A recovering JPL rocket scientist, writer / producer Kevin Grazier is also currently the science advisor on TNT's Falling Skies, Syfy's upcoming epic Defiance, and the summer blockbuster Gravity. In his spare time, he volunteers as a science consultant for The Exchange.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a rocket scientist? What drew you to JPL?
My mother enjoyed science fiction, so growing up I was exposed to shows like Star Trek, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and many many “B” science fiction movies growing up. When I was a kid and first saw the Daleks in those Peter Cushing Doctor Who movies, they scared the living daylights out of me.
Did you see the Curiosity landing on ABC? NBC? Me either. There was a time, though, space-related events like the Curiosity landing would have been covered live by every major network. Now you have to go to the Internet to watch because there simply isn’t the level of interest required to make it worthwhile for the networks to broadcast it. Back then was different, and growing up I had much more exposure to the “goings-on” in the space program. I don’t understand how you could NOT be excited.
With those influences a part of me, when I went to college I took up space.
I did want to be an astronaut, but since I wear “coke bottle” contact lenses, that career path has been closed for some time now. What I can tell you about is the very instant that I decided I wanted to one day work for JPL. I was a freshman at Purdue University, was walking across campus one Fall Friday evening, and noticed an event in the chemistry building. I trudged up the concrete steps, into the huge lecture hall, and saw a scientist talking about space and planets and moons and spacecraft. It was as true then as it is now, that JPL understands the value of top-notch scientific visualization, and they’ve always been extremely good at it. That night, the JPL scientist showed all manners of awesome slides and, towards the end, a short movie about the twin Voyager spacecraft that were en route to Saturn. I hadn’t seen anything like that outside of a science fiction feature, and it was REAL! At the end of that movie, three big red letters appeared: JPL.
“I’m. Working. THERE!”
I chose to do my Ph.D. at UCLA in part because of the strength of the program, in part because I was offered a research assistantship from a NASA grant, and in part because it was cross-town from JPL and it was my hope that being local would improve my chances of working there one day. I love it when a good plan comes together – I was working as an Academic Part-Time for a year and a half before I finished my dissertation.
Initially I was hired by a navigation group, but a chance encounter in the copy room tipped me off about a cool position open on the Cassini Mission. You know things are looking good when you interview for a position and the first words out of the hiring manager’s mouth are, “Well, you’re not a lock for the position, but…” I was a Science Planning Engineer on the mission for 15 years, and for the last 12 I also held the role of Investigation Scientist on the Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) instrument – the visible light camera aboard the spacecraft.
Although you’re no longer at JPL, and are concentrating more on writing and entertainment industry work, do you still consider yourself a scientist?
Absolutely! I still do research. I’m an author on two papers published already this year, I have one on the composition of the outer Asteroid Belt for which my collaborators and I just sent off the reviewer replies, and we’re in the process of replying to reviewer comments on a numerical methods paper as well. I expect to get two more papers submitted before the end of the year, both relating to the dynamics of the outer Solar System, and we just submitted an abstract for the upcoming American Geophysical Union meeting.
Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you’re the first person ever to do something. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you’re the first person on the planet to discover something. Nothing beats knowing, if only for a short while, that you have a unique insight into some aspect of the natural world, and nothing beats the feeling of sharing that with a receptive audience. I hope that I’m always involved with research in some form.
Last week we saw the EDL – entry, descent, and landing –of the Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars. Our national pride surged, even as late-night TV pundits made good-natured fun of the nerdy celebrations in the SFOF (Space Flight Operations Facility at JPL). On Cassini we, or at least I, would kid the Mars folk that although they complain about suffering through their “Six minutes of terror”, we had to endure NINETY SIX minutes of terror . That’s how long Cassini had to perform a main engine burn in order to slow the spacecraft enough for it to be captured by Saturn’s gravity. If it worked, we just put a 5,000 kg spacecraft into orbit around Saturn; if something went wrong in our procedures or hardware, we became Voyager III.
There’s just something about experiencing that super high risk/super high reward moment with the entire world watching that I wish everybody could share, and be a part of, if even briefly. I think if everybody felt what we all felt on Cassini that night and what they felt on Curiosity last week, we’d never have a problem funding science again.
That feeling of discovery--the feeling of being a part of something like Cassini--it’s my hope that I can help infuse some of that excitement to the entertainment industry projects on which I work. I think we succeeded on Eureka -- especially with the recent Astraeus Mission arc -- but I’m not done yet.
