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Scientists on Film: Panel Wrestles With Hollywood’s Limitations

USC neuroscientist Sarah Bottjer joined a panel of scientists, science writers and Hollywood talents on March 20 to discuss the depiction of science and scientists on the silver screen.

The panel was part of the 2002 Sloan Film Summit, an annual three-day event where participants discuss how the film, television and theater industries may be coaxed into making better representations of science and technology. The event was at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills.

“Filmmakers are not interested in depicting the process of science,” said Bottjer, professor and chair of the department of biological sciences at the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “When they do depict scientists,” she said, “they tend to focus on the affairs and the competitions” and other dramas in which science is a peripheral player at best.

Her fellow scientists on the panel – Nobel Prize-winning virologist and Caltech President David Baltimore and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and UCLA physiology professor Jared Diamond – nodded in agreement.

Beneath the scientific method’s dry surface run currents of real drama and passion – yet they are difficult to capture in a two-hour narrative.

But actor Dustin Hoffman was game to help think it out. “You just said something pretty dramatic that I hadn’t known before,” he told Bottjer. “And that’s that in science, you construct a hypothesis and a model, and then you beat the sh– out of it. I mean, that is very dramatic.”

“Yes!” said Bottjer. “And that’s exactly what we would love to have come across more in film.”

But Hollywood is a harsh place, said screenwriter James V. Hart, whose numerous scripts include “Contact” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

“I have five screenplays that I can’t get made,” he said, “because they are about science.”

Hart spoke of his efforts to keep the transcendental number pi – a central element of Carl Sagan’s original book – in the screenplay for “Contact.”

“The head of the studio read the script and fired me on the spot. He said ‘No math, no pi, can exist in this movie.’ Because this guy couldn’t add two plus two.”

Hoffman agreed: Hollywood “is a terrible world,” he said. “Studios don’t want to be creative places any more; they’re banks,” he added. They’re going to run the numbers and say, ‘That’s not commercial.’”

The panel concluded with no easy answers, but the lively and far-ranging discussion included stereotypes, film depictions of time travel and mental illness, public ignorance of science and the permissible scope of artistic license in science-themed movies.

The other panelists were Columbia University professor of physics and mathematics Brian Greene, author of the best-selling “The Elegant Universe”; Sylvia Nasar, Columbia journalism professor and author of the book “A Beautiful Mind,” which was adapted into the 2002 Academy Award winner for best picture; Jonah Nolan, writer of the story “Memento,” which his brother adapted into a genre-busting movie of the same name; and Simon Welles, great-grandson of H. G. Wells and director of the latest film adaptation of the senior Wells’ classic “The Time Machine.” National Public Radio film critic Jean Oppenheimer moderated the discussion.

The Sloan Foundation is a New York-based nonprofit philanthropy that makes grants in science, technology and economics. It seeks to inform the public about science accurately, both in news and in fiction.

Scientists on Film: Panel Wrestles With Hollywood’s Limitations

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