A couple of years ago, at a friend’s party, I wound up chatting with one of the writers/producers on the hit TV series Bones. When I mentioned I was a science writer, he visibly paled and became instantly defensive: “I know, I know, the science on our show is unrealistic, DNA results never come back that fast….”
I assured him I loved the show and the occasional scientific liberties didn’t bother me, because the stories and the characters were so compelling. But I thought it was a shame that this very smart man only heard from the scientific community when they were complaining about whatever the show got wrong. So he associated scientists with factual nit-picking and finger-pointing, when in fact, science is every bit as creative and innovative as writing for film and television, and can be a treasure trove of inspiration to a writer seeking funky new plot twists and characters.
There’s something of an Internet tradition of tracking Hollywood’s gaffes, particularly in the science depicted on-screen. Heck, there’s an entire website devoted to “Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics.” But while this can be an amusing exercise, in the end it doesn’t change the status quo. For truly constructive input, you need to offer a viable alternative.
That’s the mission of the Science & Entertainment Exchange: to foster creative collaborations between scientists and the entertainment industry. It’s not about scientists swooping down on Hollywood to impose rigor and discipline, but about the two groups working together as equals, drawing on their respective strengths, to come up with something even better than either group would achieve on its own. The ideas are out there, waiting to be discovered. We just need to bring the two groups together so they can start having those conversations – akin to a cultural exchange program.
No doubt there are skeptics who question whether such a mission can truly result in meaningful change. I believe it can. I witnessed it firsthand at a workshop held last year at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. TV writer David Grae (Gilmore Girls, Without a Trace, Castle) joined UCLA physicist David Saltzberg – tech consultant for The Big Bang Theory – in a free-wheeling discussion with the assembled physicists about science and Hollywood. Grae had the rare opportunity to see science in action at one of the top scientific institutes in the country. And the scientists had the chance to learn the nuts and bolts of how Hollywood operates. Both gained valuable new perspectives.
The most telling moment came when Grae outlined the basic structure of a one-hour TV drama. Light bulbs went on all over the room as the physicists realized, “Oh, there’s an underlying theory! The data has to fit the model!” They glimpsed the common ground between these two worlds, instead of focusing on their respective differences.
I witnessed this on an even greater scale last November at the symposium that officially launched the Science & Entertainment Exchange. Writers, directors, and producers mingled freely with the top scientists in the country, asking questions, exchanging ideas, and discovering their worlds aren’t so different after all. One scientist expressed surprise at the kinds of questions he was being asked, and said it had made him think about the implications of his own research in interesting new ways. Numerous writers were thrilled to discover the rich tapestry of scientific ideas available to them, and came away inspired about new creative projects.
That’s what we hope to repeat, again and again, through the work of the Science & Entertainment Exchange. And we invite you to share in the excitement and innovation that is already taking place in this most synergistic of partnerships.