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up? What were your favorites? What do you watch now?
Well I’ve already mentioned a few, but Star Trek was probably the biggest early influence. Who didn’t want to join Captain Kirk on the five year mission of the Enterprise – and, luck would have it, science crewmember shirts were blue.
Another early influence was Space: 1999. “Science faction” was the term the creators saw as the genre of their show -- the look and feel of that series viewers believing that all of this could happen within our lifetime (Moonbase Alpha, that is, not an explosion big enough to propel an intact Moon to Solar System escape velocity). I mean, seriously, have you ever seen a more functional-looking spacecraft in TV science fiction than the Eagle?
Although forced to be “on the wagon” from 1989 until 2005, I have a long-standing Doctor Who addiction. When I was an undergrad at Purdue University, every Sunday night was “Pile into Grazier’s room in Wiley to watch Doctor Who” night. One thing that instantly drew me to that show was that nothing was inexplicable, only unexplained—at least until the good Doctor entered the picture. The writers would introduce vampires or daemons or the Gods of Ragnarok, but nothing was ever really occult or mystical--there were always answers to be found that had a root in science. After the 2005 restart, they’ve relaxed this somewhat, but… WHO CARES? I mean, really, have you seen this show lately? Amazing!!
So Doctor Who is an ongoing “Must See TV” addiction. Naturally, I watch the shows on which I’ve worked. A guilty pleasure I try not to miss is The Walking Dead. I like Fringe, and am glad they get the opportunity to wrap the series up. I was quite fond of Caprica and was crushed when it ended. LOVED. THAT. SHOW! (Although I did a small amount of work on Caprica as favors to some of my former BSG peeps, the actual science advisor was Dr. Malcolm MacIver ).
Apart from that, most of my TV time is spent working through a fairly impressive stack of DVDs that I want to (re)watch for a couple of the books on which I’m working. In fact I’m considering rebooting the tradition of “Pile into Grazier’s place to watch sci-fi” nights.
You’ve been a science advisor in the past for many shows including Eureka and Battlestar Galactica, you’re currently on Falling Skies, as well as the very ambitious series Defiance coming next year. How did you get involved with those shows? How is it different than the consulting you’ve done for The Exchange?
When I was a graduate student at UCLA, a friend and I decided to write a script for Star Trek: Voyager – this is back in the days when Paramount accepted unsolicited manuscripts for the various Star Trek series. Out of the thousands of submissions they received yearly, ours made it up to Executive Producer Jeri Taylor. I got a call from her assistant saying that they loved our script, thought the writing showed promise, but they couldn’t use it because it went in a direction they didn’t want to go.
They did invite us to pitch story ideas to their staff writers, which I did several times. The two writers to whom I pitched on several occasions were both on Voyager in their first staff writing positions: Bryan Fuller and Michael Taylor .
I kept in contact with both of them, particularly Bryan, and when fellow Trek alum Ronald D. Moore was developing Battlestar Galactica as a series, Bryan knew I was a huge fan of the original series, knew I’d worked on Richard Hatch’s The Second Coming trailer project, and pitched me as science advisor. Ron called me to his office, and the rest is history.
Bryan has, obviously, gone on to become huge, creating series like Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and (currently) Mockingbird Lane and Hannibal. Michal also had kept busy post-Voyager, and Ron hired him for season two of BSG. He and I have worked not only on BSG together, but Virtuality, the Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome pilot, and we’re both currently on Defiance.
I got my second gig in the industry, on The Zula Patrol , by answering an advertisement. I was hired on Eureka simply because BSG and Eureka shared the Rock Hudson Building at Universal. One day at a “getting to know you” lunch, Eureka writer’s assistant Eric Wallace asked BSG writer’s assistant Kevin Fahey , “How do you deal with the technical problems in your scripts?” I was at my desk at JPL when, an hour later, I got the call from Eric.
Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists?
DO they? Are you kidding? Head over to JPL, pick a mission, walk through their offices, and tell me if you don’t lose count of the posters, action figures, toys, and sci-fi/fantasy references displayed prominently. My old boss used to display more action figures than I’ve ever owned in my life! I’m sure the same is true at many, perhaps even every, scientific research facility.
James Cameron has an oft-quoted line that, in film and TV, scientists are either “idiosyncratic nerds or actively the villain.” That may have been true for a long time, but I think it’s very difficult to make that claim now. Scientist characters are still somewhat uncommon outside of sci-fi, but they are increasingly often the heroes, the sidekicks, the focus of more shows. They are no longer relegated to the shadows, only to step forward, deliver a line or three of exposition, and then recede back into the murky background.
