Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak on Hollywood and Science

Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a science advisor to multiple films, including Contact and the 2008 re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Sidney Perkowitz is a physics professor at Emory University, and the author of several books that blend science and pop culture, including Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World.

Together, they fight crime.

Okay, that last part isn't technically true. But it does make for a good story, and, in that, it actually does a really good job of showing you what these two men actually do. Both Perkowitz and Shostak work to bridge the gap between the people who do science and the people who make science fiction. They're involved in the Science and Entertainment Exchange — a National Academies of Sciences effort to bring scientists together with directors, producers, and writers. The goals: Help scientists do better public communication and make sci-fi more awesome. But there's a catch here, because "awesome" and "totally 100% accurate" are seldom the same thing.

This week, I spoke to Perkowitz and Shostak about what happens when science and entertainment cross streams, how you illustrate things nobody has ever seen, and why — even when the science in the movies is bad — science still wins.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: First, let's get some background. How does the relationship between Hollywood and science work?

Sidney Perkowitz: All I can really comment on is what the Science and Entertainment Exchange does. There are two main modes of interaction. First, the Exchange is open to having a movie maker or a TV maker call them up and ask for a suggestion of a scientist who could advise them on a specific issue. And the Exchange will give them a name. There's hundreds of interactions like that. The second thing is to have these soirees to bring science and entertainment people together. Those allow people to communicate and it builds trust between the two sides.

Seth Shostak: [When you work as an advisor to a specific project] it's usually more in-depth, rather than a quick question. The minimum I've done is an hour-long talk. They want to hear about the general subject area and marinate in the subject a bit. It's background research for them and the studio is enlightened enough to think that's worth the plane tickets. [Shostak had just finished spending the morning with a movie team that flew up from L.A. to meet him before he and I spoke.] More often, though, the National Science Foundation buys me a ticket down there.

Normally they don't want to know how to illustrate an idea — they know how to illustrate things — but they have quesitons about details. How do we make the dialog sound like it's real scientists, for instance. If aliens invaded Earth, why would they come here? And what sort of weapons would they have? As if we know. They're looking for something to hang a plot point on. So I advise them and then they take maybe 30% of my suggestions.

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