How I Stopped Worrying (about science accuracy) And Learned to Love The Story

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When I was a kid – and who am I kidding; when I was an adult too – I made fun of the science in movies. “That’s so fakey!” I would cry out loud when a spaceship roared past, or a slimy alien stalked our heroes.

Eventually, my verbal exclamations evolved into written ones. Not long after creating my first website (back in the Dark Internet Ages of 1997) I decided it would be fun to critique the science of movies, and I dove in with both glee and fervor. No movie was safe, from Armageddon to Austin Powers.

I was right; it was fun. It was surprisingly easy to deconstruct Hollywood accuracy, or lack thereof. Any mistake was fair game; a flubbed line with bad math was just as likely for me to mock as a plot device upon which the entire movie rested. Blowing up a giant asteroid? Pshaw. Saying “million” instead of “billion”? Please. Shadows moving the wrong way at sunset? Let me sharpen my poison keyboard.

Movie after movie came and went, and I watched each in the darkened theater, off to the side, hunched over my notepad with my pen clicked and ready, and – literally – a flexible red-filtered flashlight wrapped around my neck like a scarf to illuminate my writing in case the scene I was destroying was too dark for me to see my own words.

Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Well, actually, the epiphany was forced on me. I was at a professional astronomy meeting, and in the exhibit hall I started chatting with a gentleman who worked for a telescope manufacturer. Our conversation eventually turned to the science in movies. “Did you watch the made-for-TV movie Asteroid?” he asked me. I told him I did, and that the science in it was awful. For the next few minutes I regaled him with examples to bolster my opinion.

He bore all this in silence, and when I was done, he asked if I remembered the telescope they used in the observatory scenes of the movie. Sure, I replied. “What did you think of it?” he asked. I told him I thought it looked pretty good given that it was clearly a set, and that it was a fairly accurate depiction of what a ‘scope in an observatory looked like. Really, it was one of the few accurate things in the whole flick.

“I helped build it,” he told me. “The studio called me and asked me to work with them on that part of the set. After we put it together, they said they wanted more equipment on the telescope to make it look more like a complicated piece of scientific equipment. So I added a bunch of electronic boxes and other things that had no real purpose at all.”

He looked at me pointedly, and continued. “If you were fooled by that, and even thought it looked good, then why do you care if there are other little mistakes in a movie?”

I don’t know what my exact reaction to this was, but I can imagine I had a shocked look on my face when I realized he was right. It was a sea change in my attitude toward movies, and – like a bad movie script – it happened all at once from that one comment.

I realized that I had been enjoying watching movies for the purpose of reviewing them, not for the actual purpose of enjoying them. After that, I saw things differently. I accepted that while the science is important in sci-fi, the story must come first. Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer the science be accurate. In fact, I strongly believe that a writer who knows the science (or has access to it through a science consultant) will find plot developments he or she may not have thought of otherwise.

Science can and should lead the story where it needs to go. But in the end, the telling of the story must win out.

After all, the introduction of bad science after good led to my own character development. What might good science after bad do for yours?

Phil Plait is a scientist and science writer, and, clearly, a devoted sci-fi geek. He writes the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover Magazineand only occasionally pens movie reviews these days … but he keeps the old ones up as an object lesson to himself to lighten up.

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.