We’ve already seen that CSI has had a strong influence on the number of students entering forensic science programs. So why wouldn’t cool scientist characters like Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park or Dr. Holly Marten in Eureka inspire inquiring young minds to pursue a career in the sciences?
Should that be a goal of science consulting?
Stick with me on this, but… no, not an explicit goal anyway. On a film or on a television series, the creative process is pulled in so many directions by so many agendas, they really don’t need yet another.
That said, did you see what an Internet celebrity Bobak Ferdowsi became after Curiosity’s EDL? Why was that, do you suppose? Certainly he’s a good-looking guy, and the obvious answer is because of his “do”, but that’s a small part of it. If you saw somebody with that haircut at Venice Beach, Central Park, or even the London Underground, you probably wouldn’t have looked twice. OK, perhaps twice, but it would likely be processed out of your mind by day’s end.
When most people saw a JPLer with that haircut, they experienced a serious disconnect. “But… but… but… He’s a scientist!” (An engineer, actually, but I don’t think the general public makes a delineation between the two). “He’s not SUPPOSED to do that!” Oh? Why not? What narrow range of character traits defines a scientist? What are scientists SUPPOSED to be like—uptight nerds in lab coats with horn-rimmed glasses and flood pants? That’s a stereotype that isn’t very descriptive of many of the scientists I know. A couple, yes. Many? No.
Look around you. How many redheads do you see (and I don’t count)? Take half that, and you have a reasonable estimate for how common scientists are in this country. People had a disconnect with Bobak Ferdowsi because they didn’t know what to expect, and there are so few role models. That’s particularly true for TV and film as well. For a book I’m working on, I interviewed science fiction novelist Robert J. Sawyer whose FlashForward was made into an ABC television series:
My novel FlashForward is set at CERN, the European Center for Particle Physics, and the main characters are all physicists or engineers. And we were told right up front that was a non-starter for American television: that your main characters could not be scientists because those are “un-relatable” characters for the general public. Now granted, when we were in development it was before Big Bang Theory had broken out, but even Big Bang Theory gives you scientists as…caricatures. There has never been, that I can think of perhaps you can contradict me Kevin, but there has never been a successful non-science fiction American television series about a scientist who was not a forensic scientists or a medical scientist.
So returning to the question, I think that science advisors needn’t have the explicit goal of shepherding young minds into the sciences. What I do think should be explicit is that advisors, producers, writers, and directors should have a simple dedication to verisimilitude. Show scientific situations in a realistic, yet dramatic, way. Portray scientists as the interesting, diverse, and sometimes even quirky, characters they are. They won’t be “un-relatable,” and you’ll find that young people are drawn to the sciences as an emergent phenomenon.
You recently produced your first short – D.N.E.: Do Not Erase. Tell us more about your transition from behind your PC to behind the camera.
When I got that all-important second science advisor gig (Bear McCreary wrote an interesting blog post recently about his second gig and its significance). I figured that this could be a recurring theme and decided, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” I started taking television screenwriting and production classes through UCLA Extension. Given the number and types of classes I’ve taken over the past five years, I’ve essentially gone to film school post-Ph.D. So I’ve been prepping for this kind of thing for some time now. Working on D.N.E. wasn’t all that bad.
D.N.E. (like us on Facebook) was a fun sci-fi time travel short directed by Matt Campagna and written by Rudy Jachan and Nar Williams (who also starred in it). I managed to persuade my friend Richard to appear in it, persuaded Bear to do the music, and played my adjunct professor card to help get us an awesome lecture hall at College of the Canyons in which we could film.
Restated, I found us a place which, in turn, dictated the time we could shoot. I invited some people to join us, and arranged a few other small details. It was just like planning a party, only one with hair, make-up, and cameras.
What misperceptions do scientists, in general, have about the entertainment industry, and what misperceptions does the entertainment industry have about scientists?
As for the misperception that the entertainment industry has regarding scientists – that’s an entire chapter of a book I’m working on, stay tuned. One thing I can offer, though, is that I often experience something very similar to what professional psychologists experience with their non-professional interactions -- like those with family, friends, or partners. It’s the old, “You’re analyzing me, aren’t you?” syndrome. I get asked with surprising frequency if I’m constantly critiquing the shows I watch for bad science, or if I’m even capable of sitting down to watch science fiction or fantasy at all anymore.
