Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, is perhaps the most scientifically accurate film ever produced. The film presented such a plausible, realistic vision of space flight that many moon hoax proponents believe that Kubrick staged the 1969 moon landing using the same studios and techniques. Kubrick's scientific verisimilitude in 2001 came courtesy of his science consultants-including two former NASA scientists-;and the more than sixty-five companies, research organizations, and government agencies that offered technical advice. Although most filmmakers don't consult experts as extensively as Kubrick, films ranging from A Beautiful Mind and Contact to Finding Nemo and The Hulk have achieved some degree of scientific credibility because of science consultants. In Lab Coats in Hollywood, David Kirby examines the interaction of science and cinema: how science consultants make movie science plausible, how filmmakers negotiate scientific accuracy within production constraints, and how movies affect popular perceptions of science.

Of course, accurate science is only important to filmmakers if they believe it generates entertainment value. Scientific expertise, Kirby points out, is most valuable to filmmakers as a tool to help them utilize their own creative expertise. Drawing on interviews and archival material, Kirby examines such science consulting tasks as fact checking, shaping visual iconography, advising actors, enhancing plausibility, creating dramatic situations, and placing science in its cultural contexts. Kirby finds that cinema can influence science as well: Depictions of science in popular films can promote research agendas, stimulate technological development, contribute to scientific controversies, and even stir citizens into political action.

About the Author

David A. Kirby
was a practicing evolutionary geneticist before leaving bench science to become Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the Centre for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester, England.
Lab Coats in Hollywood was recently named one of Physics World magazine's top 10 best popular-physics books of 2011.