This week, Nature Careers ran a great feature about scientists who act as advisers for Hollywood blockbusters and hit TV shows: Media consulting: Entertaining science. The article touches on the experience several scientists have had with some big names: David Saltzberg and The Big Bang Theory, James Kakalios and The Amazing Spiderman, and Donna Nelson and Breaking Bad.
I decided to dig a little deeper into Donna’s story, and that of Dr David Kirby, a science communication professor at the University of Manchester, to find out a little more about the cultural differences between the lab and the media.
It’s easy to get frustrated with shows that claim they’re scientifically accurate, and yet you can always find something to complain about: the scientists are realistic, that equation wasn’t quite right.
Before Jurassic Park hit the big screen, scientists were rarely used as advisers for television media. The producers and their teams would instead do the research themselves, or use creative license to get away with it. After all, it is fiction.
But now scientists are spending a considerable amount of time moonlighting as advisers for the big screen. Dr Donna J Nelson, an organic chemist at Oklahoma University has been working with the producer of Breaking Bad since the end of season one in 2008. Breaking Bad is a popular TV drama that shows how Walter White, a high school organic chemistry teacher terminally ill with lung cancer, plans for his family’s future by using his chemistry know-how to synthesise and sell methamphetamines, a powerful stimulant and appetite suppressant.
Walter has a strong background in chemistry, having studied it at university, and so he understands the science behind making meths. But the producers and scriptwriters don’t. They had the challenge of getting the science right, without knowing much of it. It was a concern that producer Vince Gilligan voiced in a article in Chemical and Engineering News in 2008. Gilligan was hoping that someone from the chemically inclined audience would be able to help them with the science. And of the approximately 130k readers, Donna was the only one that volunteered.
Since her adventures started with the Breaking Bad team, Donna has learned an incredible amount about the world of television media, and in this podcast, she shares some of her experiences and tips.
This podcast also features Dr David Kirby, a professor of science communication at the University of Manchester in the UK, who asks why scientists are so drawn to the world of television media in his book, Lab Coats in Hollywood. He interviewed approximately 25 scientists who had all advised on various Hollywood movies, including John Underkoffler who worked on the 2003 version of Hulk. According to an article in National Geographic, “The first thing they wanted me to come up with was an explanation for the research that the scientists in the film were pursuing, which would then lead to the accident that creates the Hulk,” said Underkoffler.
According to David, producers and writers often start by asking scientists what scientists are really like. They no longer wish to stereotype them, but instead depict them as they really are: normal people. But the variety of questions, and the time the advisers are needed for, varies between films and TV series.
Kirby learned from his interviews that there are cultural differences between the labs, and academia as a whole, and the movies. One is that the labs aren’t as hierarchical as the movies. Donna added to this that the way scientists do their science is with no intentional influence on nature, where as the producers will have total control over their experiments, often running them several times over and then cherry-picking the results.
Both Donna and David have been immersed in the world of Hollywood media for a years, and they say they’ve learnt a great deal. So for scientists out there hoping to follow in their footsteps, how best to get through the front door? According to David, it pays for scientists to really understand the world of entertainment so they’ll be able to work well with filmmakers or television producers. To Donna, it’s all about flexibility.