When I sit down to watch TV or a movie for entertainment, I want to go along for the ride. So I enjoy John Carter and ignore that Barsoom doesn’t have a breathable atmosphere. I enjoy Doctor Who and ignore that time travel to the past is probably impossible. I enjoy Armageddon and…
… wait, no I don’t. Some of the really egregious sci-tech errors do pull me out of the drama, admittedly, you can never turn it off entirely. When I sit down to watch for enjoyment, though, I am SO off the clock.
Is there a storyline you would like to see in a TV show or movie that involves your work that hasn’t yet been covered?
Absolutely there is! In fact I already wrote the pilot script, and I’ve just started shopping it. It has particular relevance after the recent landing of Curiosity. That said, I’ve learned recently that a very similar project has been greenlighted, which means one of two things. Either the series I wanted to do based upon my pilot script has been obviated completely, or another network is going to say, “Hey! We want one of those too!” Most of my writer friends/colleagues have been in lock step, consoling me with, “Worse case, at least you have a great writing sample.”
What have you enjoyed most in your role as a consultant?
By far and away it’s awesome people with whom I’ve had the honor of working! I have been super fortunate that the writing staffs of the series such as Eureka and Battlestar Galactica have largely consisted of a bunch of fellow nerds intent on writing the kind of series that they would want to watch themselves. This summer I’ve spent a lot of time in the Falling Skies writer’s room—reunited with Bradley Thompson and David Weddle from BSG--planning season three and, again, it’s a very good, very fun, room. I think for each of the shows I’ve mentioned, the general harmony of the writer’s rooms has been reflected in the quality of the final product on screen, and it’s a privilege to be associated with that.
Anything you can share about your next project?
Which one? Seriously, I’ve got so many things going on right now that the Notes app on my iPhone is screaming, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” Still, there are a few that I’m particularly passionate about, and the good thing is that the research--the types of simulations--that I do takes weeks, to months, to complete. It takes a fair amount of time to sift through the output as well. This leaves plenty of time in between to work on other projects.
There’s the pilot script that I mentioned earlier. Sadly I just found out that there is a competing project that will do one of two things to mine – either it will completely obviate my project, or some other network will say “We want one of those too!” On one hand I’m extremely disappointed, on another, at least I have a good writing sample. I expect to wrap another pilot script in a week or two.
I’m also co-authoring a pair of books with Stephen Cass For one, we have a cool take on the Cassini/Huygens Mission , for the other we’re just wrapping up the proposal to send off to our agent, and for both we already have hours and hours of truly fantastic interviews.
I’ll also be using bits of those interviews for another book, one for which I’m particularly enthusiastic. It was born as an offshoot of a panel discussion co-sponsored by The Science & Entertainment Exchange, presented at the March 2011 meeting of the American Chemical Society. While ostensibly about “Hollywood Chemistry”, we’re going with the broader scope of “Hollywood Science”: how science is incorporated into TV and film, how clips can be used effectively for science education, and the effect of science in TV/film on the audience and on policy making. The four editors, also contributing authors, of the volume are: chemist Dr. Donna Nelson , physicist Dr. Sidney Perkowitz , Eureka co-creator Jaime Paglia , and me Also contributing are original ACS panelists Kath Lingenfelter and Dr. Mark Griep . Jaime and I are writing companion pieces about science advising on television series; I’m co-authoring another chapter with Bear McCreary on the science behind TV musical scores, and of course we’ll have a chapter on The Exchange. We have an outstanding stable of writers, I think people are going to find it a fascinating read, and it’ll be out early next year. We also have a panel dedicated to this book in a few weeks at Dragon*Con.
I have the option on a book that grad school friends from UCLA wrote, have a really cool take on this as an edutainment series, and have had promising pitches and telecons with more scheduled. I was also invited recently to audition to host various science series, and I’m still waiting to hear back from those. Fingers crossed but, realistically, I’m not waiting by the phone.
Finally, for people interested in a realm where science and science fiction meet, I will be speaking this December on a “(Not the) End of the World ” cruise, along with many other scientists as well as science fiction authors. That should be a hoot! I've also been the "Featured Geek" on Dice.com.
Several of these projects will wrap up in the next few weeks, but given all the balls I have in the air, it’s both exciting and terrifying that, for the first time in my life, I have no idea where I’ll be, or what I’ll be doing, in a year from now. Stay tuned.