quite accurately – the geeks just won’t admit it.

    Jodie Foster might want to meet you too, but it will be on a strictly platonic level, rest assure. I always thought she was quite tomboyish for a reason in her younger days. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

    Final Shocker – Most Hollywood types don’t know and don’t care about science, so don’t expect any changes any time soon, if ever. Even Nova is getting watered down these days.

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  • spyder

    Well, when two big blockbusters in film history are INDEPENDENCE DAY & MARS ATTACKS . ID4′s total worldwide gross was $816,969,268, which at one point was the second-highest worldwide gross of all-time. It currently holds the 19th highest worldwide gross for a movie all-time; while the latter grossed in the hundreds of millions, counting DVD sales. Neither is particularly good, nor do they represent any real science; yet millions of citizens of the US loved them. Are we to hope beyond hope, that change will come, and someday soon actual and real science will find its way into the minds of children throughout the US????

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  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    “what would happen if you dropped a gram of antimatter in the river”

    Well don’t leave us pleebs hanging…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    It’s not like I’m really the person to ask. But it is at least plausible to suggest that the explosion would not be nearly as bad as you might think. The point is that, while antimatter/matter annihilations release a lot of energy, a gram of pure antimatter is not optimized for a bomb. There would be an explosion as the antimatter hit the water (or air, or whatever), but the shock from that explosion would clear a vacuum around the speck of antimatter, so it would take a bit of time before more matter could come into contact with it and annihilate. There is some hydrodynamics problem here without an obvious intuitive answer, but at least it’s not crazy to imagine that the energy would be released in a series of mini-explosions stretched out over some number of seconds, rather than all at once. Might make for quite a compelling scene, actually.

  • Sili

    So it’d be kinda like dropping a honking big lump of Sodium into a pond?

  • David

    “But for the overwhelming majority of Hollywood projects, neither the time nor the money nor the knowledge is available to make that happen in any reliable way.”

    Now, I was under the impression that many poor SF-writers have very good science. Are all those writers former scientists? It just strikes me as odd that Hollywood couldn’t afford a specialist or fifteen when poor SF-writers seem to get hold of them quite easily. But then I am not in the business, and I guess the SF-writers might actually have time to figure it out for themselves. But doesn’t most SF-writers need to have day jobs to survive?

    I am willing to wager that as long as the majority of entertainment consumers watch solely to shut off their brain for a while the entertainment industry will make films that let them do just that, or risk loss of revenue. Besides, why teach people to think when it is so much easier to make movies that don’t require you to think? And as added bonus for the industry I bet that people who don’t like to think that much spend more time with escapism and that they thus rather not be part of changing peoples thinking habits for the better. Not to mention that thinking people demand more diversity. They wouldn’t be able to sell movies made from templates anymore.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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