Science goes to the movies

US Air Force workshop designed to improve accuracy of films and encourage science careers

By | June 17, 2004

If you've ever grimaced at the portrayal of science in the movies and thought to yourself, "I can do that better," the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has a course for you.

The Air Force is paying for a 2-day workshop at the American Film Institute in which scientists can catch a glimpse of working in the world of films. The workshop is designed to improve the accuracy of the way science is presented in movies and, by portraying scientists positively, to encourage young people to enter science.

Scheduled for July 17 and 18, the workshop aims "to provide a means for scientists and engineers to become more knowledgeable about motion picture projects" and to encourage them to learn how to write and submit scripts, according to the American Film Institute's Web site. Workshop participants will learn about how to work with directors and other Hollywood professionals and how to write stories from screenwriters.

The idea for the workshop came from Martin Gundersen, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. "It's just depressing to see something that's way off-base [in terms of scientific accuracy]," said Gundersen, who was a scientific consultant on the 1985 film "Real Genius."

Improving scientific accuracy in films is not a new idea. The Sloan Foundation has sponsored a number of such efforts, including funding young directors and writers, "to create compelling drama about science and technology and to more accurately portray scientists and engineers in film and television."

The workshop is only a small part of a 3-year, $300,000 grant to improve the presentation of science in films, said project manager Robert Barker. His reason is that "we would like to see more us citizens engaging in graduate studies in science and engineering," he told The Scientist.

"Tons of kids in my intro bio class told me they were going into science because of the 'X Files,' so a show can make a real difference. You've got all the kids being turned on by [Dana] Scully being presented as a believable, likeable character," said Anne Simon, professor of cellular biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland.

But Simon, who consulted on the "X Files" series and film, warned that getting a screenplay written by an unknown to the screen is, at best, a long shot. "It's 10 times to 100 times worse than getting a grant funded," she told The Scientist.

What is really needed are scientists who are willing to consult with writers, Simon said. People in Hollywood don't know who to call. "If they knew they could call a scientist and get questions answered right away, I think they'd do it," she said.

Barker said that one of the goals of the grant is to set up lists of scientists and engineers who are willing to consult with filmmakers to enhance scientific accuracy.

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