Neil deGrasse Tyson, a noted astrophysicist who hosts the PBS program NOVA ScienceNOW, had a problem with Titanic.
The box-office-champion movie, which Tyson remembered for its billing as a realistic portrayal of the doomed ocean liner's collision with an iceberg in 1912, was sent to theaters featuring the wrong sky for the place and time that the ship sank. "Not only that, it was a lazy sky," Tyson complained with lighthearted exuberance. "The left half of the sky was a mirror reflection of the right half."
It's anachronisms and errors like those—plus the overall feeling that movies and television have moved away from realistic portrayals of science and technology—that led to the creation of the Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEE), an organization dedicated to bringing entertainers and scientists together and encouraging them to collaborate.
Announced 20 November by the National Academy of Sciences, the organization kicked off its existence with a Los Angeles symposium featuring scientific experts in six fields and top Hollywood insiders. The symposium was meant as an informal introduction and networking opportunity, complete with 3D demonstrations and one-hour science learning sessions.
"We're very excited to launch this initiative," said NAS president Ralph Cicerone, who serves as SEE's chair. "It's going to start off with a simple office in Los Angeles, which will respond to questions and inquiries from people all over Hollywood who are looking for consultation and help with script, details, questions, early-stage ideas, and so forth. We're very hopeful that by helping provide this service … it's going to give the general public better access to science through entertainment."
SEE is expected to arrange briefings, workshops, and one-on-one consultations, and backers are hopeful that the lines of communication will go both ways—not only will scientists advise Hollywood on its projects, but scientists could draw inspiration from fiction and enlist entertainers for ideas.
The organization was the brainchild of vice chairs Jerry and Janet Zucker, who gained a deeper appreciation for science after their daughter, Kate, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The Zuckers became advocates of stem-cell research after learning how it could help Kate, and began working with Cicerone.
"We would love to use the power of Hollywood storytellers to educate," said Jerry Zucker, a producer and director known for the movie Airplane! "As we go about speaking and advocating science, we realized that there's a fear of science, and that's really what we want to dispel most of all. I want people to embrace science and to be excited about science."
SEE is expected to include scientific pursuits from every discipline, including aspects of technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence. Rodney Brooks, an MIT professor known for his groundbreaking AI work and cofounder of iRobot, was among the symposium speakers who shared his thoughts about the future.
"As our population increases, there's going to be a drastic increase in the number of older people," Brooks said, explaining the need for robots and the idea behind iRobot, which has launched commercially successful behavior-based robot applications—most notably, the Roomba vacuum cleaner. "We're making people more productive with these robots."
However, the entertainment world's depiction of the future tends to be skewed, Brooks said, with movies like Terminator offering an extreme vision that's not particularly realistic. At the same time, Hollywood never accurately predicts inventions like the Internet and cell phones.
Some movies do have realistic visions, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Brooks noted that the film's depiction of flat panel displays, graphics, and the HAL 9000 supercomputer (without the murderous sentience) could all be considered good interpretations of today's technology.
Even Titanic wound up with a more realistic portrayal thanks to technology. Tyson revealed that after he mentioned the problem to director James Cameron, the filmmaker inserted a new sky in the movie's DVD special edition, with Tyson's input.
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