Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse,
Due to interest from segments of the public seeking to learn about the science they read in books or see on screen, many of the large and thriving pop-culture gatherings, such as San Diego’s Comic-Con and Atlanta’s Dragon Con, now feature dedicated science programs. To make fictional science more accurate, the Los Angeles–based Science and Entertainment Exchange connects entertainment-industry professionals with science experts.
Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse takes a page from the science tracks at pop-culture conventions and draws from interviews with scientists and storytellers who are pursuing the goals of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Authors Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass mix lighthearted humor and references to films and popular TV series into their discussion of the real science portrayed in fictional settings.
Unlike books such as The Physics of Superheroes (Avery, 2006) by James Kakalios and The Science of Interstellar (W. W. Norton, 2014) by Kip Thorne, Hollyweird Science discusses a wide range of depictions of science and scientists in popular culture. Be prepared for references to Star Wars and Star Trek, Big Bang Theory and Stargate SG-1. Although the title references “science,” the book focuses on physics and astronomy. The text is illustrated with photographs from movies and television and images from such science-gathering instruments as IR cameras and the Hubble Space Telescope. It also includes lots of science data.
Hollyweird Science is written for a broad audience. It has enough depth—by its inclusion of equations, such as those for kinetic energy, the Schwarzschild radius, Wien’s law, length contraction, and time dilation—that it can be used in an introductory physics course or a first-year undergraduate seminar. The numerical examples that accompany the equations will help instructors to generate assignments. But the book is not a class text; for example, it does not include end-of-chapter problems. Indeed, it is written in a style suitable for lay readers. The equations, and other more technical material, are incorporated in “sciences boxes” that can be skipped. But even those boxes are written at a level that will allow readers previously unfamiliar with the basic physics to gain insight.
The book is particularly strong when covering radiation and extrasolar planets. The chapter “Radiation: An All-Time Glow” describes the different types of particles and electromagnetic radiation and presents examples that range from fun (using Wien’s law to determine the temperature of the Human Torch from Fantastic Four) to timely (relating the security scanners in Total Recall to millimeter-wave scanners in airports). The chapter “Braver Newer Worlds” contains good discussions of the definitions of a planet and the habitable zone. The physics of Miller’s world from Interstellar are deduced from clues in the film; the authors calculate its gravity and gravitational time-dilation effects near the black hole. And the chapter “Moving in Stereo: Parallel Universes” touches on the multiverse mentioned in the book’s subtitle and cites the famous “Mirror, Mirror” episode from the original series of Star Trek to illustrate the concept.
One of the greatest strengths of on-screen science is the way it connects science to society. The book addresses that connection, but not as well as I would have wanted. The chapter “Hollywood Scientists: Reel and Imaginary” is devoted to representations of scientists in media. For example, the authors cite statistics showing that through decades of horror films, scientists have been more frequently portrayed as villains than heroes. Unfortunately, though, that chapter is the book’s weakest.
Grazier and Cass correctly call out the Hollywood stereotype of scientists as white men, and although they then focus on female scientists, they fail to explore the representation of scientists of color. Most of the experts interviewed are white men; even quotes extracted from the literature are primarily from white men. The book itself shows many more men than women in the photographs, and for both sexes, the majority are white. The demographics of the book’s selected photos may be emblematic of Hollywood’s shortcomings, but it also unintentionally reinforces stereotypes.
Overall, Hollyweird Science is an entertaining read for those who enjoy science fiction media and want to know more about the reality behind the cinematic magic. But instructors who assign this book should be prepared to tackle the topic of stereotypes to a greater degree than the authors did. I hope the authors themselves will address the issue more successfully in the already announced sequel Beyond Hollyweird Science.
Lisa Will is a professor of physics and astronomy at San Diego City College and is a resident astronomer at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, both of which are in San Diego, California. She performs science outreach at pop-culture conventions.