11 Secrets of Hollywood Science Advisors

Mon, 12/10/2018
Picture Credit: 
AMC
Michele Debczak
Mental Floss

The work of a Hollywood science advisor can be hard to spot. Rather than shoving science in the audience’s faces, it’s their job to make the world of a movie or TV show feel believable, from the physics of fight scenes to the theories that characters scrawl on the blackboard.

Science advisors are usually regular scientists working in fields like physics, astronomy, and chemistry; the main thing that often sets them apart from their peers is a passion for film and TV. Whether they're meeting with actors, checking equations, or shaping plot points, here are some of the ways they contribute to your favorite pieces of pop culture.

1. SCIENCE ADVISORS ARE USUALLY VOLUNTEERS.

Most of the Hollywood science advisors that Mental Floss spoke to were doing the work pro bono. Donna Nelson, a chemist at the University of Oklahoma, learned that Breaking Bad was looking for a science advisor while reading an interview with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan. According to him, the series was in need of guidance from a real scientist, but there wasn’t enough room in the budget to hire one. So Nelson volunteered to lend her knowledge.

That was in Season 1, and over the next several years Breaking Bad exploded into a massive success. But even as the budget grew, Nelson never once accepted a paycheck for her advising work. “I was a volunteer from beginning to end,” she tells Mental Floss. “I was delighted to do it because my goal was to help the scientific community.”

The same usually holds true even when the advisors contributing their expertise to a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and science advisor on such films as Watchmen (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), tells Mental Floss, “All the consulting that I've done has been volunteering.”

2. GEEKING OUT GETS THEM NOTICED.

Before she became advisor on the TV show 12 Monkeys, Sophia Gad-Nasr, an astroparticle physicist at UC Irvine, was just a regular viewer talking about the episodes on social media. "I really liked it and I tweeted about it, so the showrunner reached out to me and let me know they were in need of a science advisor," she says.

Meanwhile, Kakalios was a comic book fan who had literally written the book on the physics of superheroes before he was asked to work on the Watchmen movie. "[Warner Bros.] contacted me and said 'We're making a movie about a comic book. Have you ever heard of this graphic novel called Watchmen?' And if you're into comic books, it's like saying 'Have you ever heard of this movie called Citizen Kane'?" he says. "So when I was done vibrating like a gong, I said 'Yes, I've heard of Watchmen.'"

3. THEY'RE SWORN TO SECRECY.

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, did some consulting on the upcoming movie Avengers 4—the entire plot of which has been kept tightly under wraps. He says, “I know things about that I’m not allowed to tell anybody. And they do make sure that you understand that.”

For 12 Monkeys, Gad-Nasr was hired to help introduce the Hartle-Hawking state—physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle's theory that prior to the Big Bang there was only space and no time—into the show. Her work ended up being one of the biggest spoilers of the series. “[In 12 Monkeys] you keep getting hints about this 'red forest,' and that red forest was actually the Hartle-Hawking state I worked on. I had to sign an NDA.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE ON-CALL 24/7.

Scientists who sign on to advise a TV show shouldn’t expect normal working hours. The makers of the show might reach out to them whenever a science question comes up during filming, which can be any time of day or night. While working on Breaking Bad, Nelson knew that being able to answer emails quickly was crucial. “I tried to put myself in [the filmmakers’] place and thought of them being on set, and you know they’re not going to hold up filming for a science advisor,” she says. “They’re very busy … so if they don’t get an answer it will be easy for them to write the science out.”

5. THEY SOMETIMES MEET DIRECTLY WITH ACTORS.

A science advisor mainly works with writers, producers, and directors, but occasionally they'll meet with members of the cast. While consulting on Watchmen, Kakalios chatted with actor Billy Crudup to help develop his character, Dr. Manhattan, who’s a nuclear physicist. "We were talking about [Dr. Manhattan's] attitudes of being cut-off from humanity and I was talking to him about how as a director of graduate studies I often saw students get overwhelmed by graduate school," he says. "They can kind of shut down but the one thing they focused on exclusively is their work—it's the one thing they have control over. Later on he said he thought that was helpful."

