UCLA STEM Students Help Hollywood Get Facts Straight
Shawn Wasserman posted on August 13, 2015 |
Science and Entertainment Exchange collaborates with sci-fi film makers.
Stellan Skarsgård plays astrophysicist Prof. Erik Selvig in Thor, image courtesy of Marvel Movies. UCLA consultants from the Science and Entertainment Exchange helped on ensure the set and script were accurate.

Stellan Skarsgård plays astrophysicist Prof. Erik Selvig in Thor, image courtesy of Marvel Movies. UCLA consultants from the Science and Entertainment Exchange helped on ensure the set and script were accurate.

Every engineer has been there: You are watching a great sci-fi film, then in the blink of an eye your suspension of disbelief is destroyed as the actor of a genius scientist bkevinotches a basic scientific term.

“1.21 Jigawatts!?”

Seriously, “Doc, what the hell is a Jigawatt?”

It’s not just engineers and other STEM experts that roll their eyes anymore. Movie goers are getting quite knowledgeable, thanks to the Edutainment Age.

“Ten years ago, in Hollywood, it did not matter whatsoever whether the black hole was depicted correctly,” said Rick Loverd, director of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI). “Audiences have gotten savvier and people have gotten more interested in science.”

As a result, UCLA created the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Since 2008, the goal of the Exchange is to have STEM experts collaborate with Hollywood to make sure they get the science right. The Exchange doesn’t charge for its services or discriminate based on the budget of a project. Hollywood director and producer duo behind the 2011 film Friends with Benefits, Jerry and Janet Zucker, of Zucker Productions helped to launch the exchange.

Thanks to the 60 UCLA faculty members, students and scientists at the Science and Entertainment Exchange, STEM topics from coding to robots have been portrayed respectfully in films like “Big Hero 6.”

For instance, UCLA Dr. Kevin Hickerson helped assess the script and set of the Marvel superhero movie Thor. “One of the things I was very insistent on is that it has to be messy,” said Hickerson. “I took them on a tour of our lab and I said nuclear physics is messy. Hollywood always makes labs too clean and sterile and that’s just not how they look.”

The science in our entertainment is becoming more accurate thanks to these meetings and lab tours. At times the lab is even inspiring the content. Loverd said, “A showrunner went into this lab at Berkeley and saw one of the lab techs had pink hair. In the next season of ‘Eureka!’ there was a pink-haired girl in the show.”

This isn’t the first time that a hit TV show was inspired by a STEM star. Hit movie Knocked Up launched the comedic career of Community/Hangover star, and real life doctor, Ken Jeong when they casted him as Dr. Kuni. Also, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ rekindled the acting career of neuroscientist Dr. Mayim Bialik when they cast her in a lead role of Amy Farrah Fowler.

Science fiction has a way of inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders. As a result, organizations like the Science and Entertainment Exchange pay for themselves by feeding the industry with new minds and original thoughts. “I literally could not tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘I became an engineer or I went into the sciences because of MacGyver,’” said Lee Zlotoff, creator of the popular TV show.

Similar to the Exchange’s goal to bring scientists to Hollywood, Zlotoff has helped create the Next MacGyver Challenge. The contest saw STEM experts pitching their ideas for new television shows with the aim to inspire people, mostly women, to join STEM careers. The five winning concepts are currently being paired with Hollywood experts to help bring their characters to life on the small screen.

It’s plain to see that viewers are becoming smarter and thanks to STEM experts, so is Hollywood. Perhaps we can teach old Doc Brown a thing about the proper unit prefixes. It’s Giga Doc… Gigawatt.

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