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.)
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.