6. THEY HELP MAKE FICTIONAL SCIENTISTS FEEL HUMAN.

The makers of Breaking Bad often asked Nelson what a chemist might do in certain situations, from the words they use to the way they interact with their students and peers. One of her insights into the psychology of Walter White became a major plot point in the series. “They asked, ‘If there was a person who was working alongside another person and one man would go on to be a Nobel Prize winner and the other would go on to become a high school teacher, what is something that could happen to make them take different paths?’ And I said, ‘Is there a young woman involved? Have the successful one take the girlfriend away from the other one and that would devastate him.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

7. IF YOU WANT TO SPOT A SCIENCE ADVISOR’S WORK, CHECK THE BLACKBOARD.

One of the most common tasks science advisors are given is something most viewers never notice. If a movie or TV show contains a scene with a professor (or scientist, mathematician, etc.) in front of a blackboard, it’s the science advisor's job to make sure that whatever equations are behind him or her make sense.

“I spent three days on the set of the TV show Bones because they had a long set of sequences with writing on blackboards,” Carroll says. The character writing on the chalkboard in that episode was also a theoretical physicist, and Carroll was responsible for making sure the work was accurate.

Gad-Nasr was also called to set to double-check the math she had come up with for 12 Monkeys. “It wasn’t me who wrote it on the blackboard, but I just came by to make sure everything was cool.”

A blackboard full of nonsense can also be a sign of a film or TV show that doesn’t have a science advisor. Before signing onto Breaking Bad, Nelson noticed some bogus equations on the board in Walter White’s classroom in early episodes. “There were parts that weren’t accurate and I would have stepped up and said something,” she says. But she was able to make up for it later on when the makers of the show asked her to draw some alkene structures to feature on a blackboard. “A person who’s not paying attention might not see that, but a student who’s just had alkene as an undergrad in class or as a high school student taking organic chemistry—they may feel great to be able to look at the correct structures and not see something different from what they learned in class.”

8. THEIR ADVICE CAN LEAD TO REWRITES ...

Much of a science advisor’s work boils down to small changes in the dialogue, but occasionally their input leads to more significant cuts. When working on Thor (2011), Carroll advised against one scene that depicted a character pushing another off a disc-shaped planet. “The problem is there’s no gravitational pull to pull you off the edge of the planet,” he says. “So scientifically that doesn’t quite make sense.” (On a disc-shaped planet, gravity would actually be working to pull you back to the center.)

9. ... BUT THEY USUALLY TRY TO KEEP CHANGES MINIMAL.

A scientist and director may disagree over the intricacies of superhero physics, but at the end of the day, a science advisor trusts that the filmmaker knows what’s best for their movie. When looking over scripts, Nelson says she made it her mission to keep the dialogue as intact as possible. “The [writers] knew how to write a successful script and I didn’t, so the number one thing I did not do was rewrite the page. So if there’s an incorrect word that’s a three-syllable word that starts with P, I would try to correct the sentence by substituting a different three-syllable word that started with P, because they in their writing might have a certain cadence in the sentence or alliteration or something like that that other people might miss, and I would always try not to destroy any of that.”

10. THEIR SUGGESTIONS DON’T ALWAYS MAKE IT IN.

No matter how much a filmmaker appreciates a science advisor’s input, they rarely choose science over story. “Very few movies or TV shows in the science fiction world try to be 100 percent accurate,” Carroll says. "Really they’re trying to tell a good story more than anything else.”

Nelson experienced this first-hand when she was asked for her opinion on one of the most famous examples of inaccurate science in Breaking Bad: Walt’s blue meth. “Vince [Gilligan] came and asked me, ‘What do you think about making the meth blue?’” she recalls. “And I said I wouldn’t do it, because meth is not blue, it’s white. He said ‘Isn’t there any reason why it might be blue under some circumstances?’ I said no, it will always be white. And as you know, they went ahead and made it blue because it was necessary for them to have a trademark for his meth. It was a plot device.”

11. MORE FILMMAKERS ARE USING THEM.

When the makers of Breaking Bad first brought Nelson on as a science advisor in 2008, hiring her was a bit of an experiment. "When I first started working, I was told in so many words that there was a rumor in Hollywood that you couldn’t have a hit show with a science advisor," she says. Today, working with a scientist is standard even in movies and TV shows with minimal scientific themes. Part of the job's growing prevalence can be credited to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program that connects entertainment industry professionals to scientists.

Another explanation is that today's media consumers hold filmmakers to higher standards. "I think there’s an increasing sophistication among the audience and you can’t just have any old thing happen," Carroll says. "We live in a generation post Cosmos and Brief History of Time where there are a lot of moviegoers who are very smart about what is plausible, and they want their plots to make sense."