Meet the scientists who’ve worked on major Marvel movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy, both Avengers films, and Captain America, and that’s just a few. Yes, that’s right…scientists.
“Screenwriters know that a moment in which the audience is thinking, ‘That’s not how that would work,’ is a moment when they’re not engaging in the storyline. We exist now at a time when everybody has a supercomputer in their pocket and can check. Filmmakers know this, and are interested in not only being inspired by the real science but also in trying to get it right,” says Rick Loverd, Program Director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange.
Operating under the National Academy of Sciences, an organization chartered in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln to offer scientific counsel to the United States, The Exchange has provided a dose of science for nearly 1,450 movies and TV shows since its inception in 2008.
“We are an actual, literal hotline for any writer, producer, director, actor, or studio executive who is working on a feature film, TV show, or video game. Our number is 844-NEED-SCI, and if you have a question about science, engineering, or medicine, we will connect you to a person who can actually answer your question,” says Rick. “It’s a much more tailored, human, one-on-one way to get information over something like Wikipedia, which is often the resource a screenwriter or filmmaker might use to get this sort of information.”
The Exchange has worked on films such as Star Trek: Into Darkness, Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation, and Big Hero 6, but one of their favorite success stories is the work they did on Thor.
“The filmmakers wanted to learn more about how Thor, as an advanced alien, might travel to Earth via the Bifrost Bridge from Norse mythology. We were able to connect them with a theoretical physicist who posited the idea that it could be a wormhole or Einstein-Rosen bridge and organically through that conversation, the character of Jane Foster morphed from a nurse in the comic series to a theoretical physicist on the screen. I would argue that theoretical physicists, and especially female theoretical physicists, are an underrepresented group in mainstream media. To have that kind of interaction and to have a lot of kids see that movie, and maybe see themselves in that job in the future was a really big win,” says Rick.
One of The Exchange’s big goals is to change the view of scientists in mainstream media.
“Most people don’t know a scientist. You picture an old man with a white beard and glasses and a white lab coat, and that’s really not what scientists are like. They’re all different kinds of people. There are scientists who are in punk rock bands; there are scientists who do extreme sports. There’s a good spread of female versus male scientists,” says Rick. “We believe that if we give Hollywood a better sense of what the demographics are like and what real scientists are like, that impacts the characters who are going to be on the screen and therefore the cultural representation of scientists and how people perceive scientists and engineers.”
Many scientists can point to a character in a book or movie who inspired them to pursue their profession, so The Exchange hopes they can help inspire the next generation by helping create characters who more accurately reflect the diversity of real scientists.
“Spock is widely regarded as a very inspirational science-based character that a lot of scientists can look to and say, ‘Spock was a character who got me interested in my field.’ If we can be in the room when the next Spock is created, a lot of scientists are excited about what might be accomplished by that,” says Rick.
However, these scientists know that when it comes to the cinema, sometimes story comes before science.
“Our philosophy here at The Exchange is that story will always trump science. We understand that a filmmaker’s job when they make a narrative film is to tell a great story. If the best science we know can augment and enhance that storyline, we think that’s a win for both sides,” says Rick. “We understand that if it’s not going to work with the story they want to tell, they’re going to stray, but at least in that scenario, they’ve made a conscious choice to tell a story that’s not based fully in reality as opposed to just not knowing.”
Even if they’re not 100% accurate, the stories we tell still influence the science we do.
“I think it’s science fiction’s role to inspire scientists to think about new ideas and get excited for the future. The engineer at Apple who created the iPad was quoted as saying that a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where there’s a character holding a tablet talking to their family back on earth, inspired them to design the iPad. The first flip phones were inspired by the Star Trek communicators. I think there’s no question that the idea of what’s next for humanity is first expressed in fiction and then engineered over time,” says Rick.
In addition to their hotline, The Exchange hosts about 25 events a year where scientists give talks to intrigued storytellers and answer questions.
“There’s a certain magic that happens when you get people from disparate fields into the same room,” says Rick. “These kinds of bridges are incredibly powerful starting points for all sorts of cultural innovation.”