Inside Hollywood

The journey of Naren Shankar--from engineer to media mogul

There's a moment in my book Masters of Doom when a teenage John Carmack, future code warrior of the seminal computer games Doom and Quake , watches a television episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" with profound interest.

PHOTO: GREGG SEGAL

LAB TESTED

Shankar puts a premium on real science: "The only thing we fudge is time."

"Star Trek" holds a sacred place in the geek pantheon, and Carmack instinctively locks in on the show's depiction of the Holodeck: a virtual world barely distinguishable from reality. The Holodeck would become not only a paradigm of gaming for Carmack and a legion of coders but an example of how the make-believe science of Hollywood feeds the technology of today.

In a serendipitous twist of fate, I am experiencing the interaction between technology and Hollywood firsthand. Last year, Naren Shankar, an executive producer of the hit TV forensic science show, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," began developing Masters of Doom into a movie for Showtime, a U.S. cable channel. (Shankar also knows all about the Holodeck, having been a writer and science consultant on "Star Trek: The Next Generation.")

Shankar, who holds a Ph.D. in applied physics and electrical engineering from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., had read IEEE Spectrum's review of my book [May 2003] and connected with the depiction of games technology and its surrounding culture. Shankar's journey, from engineering school to Hollywood, demonstrates how close the link between science and entertainment can be. As he says, "Engineering is as creative as music and art--it's just a different part of the brain you're exercising."

Like a lot of engineers, Shankar came to his discipline after a childhood immersed in sci-fi books and shows such as "Star Trek." "Every kid wants a phaser and a tricorder," Shankar says. "When you look at these things, you say, 'Hey, maybe I can build that.' The science-fiction interest drove my interest going into science. When you talk to engineers, they often share that common background."

After programming his own computer games in high school, Shankar enrolled at Cornell to study applied and engineering physics with a concentration in nuclear engineering. Signing on for graduate school, he spent what he calls "serious time" in the lab, building laser diodes and semiconductor lasers. Shankar became particularly entranced with display technology, and wrote his thesis on fiber-optic switches using liquid-crystal devices. "Display technology is how information gets from a computer to a person," he says. "It goes beyond the purely scientific to entertainment and media and film."

By the time he completed his doctorate in 1990, Shankar realized that his passion for entertainment outweighed his stamina for lab work. A couple of friends were already plying their trade as screenwriters, so he packed his car in upstate New York and hit the road for Los Angeles. It didn't take long for his childhood interest in science fiction to come full circle. After writing a sample script on spec, Shankar got his first break as an intern for "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And he soon found the perfect way to combine his love of engineering and entertainment: he became the show's science consultant.

Today such a position, in which an expert helps research and maintain scientific accuracy on a show, is more commonplace. But back then, even for a nerd-loved show like "Star Trek," employing a full-time science consultant represented something new. "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry "insisted on having a better grounding in actual science on ['The Next Generation'] than the original series had," Shankar explains.

Having a science expert on hand, however, doesn't mean ensuring that the matter transporter, for example, is plausible. "They were more interested in maintaining consistency with the fake science of 'Star Trek' than with real science," says Shankar. Ultimately, a science consultant serves the script, not the textbooks.

"The job is to enable writers to do what they want to do dramatically," Shankar says, "but to describe it in ways that sound scientifically accurate." That could be as simple as using the word velocity in a scene instead of speed . But sometimes Shankar was able to incorporate some academic research.

While Shankar was at Cornell, for example, his thesis advisor, Clifford R. Pollock, had explored solitons, waves that don't disperse as they travel. The science was just the thing for an episode of "The Next Generation." "I used it to propel a surfboard-type spaceship," says Shankar, and he later included an homage to his advisor, too: "I put Pollock's name in another episode by naming a character after him."

After staying on at "The Next Generation" for three years as a story editor and staff writer, and a stint on "Farscape," a science-fiction show he describes as "fantasy opera," Shankar landed at a show with one of the most realistic depictions of science yet, "CSI" [see photo, " On the Set"]. Following the action adventures of a group of crime scene investigators in Las Vegas, "CSI" employs two full-time dedicated researchers to ensure the accuracy of the show's forensic science. Unlike "Star Trek," Shankar says, "CSI" is all about authenticity.

In the past, "you could fake the viewer out," he says, "but when you're talking about real cases and real crime-fighting techniques, it's way more interesting when what you're showing is real. We try to be absolutely rigorous with the science. The only thing we fudge is time."

One episode features the DeltaSphere 3000, a three-dimensional laser scanner produced by the Chapel Hill, N.C.­based start-up 3rdTech Inc. Researchers for "CSI" saw the product at a trade show and used it in an episode in which the investigators do a 3-D scan of a crime scene. Doug Schiff, the company's vice president, says the benefit is more than product placement. "It shows that the technology is not just blue sky," he says, "but actually real, and of real use."

Shankar, who's now finishing the script for Masters of Doom while he continues work on "CSI," is excited to marry entertainment with the world of software engineering. "We find ways every week on 'CSI' to make scientific discovery visually interesting," he says. "That's part of what I'm hoping to bring to Masters of Doom ."

I, for one, am looking forward to it.

About the Author

DAVID KUSHNER, a journalist in New Jersey, is the author of Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003). His latest book is Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005).

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