Science and Technical Advisor

Neil deGrasse Tyson…a movie critic? While we watched Titanic, engrossed in the scene of Rose (Kate Winslet) lying on a piece of driftwood gazing up at the night sky, we felt the emotion of the moment. Tyson’s experience, however, was soured with the realization that the night sky he was gazing at was the wrong one!

On a 2009 panel hosted by St. Petersburg College in Florida, Tyson elaborated on the event, “There she is looking up. There is only one sky she should have been looking at…and it was the wrong sky! Worse than that, it was not only the wrong sky; the left-half of the sky was a mirror reflection of the right-half of the sky! It was not only wrong, it was lazy! And I’m thinking, this is wrong.” The film’s director actually updated the scene in the 2012, 3-D release based on Tyson’s suggestions.

That was hardly the only error Neil deGrasse Tyson has found in movies. He has identified numerous scientific errors in such movies as Gravity, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Prometheus, Armageddon, Pitch Perfect, Star Wars, and more. That’s just what he’s found in film without even getting into television.

Tyson might be a casual science-based movie critic, but there are some who do it as part of their professional career. A lot of planning and scientific research goes into today’s entertainment, and it’s evident that even after the research has been done there are still instances where scientific details are wrong or overlooked in the final cut. It’s not for lack of trying, however. Science and technical advisors are hired to ensure accuracy in entertainment. They bring credibility to the screen.

Technical advisor and associate producer Jonathan Dotan has worked on various television projects over the years. His list of projects include the series Entourage and Silicon Valley where his ultimate goal was to make the shows so technically accurate that a fan could “freeze-frame the screen” at any given point and “anything they would see on there would be accurate”.

Television is a burgeoning industry for technical advisors, especially in the field of medicine. Andrew Dennis, a real-life trauma and burn surgeon by day, moonlights on the set of Chicago Med as a technical advisor. He oversees the medical procedures on the show and advises writers on the scripts used, tweaking them for medical accuracy. As is the case for a majority of advisors, this is part-time work that brings him to the set three days per week. During his time working at the hospital, he finds that there is plenty to discuss with his colleagues, and they collaboratively think up new show ideas based on current newspaper headlines. They look for “unique cases” that are “not something most doctors have ever seen,” he says.

Jurassic Park was the first real breakthrough for this industry. Before that movie was made, scientists were rarely used or consulted for media research. Historically, producers and their teams did the research themselves. As media has become more detailed and realistic, creative license is giving way to professionalism, and career scientists are being brought in to ensure accuracy.

Dr. Donna J. Nelson, an organic chemist at Oklahoma University, started working on the set of Breaking Bad in 2008. She learned a great deal about working in television and media through her experience with Breaking Bad and shares her experience in a podcast you can listen to here. In this podcast, you’ll also hear from Dr. David Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood.

This work brings a high level of satisfaction if you’re looking for something “extra”. It more than likely won’t be your full-time job, however. It’s work that comes with limitless bragging rights and can be pursued along with your full-time career. At the end of the day, who wouldn’t want to swap lab coats for a television set several days a week? Who wouldn’t want to mingle with actors as a break from meticulous and time-consuming experiments?

So, keep working toward your science goals. Find a science career that suits you, perhaps one from our blog series. Then, when the time is right you can find your niche as a science and technical advisor.

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, a Tron advisor, says that “part of what makes you a good science advisor is humility.” One could argue that just being a scientist alone requires a great deal of humility as they continually evaluate and analyze their own data for errors, always open to the possibility of being incorrect. He states that his personal satisfaction comes not just from creating a more realistic scientific universe in films but from subtly creating new interest in scientific inquiry. He even hopes that his work in films will stimulate future funding for scientific advancement in the real world of science.

For any of our students currently working in the Building Blocks of Science book 5 course, if this blog post interested you fast forward to chapter 22 in your curriculum where we discuss science in the movies.