Recent editions of the Wired blog and The Los Angeles Times carry similar articles about the rising popularity of hard science in TV drama, reflected in the launch of the Science and Entertainment Exchange.
The Exchange is “a program of the National Academy of Sciences that provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.”
(The National Academy of Sciences, founded by Abraham Lincoln, is a US equivalent of Britain’s Royal Academy)
Nearly a decade ago, Michael Crichton was urging the ‘science establishment’ to stop moaning about the way science and scientists were portrayed in news and drama and to get engaged in its own presentation. On the reporting of science issues, he said, “it’s my impression that science has not kept pace with other professions. Scientists retain the old disdain for the press. To do interviews badly may even be a point of pride, establishing your intellectual bona fides. You are above the fray. But the truth is, the world has really changed and science is now suffering.“
Part of his ‘stop complaining’ argument involved pointing out that drama can never give an accurate and direct portrayal of science in action, because the real action isn’t that dramatic. And he was right. Science in drama, like all of life in drama, is dramatised. Rendered as a series of symbolic moments, never as-is. You only have to scroll down some of the comments in the Wired blog to see the extent to which some people don’t get that.
But you can dramatise with probity. I once argued that science is like nineteenth-century Africa. It’s big and it’s real, and with some trouble and effort you can go there. While with no trouble and no effort you can stay at home and make up your own weird geography and exotic animals. Your audience may be none the wiser. Many will assume it’s all equally true and, anyway, who cares if it is or it isn’t? But my argument was that if you take the trouble and go, you’ll bring home a different and better kind of traveller’s tale.
The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a timely resource. According to the LA Times, “taking cues from the success of House and before that CSI, television is revisiting the lure of evidence. The pieces of the puzzle are all right there, if only you know how to put them together. Science is the new medicine, physics has gone mainstream.“