TV, films boldly go down scientific path

So much for gangsters or communists infiltrating Hollywood. The real invisible menace turns out to be scientists.

"Just a sign of the modern times — the science has to be there," says director Roland Emmerich, whose end-of-the-world film, 2012, opens in November. "We are all looking for great themes out there, and science has those."

Audiences agree.

Knowing, Nicolas Cage's apocalyptic science thriller, surprised critics by topping the box office with $24.8 million in ticket sales over the weekend. Angels & Demons star Tom Hanks last month toured Europe's CERN atom-smashing facility, which also stars in the antimatter mystery movie premiering May 15.

And a spate of other science-themed flicks arrives this year as well. James Cameron's alien world of Avatar opens in December, and Sony's animated inventor comedy, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, opens in September.

"It turns out a lot of people in Hollywood think science is cool," says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, the Los Angeles-based outreach office of the venerable National Academy of Sciences.

The exchange, which formally opened in November, pairs up films and shows in development with scientists. Its goal is to get the science on the screen straight, the latest example of science's mind-meld (to use some Star Trek lingo) with the popular imagination.

"Writers and directors have discovered there is a higher tolerance, maybe even an interest or a demand, for better science," says Angels & Demons director Ron Howard, who worked with CERN scientists on the film's depiction of the lab. "Audiences are getting smarter by the minute."

On the small screen, shows such as CBS' TheBig Bang Theory and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are undoing the legacy of Star Trek's pointy-eared Mr. Spock by making scientists look almost cool, says media scholar David Kirby of the United Kingdom's University of Manchester. "We are in a golden age of science on television," he says.

Shows like CSI and Fox's Bones, in particular, try to get science right, says Kirby, a former academic biologist. "Science gives these shows certainty in uncertain times. Even if science, in reality, is all about uncertainty."

It came from outer space

Says sociologist Wesley Shrum of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, "Science in entertainment isn't anything new." A Trip to the Moon, the 14-minute silent movie regarded as the first science-fiction film, was a hit after its 1902 release. The Lost World in 1925 featured dinosaurs trying to eat scientists and stomping city dwellers, almost seven decades before Jurassic Park.

"Movies change to reflect the society around them, and the way science appears certainly reflects that," says astronomer and blogger Phil Plait. In the past century, scientists went from somewhat remote heroes in films, such as 1943's Madame Curie, to more sinister figures in the Cold War, such as the title character in 1964's Dr. Strangelove, to more human characters, such as Jodie Foster's Eileen Arroway in 1997's Contact. Of course, mad scientists have always been popular, from 1931's Frankenstein to today's Fox show Fringe, blessed with its own nutty professor who works in a basement lab.

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.

Some of those same advances enable special effects that almost demand help from scientists to explain, Emmerich says. "Audiences are jaded and cynical these days. If they see something that is not credible, they will shut it off."

So how good is the science in today's films and shows?

"Occasionally, you will get a glimpse of real science, ideas being tested by experiments," Kirby says. One problem is that sitting at a lab bench piping cells into glassware isn't all that entertaining, he adds. "For the most part, audiences want the answers quickly."

'It can't all be science'

"There still has to be that fantastic element. It can't be all science," says Emmerich, whose 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, featured an instant Ice Age that climate scientists say stretched past the tipping point of reality. "We had a real scientific worry, and we just packed it into a few days instead of decades or centuries," he says.

More broadly, how science appears in entertainment can change how people see scientific problems, says Plait. The 1998 film Deep Impact featured some shaky science in its plot to divert a massive asteroid from Earth with nuclear bombs, he notes, but is widely credited by astronomers with raising public awareness of the threat from "Near Earth" asteroids and helping secure funding for asteroid surveys.

"I would say some representations of science can significantly impact public understanding," for better and for worse, Kirby says. He views 2000's Mission to Mars as "harmful," perpetuating a bogus idea in the public mind because the film depicted as real the geological feature known as the Face on Mars, which actually is an optical illusion.

"Who knows? The trend toward science in entertainment may fizzle," Kirby says. "But I would argue that it is here to stay. The heavy focus on science in films and TV has been cyclical, but always there. People only think it is new."