How science consultants make movie science plausible, in films ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Finding Nemo.
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.
Hollywood's employment of scientific advisors is more complex than mere verisimilitude it's an intricate dance with risks and rewards for both parties, argues Kirby in his first book, a history of Hollywood's relationship with science. The participation of experts in blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Deep Impact not only help the filmmakers, but helps raise awareness of scientific issues like global warming and nuclear energy. Their participation can even impact fundraising efforts for the scientists and their organizations or concerns. Details like the handwritten equations in A Beautiful Mind and the removal of kelp from Finding Nemo, which grows in cold, not tropical waters, lend authenticity. Jurassic Park's depiction of dinosaurs as birds rather than reptiles both educated the public and spurred heated scientific discourse. Even when filmmakers get it wrong, as they did by both simplifying and overstating the effect of a gigantic asteroid in Armageddon, the benefits for NASA (exposure, script approval) outweighed the factual inconsistencies. 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.