Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Putting More Science into UK Fiction and Movies

A group of UK SF writers, including Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Geoff Ryman, Justina Robson, Simon Ings and Paul McAuley, are calling for a UK equivalent to the US Science & Entertainment Exchange, which connects scientists with the entertainment industry.

In their letter published in the Manchester Review they suggest that scientific credibility in entertainment is important to both scientists and the public:
In Britain, though, scientists, and people in arts, TV, movie and literary worlds do not work together as they should. This is a major problem: we all desperately need to understand each other’s constraints to create works that are entertaining, enlightening, and scientifically authentic. But worryingly, Britain is falling behind the United States, where organisations such as The National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange are forging these new and productive relationships between scientists and the entertainment industry.
The authors are participating in the "Putting Science in Fiction" symposium at the University of Manchester this week.  The scientists participating in the conference include biologist Matthew Cobb, astrophysicist Tim O'Brien, and paleontologist Phil Manning. They are joined by David A. Kirby, author of Lab Coats in Hollywood (sample chapters), and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Science on Stage (sample chapter).

As Ryman told The Guardian, part of the problem is poor communication between scientists and science fiction writers:
"I work with a lot of scientists and one of the frustrating things they find is that all this fascinating stuff is being done which doesn't find its way into science fiction. They say look at the science fact pages – they're so much more imaginative than science fiction," said Ryman, winner for his novels of a British Science Fiction Association award, a World Fantasy award and an Arthur C Clarke award, and a creative writing lecturer at the University of Manchester. "It's my experience that scientists can find it difficult to understand the needs of scriptwriters or storytellers. [. . .]"
On this side of the Atlantic, the Science and Entertainment Exchange is a program of the US National Academy of Sciences. It will be interesting to see whether the UK group is successful in organizing a similar program with ties to the Royal Society or another scientific organization that can help with promotion within the scientific community.

And I wonder how interested the entertainment industry is in getting suggestions from scientists about "fascinating stuff" - from the interviews I've read on the Science and Entertainment Exchange site, it seems more common that scientists are asked to help with the implementation of scientific ideas that are already part of an existing screenplay. It seems to me that the more unusual scientific discoveries are more likely to appear in written science fiction than on TV or in the movies.  But maybe that's a misperception influenced by my entertainment choices.

In any case,  I strongly believe that popular culture influences the public perception of both science and scientists.  Any improvement in the interaction between scientists, writers, and members of the entertainment industry is good thing.

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