Backstory: The Pentagon goes Hollywood
It funds a program to turn scientists into screenwriters, hoping to lure more young people into the sciences.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."