Scientists dangle bait for screenwriters
Film summit puts a spotlight on untold stories from the lab.
A strange event took place at a Manhattan theatre this week. The packed audience was normal for this lively venue, but the stars of the stage were not: at the end of the show, it was Nobel laureates rather than actors who obliged with autographs.
The Sloan Film Summit, coordinated by the philanthropic Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Tribeca Film Institute, aims to bring scientists and film-makers together to make more realistic and entertaining stories about science.
On 6 October, many of the summit guests assembled for panel discussions on science as entertainment, among them James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
Watson suggested the crowd should take a closer look at stomach ulcers. Barry Marshall, he went on to explain, is an Australian pathologist who won half of this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine for helping to prove that bacteria are the culprits behind ulcers. He would make a fantastic film hero, said Watson. At one point Marshall went so far as to swallow a solution containing the bacteria Helicobacter pylori to show a sceptical medical world that the microbes, and not stress, caused the stomach condition.
The development of the Internet also offers a good tale for the film industry to tell, suggested Doron Weber, programme director for public understanding of science at the New York-based Sloan Foundation. Weber points to The Aviator, a film covering the life of Howard Hughes, as a popular Hollywood handling of engineering. Surely that could serve as a model for more such films, he adds.
The panel had unkind words for some other science-related footage on the market. Watson took particular issue with the large number of films that dwell on the supernatural, such as the recent film Just Like Heaven about a man who falls for the woman haunting his apartment. "All of that bothered me," he said.
Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a Nobel laureate, had issues with television programmes that consistently depict scientists as dark and sinister characters. The medical drama ER, he says, frequently shows doctors putting publishing concerns above the interest of patients.
Science can also come off too well on the small screen, according to David Rambo, a Los Angeles-based story editor for the popular TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He admits that because of shows such as CSI, which features forensic science, juries may now have unrealistic expectations about law enforcers' ability to provide DNA evidence in a criminal case. "This CSI effect is real," confirms Jim Hurley of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
But Rambo adds that film and television productions can directly benefit the research community: shows such as CSI have caused students to flock to classes in this field, he says. Hurley confirms this, adding that colleges around the United States have been calling him wanting to set up their own forensic science degree programmes. "That's something we can help in," says Rambo.