Science is a ragdoll in Hollywood: a plot device that’s carelessly tossed around and repeatedly abused for entertainment value. (Well, I tortured my sister’s Raggedy Ann for fun… can’t speak for the rest of the planet.)
But hope has been brewing thanks to organizations such as the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an outfit designed to hook up Hollywood producers with enthusiastic scientists.
It also happens to be led by Jennifer Ouellette, a really great blogger I asked to join Discovery in 2008. She held a panel today at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) called “Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: The Science of Superheroes.”
The purpose of the exchange goes like this:
Science fiction movies are increasingly successful in the theaters. Evidence isn’t far — just look at Avatar, for example; it is the highest-grossing movie ever made at $2.37. billion worldwide. So it makes financial sense to try and get some science right in movies and TV.
Furthermore, as the panelists said repeatedly, audiences (myself included) don’t like cheap tricks. They value plausibility to suspend disbelief and become ensnared in a story.
Alex Tse, one of Ouellette’s panelists and screenwriter for Watchmen, put it eloquently (minus a few cusswords):
“I know shit about science … and I’m the least qualified person to be on this panel,” he said. “But the work that I’m really attracted to, and the that I admire, and the work that I aspire to do, there’s a plausibility in science that I think adds to a timeless quality … of a film.” He continued: “You have some films that are kind of ridiculous and are kind of fun and entertaining to watch, but they don’t have that lasting effect.”
Yet decent science in movies – minus the one or two major deliberate “buys” of violating major scientific laws, as the panelists put it – goes beyond telling a more timeless story.
Science fiction movies, and the secondary material that storms the Internet around them, reach millions of curious people.
Jim Kakalios — a University of Minnesota physicist, scientific consultant on the movie Watchmen, and self-described nerd/dork/geek – told the crowd about his self-produced “The Science of Watchmen” YouTube video. In it, he describes the science of electron diffraction, which is oh-so-blue Dr. Manhattan and his ability to diffract into several copies of himself is based upon.
By September 2009, he had an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award in his hands and a video with more than 1.5 million plays.
“If I taught 500 students a semester two semesters a year for 15 centuries,” said Kakalios, who teaches courses about science in comic books to undergrads, “I wouldn’t reach that many people in demonstrating electron diffraction.”
There’s lots more to discuss here — including some of the cast of Heroes who snuck in to listen to the panel — but I have to run. Check back soon!
Posted from San Diego, Calif. At the AAAS annual meeting