If you’re working on a science- or tech-focused project in Hollywood, and don’t want to be mocked by geeks on opening weekend, you need to work with the Science and Entertainment Exchange.
A program within the National Academy of Sciences, the Science and Entertainment Exchange connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to ensure on-screen accuracy. Since its launch in 2008, it has done almost 2,000 consults—many, as you might expect, inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Iron Man 2 and Thor, as well as Star Trek: Into the Darkness and The Magic School Bus Rides Again(above), Netflix’s reboot of the 90’s classic, which launches Sept 29.
PCMag recently visited Program Director Rick Loverd and Program Coordinator Amy Brown at the Exchange’s offices, located inside the California nanoSystems Institute on the UCLA campus.
Rick, by day, you’re the Program Director here, but you’re also known as a comic book writer. Could you talk about the scientific experts you consulted for Venus, and how it lead to your conclusion that planet might be a better off-world colony than Mars?
[RL] [Laughs] Well, it was more that—in a world where other nations might get to Mars first—the planet Venus, in my story, had become a way for Americans to pursue “Manifest Destiny.” And yes, I did consult many experts, because, by working here, I get to peek into the future a bit, so I got to ground my idea for Venus by interviewing many experts, particularly Kevin Hand and Randii Wessen, both at NASA JPL.
So they gave you the rubber stamp on your scientific hypothesis?
[RL] Not exactly, but they did let me know my “buy”—that thing every piece of sci-fi has—in my case, that the technology which could bring the climate of Venus under some sort of control, occurred way too quickly in the story’s timeline, but that the rest of the science I talked about—which doesn’t yet exist—was still somewhat plausible.
In effect, a perfect test case for what you do here at The Science & Entertainment Exchange—getting scientists and entertainment types in the same room to provide deep data, answer questions and inspire with what *might* be next?
[RL] Exactly, yes. In fact, my publisher, Boom! Studios, allowed me to include letters from scientists in the Venus series’ four books, and three of those had consulted on the project.
Let’s bring Amy in now. You came here via academia, then worked at the National Academy of Sciences’ Washington D.C. HQ. Can you talk us through a recent Hollywood request that you helped with?
[AB] Sure. So we have a stellar network of almost 3,000 scientists and can also draw on those known to the Academies: the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine. For one consult, we put together a think tank at the request of the creative team behind Marvel’s Ant Man. We flew Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist at Caltech, out to Atlanta to meet with Paul Rudd, director Peyton Reed, producer Brad Winderbaum, and other members of their team. In fact Spiros continued to collaborate with Paul Rudd—and Keanu Reeves—challenging Dr. Stephen Hawking to a game of Quantum Chess.
Any spoiler alerts on the Ant Man 2 sequel?
[AB] Our lips are sealed.
Do you broker scientists’ participation in an agency model?
[RL] There’s no fee structure to use our services. Our mission is to inspire better content and the publication of great science information to the public, as a program within the National Academy of Sciences, for the national good.
[AB] As they’re not paid consultants, the interaction—for scientists—is generally short and sweet; getting on Skype, grabbing a coffee, doing a phone call, purely focused on their own research. Having said that, sometimes there is a budget and we can help facilitate a longer consult, if needed.
[RL] We’re the bridge. It’s our job to go out and find great communicators within the science community, but we’re not the “agent for scientists.”
You’re not negotiating their associate producer credit then?
[RL] No [Laughs].
Aside from the pre-production consults, or on-set visits, how else do you engage the science and entertainment communities together?
[AB] We organize lab tours and other events, including high-level retreats around the country, and something we call science speed dating, where scientists rotate in front of different Hollywood writers, directors and other creatives, and give them a quick burst of information on their field.
[RL] It’s seven minutes that blow their mind. Then we all convene for a moderated Q&A.
Are these speed dating events open to the public?
[RL] No. All of our events are invite-only; targeted at storytellers in the industry.
What’s the most recent consult you’ve done?
[AB] We did consults on every single episode of Netflix’s reboot of The Magic School Bus Rides Again, and it was cool to call some of our science experts and hear them say: “Ms. Frizzle is back!”
And then you had to break it to them gently that it’s now Fiona Frizzle, her kid sister, played by Kate McKinnon.
[AB] Right. But I so related because the original series was my first exposure to the intricacies of science in everyday life.
Final question, as you get to see the scripts that are out there circulating in Los Angeles, are there themes emerging already, in terms of scientific inquiry for major motion pictures circa 2020?
[AB] We can’t share any details but, as of late, I’ve been getting lots of ‘How does a brain-computer interface work?’, ‘How can we improve the human body with the latest technology?’ type questions. That sort of thing.
So there you have it, Hollywood is currently doing its “mind and machine” homework. And, if they’ve consulted the Science & Entertainment Exchange, hopefully they’ll have got it right.
[RL] That’s our intention, anyway [Laughs].