The Science Entertainment Exchange, Part II

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At the end of my last posting, I promised to tell a bit about my meeting with the makers of TRON 2 at a studio in LA. We met in a beautiful high-tech conference room with loads of food, a videographer recording the proceedings, and what looked to be part of some giant gear system excised from a sunken ship quietly decorating a corner. This lent an air of steampunk to the feel of the room.

The TRON 2 people solicited comments from us on the draft script that we had all read (while under careful watch from a production assistant) and then asked us for help with some specific problems they were having. It was an energetic and intense exchange, the kind where jumping in has to occur at the expense of interrupting someone. This was all done in contracted confidence for obvious reasons, so not much can be said about the specifics of what we discussed.

Participating in the exchange brought many questions to my mind about what ways entertainment industry folks and scientists can help one another.  There are two ways that seem interesting, one I call Truth is Stranger than Fiction and one I call You Gotta Know the Laws to Break 'Em.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Not long ago I read a study and watched videos showing a fish (grouper) that dances for moray eels to seduce them into hunting together. One of them (the grouper) scares prey away from open water, making them hide in the crevices, while the other (the eel) can scare them out of crevices. Together they make an unbeatable team. While we are still trying to figure out how to communicate with one another, here's two very different species of fish who not only have done this, but end up with some great sushi dinners out of the deal. There are all kinds of interesting stories like this in our work that can make exceptional raw material for the entertainment industry.

More examples:

  • Ants communicate by making sounds. There's a caterpillar that's hacked their language and is greeted (and more importantly, fed) like a queen when it arrives in a nest.
  • A robotics group in Italy is making a plant-inspired robot (plantoid) they call a SeedBot, with an artificial “root” that slowly grows and expands into the soil, as a possible planetary exploration probe.
  • While I was at a robotics conference in Rome at Angelicum University, I saw a presentation on a robot that can walk on water. Watching the proceedings from the front of the room was a huge Christ on a cross (one is in every classroom of Angelicum), wearing what I imagined to be a look of “that’s SO done.”

You Gotta Know the Laws to Break 'Em. You can only be an outlaw when you know what the laws are. A scientist is someone who knows the natural laws or regularities of their domain. Doing violence to those laws can be very useful for dramatic effect – we saw this in the first Tron with how the light cycles did turns. They performed perfect 90 degree turns without loss of speed. Nothing in the physical world can do that because of inertia. This breaking of the laws of physics effectively communicated the immateriality of the world inside the computer.

There is, of course, another way scientists can contribute: fixing gross inaccuracies in the portrayed science. A January 2009 issue of Science had a blurb on the Science Entertainment Exchange (SEE). I was disappointed to read the example they chose to highlight, which was an astrophysicist (Neil deGrasse Tyson) whining to James Cameron that when Kate Winslet looked up from the deck of the Titanic, the stars in the sky were in the wrong position. Cameron’s response: “Last I checked the film’s made a billion dollars.”

I liked this response, not because of its ironically crass commercialism, but because it's a reference to how much people enjoyed the story. Fixing star position, while perhaps worth doing, certainly doesn't contribute to the quality of the story. This kind of fact checking, it seems to me, is the least interesting way in which we can contribute.

Finally, and more interesting than fact checking, we can help story creators develop plotlines that facilitate the audience’s suspension of disbelief when it comes to fantastic elements of the story. So, it seems clear that scientists and engineers can be useful to entertainment people --- how useful can they be to us? I’ll address that in my next posting.

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