There is a moment in the deservedly lauded Breaking Bad when Walt must convince Gus that he and Jesse are indispensable, dramatically asserting “Without us you have nothing.” It is a scene of great suspense and emotion. But not only that, it is a fine example of where good science is used to the narrator’s advantage.
The high-level scientific dialogue sees Walt tout his superior chemical knowledge of protic vs aprotic catalytic hydrogenation and stereospecific reactions yielding enantiomerically pure products. “The dialogue had to be perfect in order to be powerful instead of laughable, and Bryan Cranston’s magnificent delivery was convincing,” explains the show’s scientific advisor, Dr Donna Nelson.
“To a scientist, seeing incorrect science in movies or on TV is like fingernails on a blackboard,” asserts Dr Nelson, who worked on all five series of the hit AMC show. “At best, it breaks one’s focus on the scene and plot. At worst, it spoils the entire show.”
Scientific accuracy and impact in film and television has been a much debated issue in recent years with increasingly more writers and filmmakers looking to scientific advisors for their expertise. One such organisation to spring up from this need for scientists and filmmakers to work together comes from the most unlikely of places. Launched in Los Angeles with a $1.1m grant from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Science and Entertainment Exchange consult and seek to address exactly this. Almost six years on from the initial idea becoming a reality, the exchange has built up a roster of almost 1,000 scientists and has consulted on more than 800 projects across film, television and video games.
“US polls often show the vast majority of Americans don’t know a scientist, or if they do, they’re often thinking about their general practitioner or doctor,” says programme director Rick Loverd. “So we thought why should Hollywood be any different? Just through the very interaction of introducing a screenwriter we’re shifting perceptions and changing what the definition of being a scientist is in Hollywood.”
The exchange spawned from very personal circumstances and two rather motivated and well-known filmmakers. Director Jerry Zucker (behind Airplane, Ghost and Naked Gun) and his wife, film producer Janet, were campaigning in favour of embryonic stem cell research. After their daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes – the couple spoke with many scientists about the research – that was not favoured in the US at that time. Disturbed and saddened by what they both called a certain societal “fear of science”, they believed Hollywood had a responsibility to change this perceived suspicion. It took a chance meeting between the Zuckers and the NAS President, Ralph J Cicerone, to conceive the idea.
“The way to change the hearts and minds of the world is through entertainment and it has a role to educate and excite young people about science,” says Janet Zucker. “Our hope and belief at the start was that writers and scientists talked more about the enrichment of storytelling, making the stories ultimately more interesting, truer and stimulating. I think we’re achieving this.”
Authenticity in film
That appetite for a good scientific grounding in both films and television is increasingly becoming more evident in mainstream media. Take the incredible success of the Big Bang Theory, Bones or Fringe which are reliant on scientific dialogue and have unsung heroes in their scientific advisors such as David Saltzberg and Sean Carroll.
Back in 2010, Physics Professor James Kakalios, who consulted on the hit movie Watchmen, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “In the case of superheroes, it’s all about making one miracle exemption and then using physics to explain the rest.” This is a sentiment shared in many of the recent consults, in particular, in Marvel movies, which the Exchange has arranged. Whether it is the authenticity of the laboratory set in Iron Man or the accurate portrayal of wormholes in Thor.
“With Thor the producers were very keen to ground the characters in something real. Through consultations with the likes of theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and planetary scientist and astrobiologist Kevin Hand they changed Natalie Portman’s character,” says Loverd. “There was an argument for a strong female astrophysicist, much underrepresented in mainstream media, studying Einstein-Rosen bridges. It was a subtle change from a nurse in the original comic books to a scientist, with the hope to inspire youngsters across the globe.”
It didn’t end there, as ahead of the sequel Thor: The Dark World, Marvel approached the Exchange to see what more they could do with the character to encourage more young women into science. Joining up with the Underwriters Laboratories and Girl Scouts of America, they collectively created a contest which saw high school girls seek out and record interviews with women in STEM fields.
The Ultimate Mentor Adventure was a great success with more than 500 entries and 10 shortlisted winners flown to Los Angeles for the film premiere. “There were some really great videos with geneticists, oncologists and roboticists, among many others in STEM. We really think it was an eye-opening experience both for the youngsters and the scientists and truly believe it made a big difference to attitudes towards science,” declares Loverd.
The Exchange hasn’t come without its critics, though. In a Nature World view piece in 2010, Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, gave his verdict on the complexity and ambiguity of communicating science and technology effectively within entertainment.
He said: “There’s a naivety bordering on the oblivious in the academy’s efforts to render science and scientists more familiar and palatable through mass entertainment. Scientists and engineers are different from cops, lawyers and morticians – not because they are any less human, but because they are part of an enterprise that is continually transforming society, nature and humanity in ways that everyone can experience but no one can really understand.”
However, the advocates both in science and film come from many diverse backgrounds and fields. It is much reported that Family Guy creator and science enthusiast Seth MacFarlane first met astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Exchange’s launch event in 2008. The rebirth of Carl Sagan’s landmark 1980s Cosmos is in some ways partly a direct result of this chance encounter.
“Cosmos would have been reborn no matter what, but the fact the Exchange exists enabled it to be born in a much more ambitious way,” says Tyson. It was here where he first learned of MacFarlane’s commitment to science and lead to their early meetings with Fox.
“The NAS recognised that for science to continue to matter to our culture it might as well partner with the people who have the power to bring messages out to the public, and if the US does anything we entertain ourselves and the world,” notes Tyson.
He continues: “We now have real scientists with real backgrounds in Biochemistry, Physics, Forensics and many other scientific disciplines informing these story lines and characters. They have real lives, marriages and kids. Now that may sound trivial that they have this real life, but if you go back a number of years – scientists were never portrayed this way. They would be in a laboratory, the main characters would ask a few questions of them if they need an answer and then move on – the viewer had no relationship with the scientist.”
Spirit of scientific inquiry
From the scriptwriter’s point of view, there are many benefits to working with leading scientists on both dialogue and imagery. One of the go-to writers for hard science fiction and space epics in Hollywood, Jon Spaihts, who wrote five drafts of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, agrees and believes consultations “take different forms at different times.” The writer currently working on a remake of Disney’s classic, The Black Hole, believes it is important to serve science appropriately but not lecture.
“You show the truest science you can – and you fabricate where your story requires it. It’s more important to represent the spirit of scientific inquiry and the scientific method than it is to offer a tutorial on science facts,” says Spaihts, who is writing Marvel’s forthcoming movie Doctor Strange.
“Sometimes you know the story you want to tell, and you need help making it plausible. Sometimes you’re brainstorming for possible stories in a given universe. And sometimes you’re just listening.
Without a scientist’s knowledge base, a writer can blow right past the most interesting idea in the story-world and not even realize it.”
Read more from Jon in this week’s Soapbox Science interview: Hollywood’s go-to science fiction screenwriter on the importance of science in filmmaking
Shifting public perceptions
Breaking Bad is evidence that it is not impossible to have both a hit show and include correct science. In this instance, Dr Nelson believes the science became a separate character in the show and occasionally even upstaged the rest of the cast. She does, however, believe scientists must give producers and writers a little artistic license to make their primary goal of a hit show.
“The success of the hit dramatic series combined with fabulous science has simultaneously increased the popularity of science among the public and set the bar for Hollywood,” brims Nelson.
“Such diligence for science accuracy has the potential to create a new appreciation for science among the public. Hollywood has a powerful influence on public perceptions; if that influence were used to make science more desirable, it could create more jobs and strengthen our country scientifically. We should dream big, it could happen.”