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Science on the silver screen

In a harrowing scene in the film Jurassic Park, a velociraptor peers through a window in search of its intended prey, its breath fogging up the glass. This moment has been cited by film critics as a particularly effective part of the movie. It was the film’s science consultant, Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, who suggested this detail—intended to communicate to audiences that dinosaurs were warm-blooded animals, related to birds.

As he told this story at the 2011 ASTC Annual Conference session “Science in the Movies: Ready for Its Close-up,” the University of Manchester’s David Kirby remarked, “The best science consultants are not ones who make the science in a film more accurate, but the ones who provide the means by which accurate science content adds to a film’s entertainment value.” Kirby is the author of the book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema.

The session, held on Saturday, October 15, and led by Alan Friedman of Museum Development and Science Communication, explored how science in the movies can create or change public understanding and perceptions of the field.

Several filmmakers also shared their perspectives on science on the silver screen. David Kaplan, a filmmaker and particle theorist at Johns Hopkins University, discussed Particle Fever, which is still being filmed. The movie tells the story of the approaching launch of the largest experiment in history, the Large Hadron Collider. As the film’s website states, “The results could finally lead to the underlying theory of all matter…or dramatically mark the end of our ability to comprehend the universe we live in.”

In addition, Richard and Carole Rifkind talked about their film, Naturally Obsessed, which explores life in a molecular biology lab. The film focuses on the process of doing science and on the people who passionately pursue scientific endeavors, rather than on the specifics of their research. “There’s a story in every laboratory,” Richard Rifkind said.