Backstory: The Pentagon goes Hollywood

It funds a program to turn scientists into screenwriters, hoping to lure more young people into the sciences.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If it were up to Martin Gundersen, Robert Barker, and Alex Singer, the next Hollywood blockbuster script would read something like this: INTERIOR LAB – DAY OR NIGHT (WHO CAN EVER TELL IN THESE PLACES?)

Strains of Chopin float through a science lab. An intense woman in a white smock – let's call her something heroic like DIANA CURIE (picture Beyoncé or Penelope Cruz) – is about to fire a round of argon from her nanoparticle gun. Suddenly, her beeping phone pierces the calm. She flips it open – a red "S" flashes on the screen. She drops the gun and dashes to the door.

CUT TO: INTERIOR OFFICE – NIGHT

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Curie glances around furtively. She takes off her glasses and quickly unbuttons her lab coat to reveal blue tights emblazoned with a giant red "S" ... followed by the letters "c-i-e-n-c-e."

Now in her superhero costume, she goes to the window, dons an antigravity pack, and flies off to save the world – once again – for Truth, Justice, and the American Scientific Way....

We'll leave the rest of the screenplay to William Goldman because you're probably getting the point by now. However exaggerated the above confection may be, the triumvirate of Messrs. Gundersen, Barker, and Singer is serious about getting science – and scientific heroes – into the movies. In fact, they see it as vital to the health of American technological prowess, to say nothing of national security.

So what they've done for the past three years is convene a three-to-five-day screenwriting class at the venerated American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Called the Catalyst Workshop, it's a lot like other screenwriting classes that have become a cottage industry across the nation. But here's the twist – all participants in this one are actually scientists. Hardcore, PhD-laden, lab-certified scientists. Here's the second twist – the training was all paid for by the Pentagon.

These screenwriting classes are indeed your Department of Defense tax dollars at work. Egregious example of DOD waste? Some bizarre recruiting promise? The cinematic equivalent of $700 toilet seats? Actually, it's the Pentagon's way of trying to enhance the nation's science-and-technology adroitness.

***

America, it turns out, is suffering from a science and engineering shortage. Students are bypassing the sciences for sexier and more lucrative jobs in law, venture capital, and competitions to be on "American Idol." That means, in addition to national deficits in sleep, fitness, and the federal budget, we have a dearth of particle physicists and electromechanical engineers.

This creates something of a national security problem: Labs that perform classified research are required to hire US citizens. According to Dr. Barker, who works in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, those who manage the national labs and others who conduct sensitive research have been saying for years "how hard it is to find qualified graduate students who are US citizens."

Then there's the challenge of remaining competitive in the world. Barker notes that 50 percent of America's scientific-and-engineering workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Who's going to replace them?

Finally, there's the issue of science illiteracy. One of the participants in the Catalyst Worshop, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a materials physicist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, cites a recent survey showing that 30 percent of the American public is still under the impression that the sun orbits around the earth.

Hollywood – both film and television – reflects the problem. But some believe it may also be part of the solution. By writing and producing movies that have more scientific themes – and more authentic and appealing science protagonists – boosters think the US could encourage more young people to pursue careers in plasma physics, molecular biology, and other fields.

"If I want to watch sports, I can turn on any one of four to 12 channels, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Alvin Chin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a Catalyst alum. "Imagine if science programming had that kind of presence."

Even some of the usual critics of DOD spending don't seem to mind the modest investment in trying to get more people with petri dishes on screen. "It seems a little, but not entirely, off the charts," says Gordon Adams, a defense expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "They [Air Force brass] have a huge requirement for scientific-and-technical knowledge."

***

One reason the Pentagon believes this might work can be summed up in three letters: C-S-I. The television series now seems to have a spin-off set in every city but Dubuque. Apart from filling the coffers of its creators, it has generated another byproduct – interest in forensics. It's one of the only sciences in which enrollment has shot up, and some schools, like Boston University, have created forensics programs as a result.

Some believe the arts and sciences should be more closely intertwined in the US, anyway. They note that the two disciplines weren't always such distant cousins. "Even in Darwin's time, it was OK to be a scientist and an artist," says Mr. Singer. "The fact is, both require a lot of dreaming and conjecture."

Still the question lingers: Can chemists really become Francis Ford Coppolas? For now, many in the program are working diligently on screenplays – a process that, like good science, can take years. Two have already tasted success. Valerie Weiss, a biophysicist who participated in a director's workshop at the American Film Institute after the screenwriting seminar, made an award-winning short film. She expects to begin filming her first feature this spring. To date, she's the only Catalyst alumna to have left the world of molecules and microscopy to devote full-time attention to plot points and, yes, power lunches.

Dr. Leslie-Pelecky has found more tangential success. (By the way, she's the one with the argon gun, which is real.) She realized after the workshop that a story had to convey something large numbers of people care about. One day she saw a race car crash into a wall on TV.

"I couldn't figure out why. It drove me nuts," she says. "But when I began to study it, it turned out to be all basic physics." The budding auteur in her thought: Why not hook people on basic science through NASCAR?

She started visiting race tracks, talking with drivers and pit crews. The result is a book on the physics of NASCAR set to be published in 2008.

She is one of many who no doubt look forward to the day they can be in a movie theater and watch their name roll by in the credits. More important, they hold out hope that for science and Hollywood, the workshops will mark, as Humphrey Bogart once said to Claude Rains in "Casablanca," "the start of a beautiful friendship."

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