Book review: Lab Coats in Hollywood by David Kirby

A while back I read Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema by David Kirby. It’s about how scientific consultants shape the portrayal of scientists and science in Hollywood movies, and how the movies feed back to affect public perceptions of science and occasionally even the direction of science itself. Here’s my review. Links to other reviews here.

tl;dr: If you like movies, like science, and and are all curious about how science ends up on screen, you need to read this book. It’s a lot of fun, and you’ll learn something.

Author David Kirby knows whereof he speaks. He holds a Ph.D. in molecular evolution from the University of Maryland, but left a tenure-track biology professorship to retrain in science and technology studies at Cornell. He’s now a senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Manchester. And as background research for the book, he appears to have spoken at great length to every scientist who’s ever advised on a Hollywood film, and to every filmmaker who’s ever hired a science consultant. Ok, not really.* But I’ve never read a book that packs in so many examples to illustrate its points.

Those examples are the biggest strength of the book. They’re entertaining—Kirby dug up scads of great anecdotes, about films ranging from Contact to Finding Nemo to The Nutty Professor.** They’re fascinating—I loved learning about all the little decisions and moving parts that go into making a movie. They’re organized—Kirby doesn’t just string together anecdotes, he’s got a sensible framework in which they all fit. And they’re informative—the book disabused me of my over-simplified view of how science feeds into Hollywood movies.

Some of big takeaways of the book for me:

  • It’s often said that the need to make a film entertaining ultimately trumps scientific realism. That was my view before I read the book, and at some level it’s true. But that broad-brush picture is tremendously oversimplified. “Entertainment” is an umbrella term for a huge range of considerations—everything from the difficulty of filming people on a dark comet in Deep Impact, to the boring sound that a “realistic” extraterrestrial signal in Contact would actually make, and so on. There are so many judgement calls, so many moving parts, and so many difficult tradeoffs involved in filmmaking!
  • That broad-brush picture also misses the rich cinematic possibilities created by scientific uncertainty, and the complex challenges created by what scientists think is true vs. what the general public thinks is true. For instance, Jurassic Park succeeded in part by pushing back against what was at the time the common public image of dinosaurs as slow, dumb, tail-dragging reptiles. What films need isn’t necessarily to be realistic, or even necessarily to be seen as realistic because they’re consistent with what the general public thinks is true. What they need is to be plausible, and that’s a more complicated notion than you might think. For instance, the Hulk isn’t plausible in any ordinary scientific sense. But there is absolutely is such a thing as a more or less plausible explanation for the Hulk, in the context of the narrative and themes of Ang Lee’s Hulk.
  • Following on from that last remark: films, and filmmakers, vary in their goals. A treatment of science that would work in one sort of movie might not work in a different sort of movie–or even in a seemingly-identical sort of movie! Kirby makes this point by contrasting the treatment of science in different Hulk movies, and in different asteroid/comet-based disaster movies.
  • Science consultants vary, in all sorts of ways. In what they’re asked to advise on (their job is not just to check accuracy in most cases). In their reasons for consulting. In what scientific matters they’re prepared to compromise on. And more. In general, the science consultants who are most successful seem to be the ones who understand what filmmakers are trying to do. Who help filmmakers overcome constraints and spot opportunities, rather than just trying to impose constraints by saying “that’s not realistic”. The most successful science consultants also seem to be the ones with a healthy sense of what battles to pick. Paleontologist Jack Horner, who consulted on Jurassic Park, is a good example here. He’s sensible enough to realize that a movie that puts evolution front and center (by making “birds are dinosaurs” a central theme), and that portrays paleontology as an exciting career and paleontologists as brilliant heroes, is a godsend for science. In contrast, it doesn’t matter one whit for public understanding of science that Jurassic Park gave Dilophosaurus a neck frill it didn’t actually have. (If you as a scientist insist on worrying about some aspect of the science in Jurassic Park, worry about how it reinforces the popular notion that genetic engineering is inherently dangerous.)
  • Filmmakers don’t get enough credit from scientists for the details they get right, relative to how much they get ripped for the details they get wrong. Did you notice how Russell Crowe writes equations in A Beautiful Mind? Probably not—which means the filmmakers did their job. If you’d noticed, it would’ve been because the writing somehow looked “wrong”. As soon as viewers notice that sort of thing, they become conscious that they’re watching a movie, rather than just watching the movie. Which is why the filmmakers employed a real mathematician as a hand double to write the equations.
  • All sorts of behind the scenes stuff you’ve probably never thought about. Like what determines who gets to be a science consultant. It’s often less about your expertise and more about “Can you spend a month on set in LA?”

