Hollywood Inspired Science

Written by: Emilie Lorditch

While Hollywood has been known to use ideas from the great minds of science as a springboard for its storytelling, scientists have also been enlivened by what they have seen on screen to think about their research in different ways.

“Movies blow the lid off of imagination and creativity and we need to do this in science,” says Steve Ramirez, a neuroscientist and junior fellow at Harvard University.

Ramirez explains that many of the ideas that he explores in his research have been influenced by films that he watched. “I really love Chris Nolan movies, specifically, Inception,” says Ramirez. “At the movie’s core, Nolan is really asking a neuroscience question: How do we alter the contents of a memory?”

In Inception the idea of implanting a false memory into someone’s subconscious mind seems like a far-fetched idea from which science fiction is made but in 2014 Ramirez and his colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Xu Liu, successfully did just that. Ramirez and Liu implanted the fake memory of being shocked by an electrical current in the foot inside the brain of a mouse.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another film that sparked Ramirez’s current research. In the film, the broken-up couple agrees to a procedure that erases the memories of their painful relationship. Ramirez explores the idea of turning down the emotional volume or completely erasing a memory. The possible applications range from eliminating traumatic memories from posttraumatic stress disorder patients to artificially activating positive memories to help patients combat depression.

Not only can watching a film inspire a researcher’s creative juices but having the chance to work as a scientific or technical advisor on a film provides scientists the chance to collaborate and rub elbows with talented artists they may not have ever met otherwise.

Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist and professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, served as the executive producer and science advisor for the film Interstellar, He had the opportunity to work closely with the visual effects team at Double Negative. The group’s challenge was to design how a black hole would look if you were standing near it. The result was a steady stream of images that flickered through the audience’s view that combined a set of equations created by Thorne and a computer code developed by Double Negative called Double Negative Gravitational Renderer (DNGR), which was used to generate the black hole seen in the film.

For Jack Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University who served as a technical advisor for Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, the opportunity to work with Hollywood influenced the direction of his research. He explains that shortly after Jurassic Park was released his student, Mary Schweitzer, and he realized that dinosaur DNA could not be extracted from insects preserved inside amber and instead attempted to extract DNA from a Tyrannosaurus rex.

“We received funding for the project from the National Science Foundation,” says Horner. “We did not find DNA, but we did find various other biomolecules that eventually led to the discovery of soft tissues and proteins in dinosaurs.”

Horner says  that the plot for Jurassic World shaped his research project “To Create a Dinosaur.” “Back in 2007 when various people involved with the Jurassic Park franchise were considering plots for what would eventually be Jurassic Park 4 [Jurassic World], Steven Spielberg decided that he wanted genetically modified dinosaurs to play a part in the movie,” says Horner. “At that time, we thought the movie would probably come out in 2009, so while the movie people set to work on the script, I set out to write a book with Jim Groman about genetically building a dinosaur by retro-engineering a bird back to a dinosaur using developmental biological method called, ‘How to Build a Dinosaur’ that was released in 2009.”

Currently, Horner is looking at the evolutionary changes from long-tailed, toothed birds to our modern short-tailed, toothless birds with the goal of attempting to retro-engineer some of those lost characteristics and create an animal that looks like an extinct dinosaur. “The project team is currently trying to determine which genes are responsible for reducing tail length so they can try to reverse the evolutionary process and grow a long tail on a bird,” says Horner. “They are also looking into transforming the wing back into arms and hands.

This is a case where the fact is stranger than the fiction and will inspire storytellers of the future. “Fiction writers have good imaginations, and imagine beyond what is currently possible, whereas scientists have good imaginations and continue to make discoveries that often catch up to what was once fiction,” says Horner. “In other words, actual science is usually not far behind imaginative science fiction.”

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.