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Podcast: Science Advisors

In this week’s Physics Buzz podcast we take another close look at physics in Hollywood. Something I’ve always wondered is, how do filmmakers balance the needs of telling a story with keeping the science in it as realistic as possible? Often, it's a collaborative process between filmmakers and scientists that consult with the industry. Writers, directors, production designers and special effects wizards are always looking for ways to make their films seem more realistic, and scientists have long been happy to help.

Science advising is almost as old as the film industry itself. In his book Lab Coats in Hollywood, David Kirby writes that the practice goes as far back as 1918 when puppet master extraordinaire Willis O’Brien (who would later make a little movie called King Kong) consulted with legendary fossil hunter Barnum Brown (the paleontologist who discovered the Tyrannosaurus Rex) to get the dinosaurs to look right in the silent film The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. In 1920 rocket pioneer Robert Goddard worked with Betty Boop’s future animator Max Fleischer on the short film All Aboard for the Moon.

 O'Brien's Ghost of Slumber Mountain. The first dinosaur appears around 10:29 and a T-Rex fights a triceratops at about 14:05. The footage for Fleischer's seems to be lost.

That long tradition continues to this day. In t his week’s podcast, I talk to people on both sides of the equation. Kevin Grazier was the science consultant for Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, Falling Skies and the upcoming SyFy Channel series Defiance. In his spare time, he’s a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Cassini mission to Saturn as well as an astronomy lecturer at UCLA, Santa Monica College and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz are writing partners and have worked on sci-fi movies like X-Men: First Class, Thor and the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles.

They were part of a panel at this year’s Comic-Con International, hosted by science blogger Phil Plait about putting the science in science fiction.

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