Science Meets Hollywood

Judy Griesedieck for The Chronicle

James Kakalios offered physics advice to the makers of "Watchmen" and won an Emmy for his work on a video about the science in the movie.
February 14, 2010

Dr. Manhattan, in the movie Watchmen, can stop objects with his mind, teleport himself anywhere in the universe, create multiple clones, and see the past, present, and future simultaneously. James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, can do something almost as impressive: He can explain how the glowing-blue superhero does it.

With his unusual power, Mr. Kakalios was a consultant during production of the comic-book-based film. The connection was made by the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences, which has put dozens of scientists together with movies and television shows. Mr. Kakalios reached the top of the list thanks to his book The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham Books, 2005).

"Teaching physics is about making exemptions," Mr. Kakalios says. "We are always ignoring wind resistance, or ignoring friction in order to make a sample problem work. In the case of superheroes, it's all about making one miracle exemption and then using physics to explain the rest."

If we can imagine, for example, that Dr. Manhattan has gained independent control over his quantum mechanical wave function—and we can imagine we know what that means—various aspects of that quantum wave would grant him various superpowers, Mr. Kakalios says.

Is it really possible?

"Of course not," says the scientist. "But it's a great way to get people interested in physics."

He's right. After consulting on the movie, Mr. Kakalios made a video lecture, "Science of Watchmen," that's had nearly 1.6 million views on YouTube.

A few years ago, the idea that movies could make subjects like quantum mechanics exciting to the masses drove the Hollywood director Jerry Zucker to start thinking about creating what became the Science & Entertainment Exchange.

Mr. Zucker may seem an unlikely champion of scientific verisimilitude, as his own movies tend to sacrifice science for comedy. (In Airplane!, a movie he helped write and direct, a heart prepped for transplant pulsates with abandon and flops itself out of a beaker and onto the floor.)

But when his daughter received a diagnoses of Type 1 diabetes about 10 years ago, Mr. Zucker became very involved in the fight to allow stem-cell research, and in so doing met a large number of scientists. Between his Hollywood and scientific connections (including Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and an eventual co-founder of the Science & Entertainment Exchange), Mr. Zucker realized he could become something of a matchmaker.

"I figured I could be good at the fix-up," he says. "All I had to do was get these scientists and these moviemakers together, and they'd fall for each other."

And if the relationship worked, he figured, the public might become more pro-science—and more supportive of research, including controversial efforts like stem-cell research. As a bonus, better movies might get made.

Useful Zombies

Just over halfway through a two-year pilot program, the Science & Entertainment Exchange has set up about 100 consultations for television shows and films (including the forthcoming movies Iron Man 2, Green Lantern, and Tron Legacy). The consultations can be about anything within the professor's area of expertise: how the actual science works, what laboratories really look like, even what a scientist might be willing to kill for (the subject of an episode of TV's Bones the season before last). The exchange also holds events, like symposia and dinner parties, to discuss the real-life science behind the stories on screen.

David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood: Scientists' Impact on Cinema, Cinema's Impact on Science and Technology (due out from MIT Press early next year), says that many films have an extraordinary effect on the world of science.

"When a movie like Deep Impact or Armageddon comes out, everyone wants to know if it's possible," he says. "Most people never thought about asteroids slamming into Earth, and then it's foremost on everyone's mind." By 2005, seven years after Deep Impact, Congress instructed NASA to find 90 percent of the asteroids that could destroy Earth.

Equally important, Mr. Kirby says, is that if a movie isn't believable, it will not capture the public's attention. Take the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day, released in 2000, which involved clones created with memories identical to their donors'. It was not a hit.

"Even by the year 2000, everyone realized this was impossible," Mr. Kirby says. "It's very hard to get excited about Arnold beating up on clones if you don't really think the clones can exist."

But sometimes even the most far-fetched plots can provide fodder for academic work. That means zombie movies for Robert Smith? (he legally added the question mark to his name to distinguish himself from like-named academics; the correct pronunciation includes an upward inflection).

Mr. Smith?, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Ottawa and one of the authors of a 2009 paper titled "When Zombies Attack: Mathematical Modeling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection," spoke on a panel, recently organized by the exchange, with the zombie-movie legend George Romero.

"Most people don't realize that you can use mathematics to describe disease," Mr. Smith? says. "But by doing it with zombies, it got people thinking. They see how a zombie outbreak can be seen as basically the same thing as the West Nile virus or HIV."

(For the record, according to Mr. Smith?'s model: Unless we acted very quickly and aggressively to stem a zombie outbreak, we wouldn't stand a chance.)

'A Kernel of Accuracy'

Hollywood, too, gains from the exchange program. Robert Chiappetta and Glen Whitman, staff writers for the television show Fringe, say that using consultants and real science has been a boon to the series.

"When we have a germ of an idea, consultants are able to give us the basic properties or facts about a scientific principle," says Mr. Chiappetta. "It's best for the show when we start with a kernel of accuracy in the science and then start building from there."

Sometimes real science has inspired an episode—for example, transgenics, the science of splicing genes from one organism into another. "It's not that far a jump from the real science of the genes, from glowing jellyfish being used to create glowing rabbits and monkeys, ... to creating a transgenic monster consisting of genes from half a dozen different animals," says Mr. Whitman.

Still, in a fight between narrative verve and scientific precision, narrative almost always wins, the writers say.

That's OK with the National Academy of Sciences.

"We aren't trying to be the accuracy police," says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange. "But by bringing scientists into the equation, Hollywood can create better and more engaging stories some of the time."

Mr. Kakalios, a fan of both comic books and science, understands:

"If I was making Watchmen, which is like the Citizen Kane of comic books, and I had the choice between pissing off a physics professor from Minnesota and a million rabid fans of the original comic book, I'd drop the science. And I am the physics professor from Minnesota."