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Hardcover | $35.00 Short | £27.95 | 280 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 74 b&w illus., 1 figure | February 2011 | ISBN: 9780262014786
Paperback | $18.95 Trade | £14.95 | 280 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 74 b&w illus., 1 figure | February 2013 | ISBN: 9780262518703
eBook | $13.95 Trade | February 2011 | ISBN: 9780262296236
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Lab Coats in Hollywood

Science, Scientists, and Cinema


Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, is perhaps the most scientifically accurate film ever produced. The film presented such a plausible, realistic vision of space flight that many moon hoax proponents believe that Kubrick staged the 1969 moon landing using the same studios and techniques. Kubrick’s scientific verisimilitude in 2001 came courtesy of his science consultants—including two former NASA scientists—and the more than sixty-five companies, research organizations, and government agencies that offered technical advice. Although most filmmakers don’t consult experts as extensively as Kubrick did, films ranging from A Beautiful Mind and Contact to Finding Nemo and The Hulk have achieved some degree of scientific credibility because of science consultants. In Lab Coats in Hollywood, David Kirby examines the interaction of science and cinema: how science consultants make movie science plausible, how filmmakers negotiate scientific accuracy within production constraints, and how movies affect popular perceptions of science.

Drawing on interviews and archival material, Kirby examines such science consulting tasks as fact checking and shaping visual iconography. Kirby finds that cinema can influence science as well: Depictions of science in popular films can promote research agendas, stimulate technological development, and even stir citizens into political action.

About the Author

David A. Kirby is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester, England.

Table of Contents

  • Lab Coats in Hollywood
  • Lab Coats in Hollywood
  • Science, Scientists, and Cinema
  • David A. Kirby
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • © 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email special_sales
  • This book was set in Stone Sans and Stone Serif by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Kirby, David A.
  • Lab coats in Hollywood : science, scientists, and cinema / David A. Kirby.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01478-6 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Science in motion pictures.  2. Scientists in motion pictures. I. Title.
  • PN1995.9.S265K57 2011
  • 791.43'66—dc22
  • 2010011961
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • To Laura. A true bean.
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Preface xi
  • 1 Scientific Expertise in Hollywood:
  • The Interactions between Scientific and Entertainment Cultures 
  • 1
  • 2 Cinematic Science:
  • Scientific Representation, Film Realism, and Virtual Witnessing Technologies 
  • 21
  • 3 Valuing Expertise:
  • The Entertainment Industry’s and Scientific Community’s Motivations in the Science Consulting Relationship 
  • 41
  • 4 Scientists on Screen:
  • Being a Scientist, Looking Like a Lab 
  • 65
  • 5 Cinematic Fact Checking:
  • Negotiating Scientific Facts within Filmmaking Culture 
  • 95
  • 6 Best Guesses:
  • Scientific Uncertainty, Flexibility, and Scientists in the Aisles 
  • 119
  • 7 Fantastically Logical:
  • Fantastic Science, Speculative Scenarios, and the Expertise of Logic 
  • 145
  • 8 Preventing Future Disasters:
  • Science Consultants and the Enhancement of Cinematic Disasters 
  • 169
  • 9 The Future Is Now:
  • Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Cinematic Narratives in Generating Real-World Technological Development 
  • 193
  • 10 Improving Science, Improving Entertainment:
  • The Significance of Scientists in Hollywood 
  • 219
  • Notes 235
  • Index 259


“For movie-lovers everywhere, it provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how art and science meet in producing motion pictures we find delightful.”—Science
“For that strange corner where science nut meets movie buff, this is a very enlightening book.”—Booklist
“From ‘prophetic’ early films like 1929’s Woman in the Moon science-focused movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey to admitted fiascos like The Core, Kirby’s command of the subject makes for entertaining reading and, likely, more informed viewing.”—Publishers Weekly
“[O]ne of the most in-depth books on the intersection of science and Hollywood to date.”—
“Kirby's book is honest and true, well-researched, unique, and easy to read.”—Jeff Schmerker, The Journal of Mind and Behavior
“This is a must-read for anyone interested in popular representations of science. Kirby describes the ways that visual media interpret, naturalize, and engage with scientific theories (be they well-accepted, controversial, or fantastical), and how some scientists in turn manipulate cinematic depictions for their own ends. Plus, have I mentioned how much fun it is?”—Carla Nappi, New Books in Science, Technology, and Society


“In the gap between science fact and science fiction stands the motion picture and television science consultant. In this brisk, lively account, David Kirby provides us with a history of these often unheralded scientific ambassadors to Hollywood and the critical role they play in shaping how film and television makers depict science—depictions which in turn shape how science is understood by the public at large.”
Zack Stentz, writer/producer (Thor, X-Men: First Class, Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles)
“Kirby convincingly shows us that the interaction between science and cinema is not limited to the portrayal of scientists and science themes in the media, but can significantly contribute to shaping a movie’s core concepts and—even more interestingly—scientists’ own activity in the research sphere.”
Massimiano Bucchi, Professor of Science and Technology in Society, University of Trento
“Kirby makes a compelling case that scientists and filmmakers need each other. I know of no other book like it.”
David Saltzberg, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, UCLA, and Television Science Consultant
“There have been many books written on the intersection of science and Hollywood. But David Kirby’s excellent tome is the first to examine seriously the role of the science consultant in the movie-making process and assess its potential impact. Lab Coats in Hollywood is essential reading for anyone who shares Kirby’s passion for bringing science into the service of storytelling for the silver screen.”
Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and former director, National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange
“We all know—or think we know—what science consultants do on Hollywood films: they check accuracy. They would be wrong. David Kirby shows the relation as much more complex, and vastly more interesting than that. Hollywood wants a landscape of verisimilitude, an elaborately produced naturalness, and legitimization of their image of the future. For their part, scientists can alter the public status of their fields and gain a powerful hand in articulating visions of how their own fields might work, from supercomputing to genetic alteration. This is an original study of a field that combines real knowledge of Hollywood films, scientist-consultants and science studies. It is fun to read, taking you to the back and forth between science and film everywhere from 2001 to Contact and Minority Report. I recommend it with enthusiasm.”
Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics, Harvard University, and Producer/Director, Secrecy