Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

May 26, 2011

There were two types of multiple moviegoers in the late 1960s: those who boasted of the number of times they had seen The Sound of Music and those who slipped in at the back of every available screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, quietly marvelling at the technical imagery. If you (or your parents) fall into the latter category, then Lab Coats in Hollywood is for you (or them). Indeed, you may well find some explanation for your enthusiasm in David Kirby's detailed account of the use of science consultants in 2001. This helped the film to achieve such a degree of scientific verisimilitude that some people still believe Kubrick staged the 1969 Moon landing using the same studios.

Lab Coats in Hollywood opens a fascinating window on to the world of science and cinema. In piecing together his picture of the relationship between science and films, scientists and film-makers, Kirby interviewed a number of film-makers and scientific consultants.

Possibly because the book is poised at the intersection of popular and academic audiences, the "social science" details tend to sink out of sight, so we hear little about the length of interviews, types of questions, the difficulty of persuading busy people to be interviewed or whether Kirby was tempted, even for one minute, to code up any of his interviews using NVivo quantitative data analysis software.

Instead he cuts to the chase. He is equally at home with both the films and the science, and the devil is in the detail. Did you notice, for instance, that there is no kelp in the seascape of Finding Nemo? Its animators asked a leading marine biologist to name the one inaccuracy in the work-in-progress that would really bother him. His response was that finding kelp (which grows only in cold water) in the film's coral reef setting would be intolerable.

Every frond of kelp was laboriously removed from each scene. The director realised that accurate scientific depiction is a major selling point (leaving aside a talking clownfish) and that if scientific experts felt strongly enough about a flaw, it could reduce box-office appeal.

Scientific accuracy can enhance plausibility and hence cinematic appeal. On the other hand, inaccuracy can affect public perception of science, although this need not always be problematic. Take Brian de Palma's 2000 film Mission to Mars. Mars, the Red Planet, is actually yellow-brown. However, such is the strength of our folk knowledge of Mars as a red planet that here it was portrayed, inaccurately, as having a red tinge; scientific accuracy would have diminished plausibility.

Rather more problematic was its portrayal of the "Face on Mars" as an artefact created by an ancient Martian race. Such legitimation of pseudoscience, something scientists have long campaigned against, was anathema to the scientific consultant involved. Yes, have your Red Planet but no, please don't have your ancient Martian race. Alas, film directors are tempted to sacrifice scientific accuracy for a good story.

The book's strength is its attention to detail, and it is detail we do not find elsewhere. Kirby is impressively knowledgeable about his filmography, but the book also works well as a contribution to the science and technologies studies (STS) literature.

Public perception of science is shaped by films, and films are shaped by science. Indeed, for an academic audience, much of the book's appeal is its ability to move seamlessly between STS analysis, science and science fiction, and to be equally at home in all three places.

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

By David Kirby. MIT Press, 265pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780262014786. Published 8 April 2011

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