Here are a couple more teasers from the book, to encourage you to read it:

  • Kirby begins the book with an extended discussion of the Hollywood film that paid much more attention to scientific realism than any movie before or since. Try to guess it in the comments!
  • You’ll have to read the book to find out what caused Ang Lee to say to his science consultant, “So, Hulk is a plant?”🙂

I liked that the book isn’t overstated. Kirby doesn’t overrate the importance of his subject, noting that it’s hard to identify any movie that suffered at the box office because of its portrayal of science. I do think Kirby slightly overrates the effect that movie science has on science funding and science policy. I think he may be overgeneralizing from a few exceptional cases. I also think he slightly overrates the potential for movies to affect debates among scientists. Yes, there are scientists who’ve been quite keen to get their pet hypotheses into films: Jack Horner in Jurassic Park, fringey geophysicist J. Marvin Herndon in The Core, others. But that doesn’t imply that those films actually affected internal scientific debates in any important way, and Kirby doesn’t suggest any mechanism by which they could’ve done so. I suspect the hypothesis that birds are dinosaurs would’ve won the day in scientific circles, and done so just as fast as it actually did, even if Jurassic Park had never been made, or had had an opponent of the hypothesis as its scientific consultant. But that’s just a gut feeling on my part, I could be wrong.

In summary, Lab Coats in Hollywood is worth your time, I recommend it.

*As an ecologist, you might be a little disappointed that Kirby has very few examples involving ecology–Finding Nemo is the only one I recall. I was curious if any ecologists consulted on Avatar, but that movie doesn’t come up.

**Yes, The Nutty Professor had science consultants. You’d be surprised at some of the films that did.

24 thoughts on “Book review: Lab Coats in Hollywood by David Kirby

    • You’re in the right genre. I don’t know that the answer is unobvious, exactly. But it’s much older. Of course, Interstellar came out after the book was written, so perhaps it’s since taken the title away from the film with which Kirby opens the book.

  1. At ComSciCon this year, Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist and Hollywood science advisor, spoke about just these sorts of things. He made the point that sometimes things don’t seem *right* unless they’re scientifically wrong. He showed some examples, including a huge impact that made a sound (in space), which would have jumped out as not right if it had been absolutely silent.

    Plug: grad students — if you are interested in science communication as a scientist and/or non-academic science careers involving science communication, check out ComSciCon: Applications for the June 2016 workshop (all expenses paid!) will open later this fall.

  2. Personally, I find the treatment of computers and their limited capabilities and hacking them and etc much more disturbingly offbase in films than the treatment of science.

    • You mean how the hero of any Hollywood computer movie can hack into the NSA (or whatever) with <10 keystrokes?🙂 Or how computers in movies have become super-powerful magic devices? Or all of the above? Now that I think of it, Kirby doesn't really talk about this, which is a little surprising. But that's ok, the book gives you a framework to help you think about other examples of movie science besides those the book covers.

      As a viewer, the most jarred I've ever been by a movie's treatment of computing is the moment in Independence Day when Jeff Golblum uses a Mac to give a computer virus to the aliens. Thank goodness for the human race that space aliens run OSX!🙂

      Which in fairness may say less about Hollywood's treatment of computing in general and more about Michael Bay, who directed Independence Day. Kirby's book contrasts Bay's Armageddon and its obvious-to-everyone scientific ridiculousness with the lengths that the makers of Deep Impact went to make use of science. Michael Bay has always been perfectly open about his target audience: teenage boys who like explosions. Michael Bay doesn't really give a crap about scientific realism (or, you know, plot: And given his goals (and the box office success of his movies), there's no reason why he should.

