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Science and Storytelling

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By Jesy Odio '15

Published Jan 28, 2015 8:00 AM


The Exchange, based at UCLA, helps movie makers get science right.

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Actor Stellan Skarsgård plays the character of Erik Selvig in Thor (2011), a teacher and astrophysicist. Photograph courtesy facebook.com/thor

Can science and art ever be playmates? As much as both these fields thrive every day at UCLA, they also divide our campus into two halves, North and South. But the California NanoSystems Institute, also home to the Art | Sci Center, dedicates a space solely to the collaboration between scientists and filmmakers, aptly named The Science & Entertainment Exchange.

Today, with movies like Interstellar and Gravity turning our attention to outer space, The Exchange’s program director, Rick Loverd, reports that the relationship between art and science is alive and well and better than ever.

“Ten years ago, in Hollywood, it did not matter whatsoever whether the black hole was depicted correctly,” he says. “Audiences have gotten savvier and people have gotten more interested in science.”

Interstellar could not have arrived at a better time. It premiered three days after physics and astronomy professor Andrea Ghez's groundbreaking discovery about Sagittarius A*, the location of the black hole in our Milky Way.

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Photograph courtesy Flickr/RyC Behind the Lens

Since its launch in 2008, The Exchange has been busy connecting expert scientists with storytellers to bring scientific accuracy to the big screen and spike curiosity in the sciences. The program, as part of the National Academy of Sciences, launched with help from already-established Hollywood insiders, Jerry Zucker, director of Airplane! and Ghost, and his wife, producer Janet. The Exchange does not charge for the services, and no matter the size of your IMDb filmography, there is no discrimination between consultations.

Filmmakers ask The Exchange all kinds of questions. For instance, Kevin Peter Hickerson, postdoctoral scholar at UCLA and sci-fi aficionado, collaborated in the making of the superhero Marvel blockbuster, THOR, from finalizing the script to assisting with set production. “One of the things I was very insistent on is that it has to be messy,” says Hickerson. “I took them on a tour of our lab and I said nuclear physics is messy. Hollywood always makes labs too clean and sterile, and that’s just not how they look.”

The Exchange’s services include arranging tours around all sorts of labs for entertainment pros to learn more about real-life science scenarios. Several times, The Exchange has enabled science to become a source of inspiration for moviemakers. “A show-runner went into this lab at Berkeley and saw one of the lab techs had pink hair. And in the next season [of Eureka!] there was a pink-haired girl in the show,” says Loverd.

With more than 60 UCLA faculty members and a large database of science consultants, The Exchange can provide answers to all kinds of scientific enquiries, from coding for the recently released movie Blackhat to robot engineering for the 2015 Academy Award-nominated animated film Big Hero 6. If The Exchange is any indication, the relationship between creativity and science in the future is just fine.

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