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August 06, 2013

Lab Coats in Hollywood

Posted by: Dave Ryman

This summer’s movie season has featured its typical share of large-scale blockbusters and high-budget action flicks.  And although many of these movies exist in worlds far more spectacular than our own, often seeming to defy reality and the laws of science altogether, film directors frequently hire science consultants to offer technical advice and help make these fictitious worlds appear more plausible.  Many of this summer’s movies, for example, including World War Z, Iron Man 3, and Star Trek Into Darkness, used science consultants during their respective film productions.

Indeed, the field of science and the film industry have had a more intimate relationship than one might think, and the long-standing affiliation between the two is detailed extensively in David A. Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood. As Kirby writes in his book, the relationship between science and cinema has often been mutually beneficial and culturally productive. 

Below is an excerpt from Lab Coats in Hollywood that demonstrates how the work done by science consultants on a couple of films from the past proved prophetic:

Many consultants on popular films regard movies as an open, “free” space to put forward their conceptualizations. A lack of constraints allow them to be more speculative, which is the creative and fun part of science. If they are wrong in their speculation there is no harm since “it’s only fiction.” Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who consulted on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), considers science fiction a good way to work out some theoretical problems. As Minsky says, “I thought that science fiction was a good venue for exploring the implications of AI [artificial intelligence].It helps you to be clearer about the implications of your work.” Richard Terrile of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory realized while working on 2001’s sequel, 2010 (1984), that filmmakers’ need for detailed depictions necessitated a more speculative approach to scientific knowledge than was normally acceptable in scientific practice. As he put it, “A filmmaker would ask you questions that you do not normally get to think about in science. We were designing elements on the Galilean satellite Europa and they will ask you ‘what does it look like on the surface?’ So you have to extrapolate from the little we know at the time all the way down to what it would look like if you were standing on one of these bodies.” This freedom to explore in fictional spaces means that science consultants are often providing extrapolative speculations about scientific phenomena, which can help scientists see novel connections and provide new interpretations that are then conveyed to audiences. 

The conception of film as a modeling space is why many films in retrospect seem “ahead of our time” when science consultants are involved in the production. Film critics often point to the groundbreaking German space film Frau Im Mond (Woman in the Moon) (1929), for example, as a “prophetic” film. Indeed, many of the scientific ideas used in the film have come to pass. NASA has used the mobile launch vehicle depicted in the film on every launch since Apollo, the Saturn rocket’s booster design was identical to the one represented in the film, and NASA decided in 1981 to rest the Space Shuttle in a pool of water during takeoff just as the rocket in the film was put in a pool of water to protect its “delicate parts.” The primary consultant—another of the film’s consultants—notes that because of “a dramatic requirement—the director [Fritz Lang] wanted a full Moon in the sky during takeoff—the flight path that Oberth calculated turned out to be the figure-8 flight path actually taken by Apollo 8.” This is not to say that NASA scientists calculated their trajectory for Apollo 8 based on Woman in the Moon. Rather, Oberth was speculating on a trajectory as if he actually was planning a rocket trip to the Moon, and other scientists later accepted his speculative trajectory as accurate. Oberth’s ideas for what a Moon flight should entail were central to the film’s depiction of space flight, ideas that he also promoted in venues other than the film, including technical publications.

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