TV, films boldly go down scientific path

Fringe aside, "the scientists you see today are not Mr. Spock. They're human, and that's a real change," Plait says, pointing to TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory. "Even if they are depicted as über-geeks, they are still interesting people you'd probably like."

Jurassic Park in 1993 "made the biggest turn" in Hollywood's interest in science, Emmerich says. The dinosaur-cloning science was part of the film's appeal, a discovery that raised the credibility requirements for entertainment, he says. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey had bumped up science's profile, he says, but reasonable science has been a bottom-line requirement only in the past two decades.

"We really noticed it doing Apollo 13," released in 1995, Howard says. NBC's ER was in its first years, and Howard and others were struck by its readiness to use medical jargon, much of it meaningless to the audience, to add authenticity to the story. That helped persuade Apollo 13's writers to keep the NASA lingo in the film, which "helped make it more authentic," Howard says.

A focus on 'credible science'

"Every major film and TV show today has a science consultant," says Kirby, author of the forthcoming Labcoats in Hollywood (MIT Press), who has studied the steady increase in the number of science advisers from the dawn of film to today.

The big change today is the involvement of science advisers from the beginning of a show's production, Kirby says. "In the past, producers would cold-call universities for advice on how to fix an already-written script," he says. "Now you have scientists help maintain a logical consistency to the science, even if it's unreal, throughout."

Says Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, "Scientists certainly like it when films get the equations right, and I think audiences pick up on credible science."

His favorite science movie is last year's comic-book adaptation Iron Man, "because it has a long sequence of experiments and ideas not working out or blowing up in the hero's face," Carroll says. "That's the kind of science I'm familiar with, trial and error, things never quite working out as easy as you hope."

Shows rarely have time to get to the real meat of the scientific process: experiments that prove or disprove theories, Plait says. And scientists too often, in his view, com- plain about little mistakes, missing the broader benefits that a positive depiction of science brings to the profession.

"OK, we see telescopes stuffed into crowded rooms, but that's a trivial thing," he says. "Entertainment is supposed to entertain, but good science can make stories better, throw up roadblocks, make plots more interesting and involving."

One recent example was the link between Watchmen and University of Minnesota physicist James Kakalios, who not only helped cook up a quasi-science explanation for the Dr. Manhattan superhero (a quantum-physics-altering blue man in shorts played by Billy Crudup), but also discussed the psychology of researchers with filmmakers.

The success of March of the Penguins in 2006 has revitalized the nature documentary field as well, a mainstay of science entertainment, says Jean Franc¸ois Camilleri of Disneynature in Paris, which premieres nationwide the nature documentary Earth on April 22, Earth Day. "A lot of the advances in film allow us to shoot films we never could imagine before," Camilleri says, pointing to lightweight cameras and faster computer editing.

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