The November 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

The Science of Pseudoscience

In a new, Web-only column, journalist David Kushner takes a look behind the scenes at how science is portrayed in movies and television, starting with the role played by the technical advisor.

4 min read

Hollywood has always been interested in science--and has employed consultants to get it right throughout most of its history. It's a relationship, though, that has been controversial at times, and in this article we look at how technical advisors resolve the tension between accurate science and dramatic storytelling.

As an investigator and science planning engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Kevin Grazier, Ph.D., spends a lot of time with his head in the stars. Most days, he's concerned with the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan. But every now and then he wrestles with the challenges of a more far-out world: "Battlestar Galactica"--a contemporary remake of the classic 1979 television show.

In Hollywood-speak, Grazier is "Galactica's" science advisor, an expert brought in, generally on a part-time basis, to bolster the technical accuracy of a TV show or film. While technical advisors are no strangers to movie making, it's only relatively that they are en vogue with television producers, as science-heavy hits, from "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to "Star Trek: Enterprise," capture the public's imagination--and ratings. With the Internet empowering fans to nitpick details, the push for accuracy is reaching new heights. And for engineers looking to help the cause, Grazier says, it's also good fun. "I'm not doing it because I'm a scientist," he says, "I'm doing it because I'm a nerd."

The representation of science on film has not been without its critics over the years. David A. Kirby, who studies science communication at the University of Manchester, in England, cites the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2000" report, which criticized the so-called information pollution of fictional science, confused by the public as fact. But with the rise of online culture, knowledgeable fans have found a forum through which they can keep a show's depictions in check; and Hollywood scribes and producers are stepping up the pace in tune. "They're trying to avoid having people criticize their work," says Kirby, "With the Internet society, they don't want a million scientists to tell them how awful their film is."

Enter Grazier and the small, but influential, coterie of modern day science advisors. Like his peers, it was Grazier's love of both science and science fiction that brought him into this field. While completing his doctorate in planetary physics at the University of California at Los Angeles, Grazier sent an original script to producers of the TV show "Star Trek: Voyager." Seven months later, he got a call asking him to submit more story ideas, and he was on his way. When producers of the new "Battlestar Galactica" were looking for a science advisor, Grazier got the call.

Grazier recently received a script for "Galactica" in which a character received a shipment and said, "Oh look, a box of TECH!"

Grazier was intrigued, but, as a good scientist, decided to do his own research. So he contacted one of the most renowned science advisors, and fellow Trekkie, Andre Bormanis. An astrophysicist by trade, Bormanis had become the resident advisor for Star Trek series including "Voyager" and "Enterprise." For him, the birth of modern day science advisement starts with Star Trek's creator, Gene Rodenberry.

"Back on the original series," says Bormanis, "Rodenberry spent time talking to engineers at JPL and the Rand Corporation about the future of space flight: What would you need? If someone where to build a ship, what would the ship need? How would you organize it? What requirements would you have to consider? He basically grilled a lot of people."

The Star Trek series has since become a model for collaboration between science fact and fiction, or as Bormanis puts it, the resulting "pseudoscience." The goal is to create a plausible set of rules behind even the most unruly science fantasy. Take the so-called warp drive, for example, the propulsion technology that makes Star Trek spaceships travel faster than light. As outlandish as the science seems, there's an explanation at the ready, Bormanis says, involving stuff like the combination of matter and antimatter, and technical sounding inventions like "verterium cortenide" coils and warp plasma.

The Star Trek writers picked the brains of real-life aerospace engineers to complete full schematics of futuristic technology. The information was published in a technical manual that became the writers' textbook. "It was my primary reference for Star Trek's pseudoscience," Bormanis says. Not surprisingly, the book has become commercially available for the show's die-hard fans.

But the science is not always so artificial. When an episode of "Deep Space Nine" involved a comet, Bormanis was tapped for a crash course in the related astrophysics, such as a comet's size and speed. At times, writers simply write the word TECH in the script and then hand it off to Bormanis to fill in the blank. "I try to make sure real science in the stories is handled in a credible way," Bormanis says.

Grazier too spends his time filling in the TECH gaps in scripts. Grazier recently received a script for "Galactica" in which a character received a shipment and said, "Oh look, a box of TECH!" Grazier provided the missing technology, which in this case, he decided, would be a box of 25 optoelectronic transducers. "[Transducers] is a weasel word," Grazier says, with a laugh, "but it's a safe tech word that I can put in there."

While it's hard to find a full-time job as a science advisor, there are opportunities for those interested in pursuing this on the side. For engineers who think they can provide expertise for a show, Bormanis suggests sending a one-page letter explaining their qualifications to the show's executive producer (in care of the studio behind the production). There's always a need for scientists who can write well and explain complex ideas in a simple manner. "Ultimately, they want to speak with people who can communicate technical ideas in straightforward English," Bormanis offers.

In the end, Kirby says, engineers might be intrigued at the lengths to which television and film producers go for accuracy. "What has been most surprising to me is how much influence science advisors can actually have," says Kirby, "Everyone I've talked to who've done this indicated that they were surprised at how willing filmmakers were to get things right."

About the Author

David Kushner is a journalist and writer. His latest book, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House), is about underdog gamers who hit Las Vegas. His previous book, Masters of Doom (Random House), about the co-creators of the videogames Doom and Quake, is being developed into a movie for Showtime. He has also written for Rolling Stone , The New York Times, Wired , Salon , Spin , and other publications.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Vertical
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush
Yellow

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

Keep Reading ↓Show less