      • Oh wait, I just remembered a second jarring movie treatment of computing: in Jurassic Park, when the girl looks at the weird GUI for the park’s security systems and goes “This is a Unix system…I know this!” No kid, Unix OS != weird GUI.

        But I suppose it’s possible that most people have no idea what Unix is, or only know that it’s an OS that’s not Mac or Windows, and so don’t find that moment the least bit jarring.

      • Actually, that _is_ a Unix system. It’s the bizarre graphical file-system browser that SGI included in Irix, circa version 6.5. (This, in an operating system that, out of the box, you were expected to configure the system in a virtual VRML world, where you had to explore the world and flip little virtual toggle switches, and spin little virtual thumbwheels on virtual machines that you found, to set up things like networking).

        Of course, Nedry’s desk/computer setup is like the computer-hardware equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon (movie) zero-gravity scene, when every 3D object on someone’s clip-art disk goes floating down the ship’s central corridor…

      • “Actually, that _is_ a Unix system. It’s the bizarre graphical file-system browser that SGI included in Irix, circa version 6.5.”

        Thanks! That is *really* interesting! And it also illustrates Kirby’s points that plausibility and realism aren’t the same (and that plausibility is relative).

  3. From his brilliant portrayal of Craig Venter in ‘The Fly’ to Bob May in ‘Jurassic Park’, I struggle to name an public figure who has inspired me to consider a career in science more than Jeff Goldblum!

    • Jeff Goldblum is indeed awesome.

      In semi-seriousness, I do wonder if any scientists inspired his approach to playing Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. I’ve only ever met Bob May once, and he didn’t come off as anything like Ian Malcolm.🙂

      No movie scientists inspired my choice of career. But besides various Jeff Goldblum characters, I really like the college kids in Real Genius.

  4. Here’s a small thing that Kirby talks a bit about: making throwaway scientific dialogue sound realistic to both experts and non-experts. Bad example: in Jurassic Park, when the paleontologists are first shown how the dinosaurs were created, and immediately start asking questions. Questions that, unfortunately, sounded odd and jarring to my scientific ears. “How do you interrupt the cellular mitosis?” Um, there’s no other kind of mitosis besides “cellular”, cells are the only things that undergo mitosis.

    I’m thinking that this kind of thing should be a free lunch for filmmakers with good science consultants (who by the way are cheap in the context of *any* Hollywood film budget, as Kirby points out). If there’s some bit of dialogue that’s not meant to convey any scientific information to the audience, but is just supposed to sound science-y, then it shouldn’t be hard to write it so that it sounds right to scientific ears as well as to general public ears. Should it?

    Apollo 13 is a movie that I thought did a good job of this. There’s lots of rapid-fire technical back-and-forth in that movie, which the audience isn’t supposed to understand, but which is just supposed to sound like the sort of thing the Apollo 13 astronauts would say to one another. Although it’s possible that the dialogue in Apollo 13 sounds ridiculous to actual NASA employees and only sounds good to me because, for purposes of a space movie, I’m part of the ignorant general public.

    Real Genius, mentioned above, is another of my favorite science movies. I like it in part because it does a good job capturing the rhythm of technical conversations among real scientists. Although I wouldn’t be surprised (but would be very slightly disappointed) to be told that at least some of the technical dialogue grates on a laser physicist for the same reason that “How do you interrupt the cellular mitosis?” grates on me.

    From Kirby’s book, I assume the reason this sort of grating-to-experts dialogue happens is because of Screenwriter’s Guild of America rules. Scientific consultants often aren’t brought on board until after the script is written, in which case union rules forbid them (or anyone else not credited as a scriptwriter) from changing the script. And even if they are brought on board earlier they don’t necessarily have any input into the dialogue, though sometimes they do.

    • Phrases like “cellular mitosis” can also serve as signposts to non-scientists who haven’t had biology in decades (or may not have had it yet, if they’re as old as I was when JP came out…), to remind them that mitosis is a process that happens in cells.

      (Admittedly I don’t remember the dialogue in question, so maybe something else in that scene also served as such a signpost, but my broader point stands.)

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