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Book Review: Lab Coats in Hollywood - Science, Scientists and Cinema

19 April 2012

By Daniel Malynn

Appeared in BioNews 653

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema

By Dr David Kirby

Published by MIT Press

ISBN-10: 0262014785, ISBN-13: 978-0262014786

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema' by Dr David Kirby


How successful are scientists at engaging with filmmakers (be that directors, writers or producers)? This is what, through numerous examples, David Kirby discusses in his book 'Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema'.

It is this notion of 'success' that for me highlights the book's overall message. Science and cinema (and by extension scientists and filmmakers) speak hugely different languages and have vastly different concerns when it comes to the portrayal of science on screen.

Kirby's belief is that filmmakers will only use science if it helps them reach their end goal.

First, it creates a sense of realism: inclusion of accurate science adds authenticity to the film, or it might meet the public view of textbook science. But it's not just authenticity in relation to the action on screen they want, but the stamp of approval that having a big name scientist or organisation gives to a film – take the number of NASA logos in big budget blockbusters.

Second, filmmakers maintain scientific accuracy if it develops the narrative of the film in a positive way. Kirby cites as an example, Star Trek (2009), where astronomer Carolyn Porco gives advice on where the Enterprise could hide from the Romulans when entering the solar system. Her suggestion to come out of warp in the cloud atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan, was included in the film as it not only added to the narrative, it was also a visually striking moment. However, in her role as consultant, this was the only material contribution Porco made to the film. Indeed, there are many other examples where filmmakers simply ignore advice, as it conflicts with other factors.

So, if being a science consultant isn't particularly influential, why do so many get involved? Aside from the allure of Hollywood, there are three main reasons.

First and foremost, it's funding opportunities: a big budget film can highlight the need for more research in that area. Clear examples in the book are 'The Day after Tomorrow', 'Deep Impact', 'Twister' and 'Dante's Peak', all of which led to increased funding in their respective fields.

The second is to inform. Cinema and television are possibly the world's most powerful information-providers, and the chance for scientists to directly inform millions of people must be appealing. Kirby's opening example – and a personal favourite - involves the show 'Life Goes On' (1989 - 1993) and its HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) positive character Jesse McKenna. Both Wayne Grody (at UCLA's School of Medicine) and Rod Gracia (HIV and AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome consultant) were called on to discuss this storyline.

Gracia argued that many AIDS patients at the time were trying non traditional medicines, and that Jesse should forgo standard treatment (anti-retroviral pills) and look at acupuncture or a macrobiotic diet. While this storyline would not have been unrealistic, Grody knew that there could be real world ramifications if Jesse came off his medications. It was nothing to do with science realism; it was the potential impact on the HIV community, and the risk of losing volunteers for clinical trials of (at that time) new 'cocktail therapies'.

Finally, films can influence people's perceptions of disputed science or change scientific thinking. Kirby explains how the Jurassic Park films promoted Jack Horner's theory of bird-dinosaurs. Up until that point, dinosaurs were firmly thought of as slow and cumbersome lizards. Presenting Horner's ideas as 'factual' meant the public accepted it as the truth.

Overall, Kirby's book is an excellent history of science in film. It discusses all aspects of science, and sets out a clear argument, backed-up by diligent and in-depth research.

The chapter detailing the lengths John Underkoffler went to in scientifically justifying the Hulk transformation through genetic engineering is well worth reading. However I did find it quite repetitive and felt my interest start to fade as I waded through endless 'Deep Impact' examples.

'Lab coats in Hollywood' is full of extremely helpful tips for scientists working with filmmakers, and would make perfect reading material for all those who sit in the cinema saying 'That would never happen'.


Buy Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema from Amazon UK.

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