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Spotlight On The Science and Entertainment Exchange

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Thor from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios, © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

What would alien DNA look like? If you were trapped in a wormhole, how would it feel? And of all colors, why is Dr. Manhattan blue?

At The Science and Entertainment Exchange, scientists try to put facts behind the stories you see on the big and small screens. Founded by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2008, the Exchange was a product of discussions between NAS and Janet and Jerry Zucker---the force behind the Airplane movies, Ghost, and the recent Fair Game. Rick Loverd, director of development for the Exchange, said that both entities felt ?there needed to be some voice for accuracy in Hollywood.? That voice would hopefully double as a champion of science, which is frequently represented by a malicious Dr. Evil or an eccentric, absent-minded Doc Brown.

?If you go back and look at films of the 1950s or post-World War II era?the scientist in his or her lab is the one who goes and finds the way to save the city,? said Loverd. ?Whereas when you look at most films [today], scientists generally are not the heroes they once were.?

Screenwriters or producers who call the Exchange will be paired with a scientist in the appropriate field, who will answer whatever questions are necessary for fuller, more accurate storytelling. Depending on the project, consults can consist of a few phone calls or a sit-down ?think tank? where entertainers meet with scientists and hash out the whys and hows of the worlds they?re creating.

For a show like The Big Bang Theory, the questions that arise will often have definitive answers. But the Exchange has also consulted on a number of fantasy and superhero movies, where one would imagine the rules of science need not apply. But Loverd points out that even fictional worlds must have their own set of laws. The more believable the story, the less opportunity a spectator is given to pull back from the action and question what they?re watching. ?From the time that these [comic book] characters were invented,? said Loverd, ?people love getting into the fantasy of what if they actually did exist.?

For Thor, which came out in May, the Exchange helped writers find a way for characters to travel quickly through space. The solution was an ?Einstein-Rosen Bridge,? which is akin to a wormhole. For Green Lantern, University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios---who actually teaches a course on the physics of superheroes---theorized what being inside a wormhole would actually look like. For the same movie, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, provided a hypothetical account of what an alien autopsy might show. Even for scenarios that require speculation, Loverd said that most entertainers understand ?that with more knowledge comes better stories.?

Sometimes, the Exchange doesn?t just provide information: it provides unexpected inspiration. During a lab tour of Berkeley, Loverd said a producer noticed a lab tech with bright pink hair. The next season on the producer?s show, there was a lab tech with---you guessed it---bright pink hair. For Loverd, this is ?a perfect example of how the basic interaction between entertainers and scientists can change an entertainer?s perception of the kind of person a scientist is.?

Not every consult ends with a positive translation on screen. ?Sometimes the most accurate science is not going to serve the story that [entertainers] want to tell and we understand that,? said Loverd. Other writers might not want to disrupt their creative process for a science lesson. However, Loverd said that these individuals are in the minority, and most of Hollywood is excited by the resources provided by the Exchange.

For scientists who volunteer their time for the program, the lure is three-fold. On one hand, accurate science allows teachable moments to reach an audience of millions. Then there is the fun and challenge of approaching their area of expertise in an unusual or unexpected way. And finally, working for the movies is just plain cool.

In the future, Loverd hopes that the Exchange is the first place an entertainer will call when beginning a project. ?I?d like to see us at the heart of the creative process in Hollywood,? he said. Would that mean that scientists might one day be the storytelling superheroes of L.A.? If Einstein-Rosen bridges can potentially exist, then why not?

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