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The hotline Hollywood calls for science advice

How a consulting service is changing what science looks like onscreen.

Christophe Haubursin is a senior producer for the Vox video team. Since joining the team in 2016, he has produced for Vox’s YouTube channel and Emmy-nominated shows Glad You Asked and Explained.

Hollywood hasn’t always done a great job of representing the science community onscreen. On one hand, there’s cinema bogus like The Core’s premise that nuking the center of the Earth could reboot our magnetic field (it couldn’t), or the idea on NCIS that two heroes would fight hackers faster by both typing on the keyboard at the same time (they wouldn’t).

On the other, there are broader problems with negative representations of science — scientists have been disproportionately written as film villains, and those media depictions have shaped historically negative perceptions of science as a career path. When children are asked to draw images of scientists, they predominantly depict old white men, and typically cite media depictions as their main source of inspiration.

But since 2008, access to a scientist script adviser has been one toll-free phone call away for Hollywood professionals.

That’s thanks to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a nonprofit program under the National Academy of Sciences that links Hollywood creators with scientists and engineers who can give consultations on scripts and plot elements.

The four-person LA-based team has organized somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800 consultations since they started — on everything from The Good Wife to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — in addition to regular events and panel discussions, which they call “speed dating.”

The team likes to emphasize that the goal is plausibility, not necessarily accuracy. A character like Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan could never exist in our universe — so for physicist James Kakalios, who advised the filmmakers, the goal was to make sure the character’s story was believable and grounded in real science concepts:

“Sometimes it isn’t about the specific little bit of dialogue, or the way in which we manage to insert something that is a phrase a scientist would actually use, or a lab coat that’s more authentic,” said Ann Merchant, the program’s deputy executive director. “It is about the echo effect of what that science advising does, and how the rest of the world then begins to ask more about that science, simply by hearing that there was a scientist involved with the movie.”

Watch the video above to see how the science consulting process worked for the Oscar-nominated film Arrival.