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Picking the Brain of a Sci-Fi Scientist

Let’s take a break from science fact for a minute to get behind the scenes of a whole new world for the UrtheCast blog — science fiction.

Recently, we decided to pick the brain of Dr. Kevin Grazier, former NASA scientist and science advisor on television programs such as Battlestar Galactica and Eureka, in order to peer further into the world of sci-fi. First off, why exactly does sci-fi (and space in particular) intrigue us so much?

Science Fiction: the Great Escape

You probably know someone whose interest in science fiction borders on obsession. (Maybe that someone is you!) Why? It’s a pretty liberating experience to escape from laundry, groceries and diapers, into worlds where aliens can descend upon your planet, battle you for your precious resources, then regenerate their casualties at the press of a button.

For Kevin Grazier, pop culture’s preoccupation with space sci-fi stems from our interest in the unknown: “It’s been said before, but space truly is the ‘final frontier’. It’s human nature. Putting an unexplored realm in front of us is like waving the red cape to a bull. It’s a blunt challenge that says, ‘come change the status quo. Bring it!'”

It’s only natural that sci-fi and speculative fiction would intrigue us; after all we humans are a curious bunch. “Our best estimates say that our galaxy has between 300-400 billion stars (some run as high as a trillion). Now that is a big unknown! There are a lot of question marks! For humans —  in particular explorers and screenwriters — that is one… big red cape,” says Grazier.

What makes for the best kind of sci-fi? During a recent Google+ hangout, one of our favourite bloggers Phil Plait (aka The Bad Astronomer), was fielding questions about the movie Contact, and he suggested that it’s the big issues that draw people to sci-fi. “The best science fiction is the type that tackles big issues like philosophy; that has good characters; that has a wonderful story arch; that has character development.”

Science Fiction: All the Cool Kids are Doing It

Have you noticed that society’s interest in science fiction is, dare we say it, trendy? You can’t take ten steps in the western world without crossing some sort of sci-fi spinoff.

What’s more, science fiction isn’t just for ‘geeks’ anymore; that stereotype was flung by the wayside years ago. What used to have a sort of cult caché, now seems to be embraced by lovers of all things ‘geek culture’.

For instance, take The Hunger Games. This futuristic teen sci-fi craze took to the big screen after weeks of frenzied anticipation. Grossing over $150 million USD in its first weekend, The Hunger Games found itself just shy of records set by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and The Dark Knight. Even weeks later, the oohs and ahhs from the theatre throngs are still reverberating.

Now former sci-fi darlings — Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Gallactica — share their fans with a host science fiction newcomers… and not just of the tech-heavy variety either.

It’s only a matter of time before the next sci-fi phenomenon turns heads and blows minds.

Writing Sci-Fi

Creatively, the sci-fi world is a competitive one. “No one wants something that’s already been done on ‘that other show’,” says Grazier.

This competition can lead to fantastical story lines, though screenwriters aren’t always given carte blanche when conjuring aliens, robots and warp space. In fact, there’s an entire organization,  The Science & Entertainment Exchange, devoted to providing scientist advisors for sci-fi productions.

“Having your work based upon good science is a bit of effort, but in science fiction it usually helps improve the work,” he explains. “One writer once told me that a script is not a hard and fast rule, it is a recommendation.” 

Though, most of the time, explains Grazier, “… the writer will come around to our way of thinking.”

Science Vs. Fiction

It would be natural to assume that science advisors push for science over fiction at every opportunity. However, as Grazier explains, half the advisor’s time is spent “pressing the creative team forward to areas that aren’t all that realistic, but that will give the audience sweaty palms at the thought of it.” It’s something that Grazier found himself doing a lot on the set of Eureka.

“Whereas on Battlestar Gallactica we tried to stay within the realm of known physics, on Eureka the science was very speculative,” says Grazier.

Given Eureka’s emphasis on fiction, the goal for this production team was to avoid crossing the line from science fiction into magic. “Did we always achieve that goal? Probably not,” says Grazier. “That said, although we probably crossed the line on the recent Season Four episode, ‘Gimpse’, boy did that episode rock!”

Phil Plait looks at it from a similar angle: “… the more important thing to me is that it is self-consistent. In Star Trek, warp drive is just as fast as to get you from point A to point B in the amount of time the plot needs it for maximum drama.”

The Science Advisor’s Role

Once the script’s edited and the science advisor has made his or her notes, how far will the scientist go to see those recommendations through to the final cut? As Kevin explains: “You submit your notes. If it’s something in which you believe strongly, you submit the note a second time. On a small handful of occasions in the last 8 years, on topics about which I’ve felt super strongly, I’ve submitted a note three times — but that’s a card you don’t want to play too often….”

“If you’re going with ‘hard and fast’ science, there’s no room for creativity there.” Of course, it’s all about telling stellar stories. “So sometimes even ‘iffy’ science gets past the science advisor if there is a ripping yarn to be told. We’re not making documentaries, after all,” says Grazier.

Battlestar Gallactica was a different story: “…. [the writing team of Bradley Thompson and David Weddle] would include me from the very onset. From the moment they first started writing/pondering, they would contact me and we would discuss how correct science would be incorporated into their upcoming story,” says Grazier.

Science Jargon: Who Comes Up With That?

Ever wonder where all that science jargon comes from? Despite being master researchers, sci-fi writers typically defer to the experts. “One of the most amusing notes I ever saw in a script,” explains Grazier, “was, [TBD: CHARACTER almost has the FTL up and running. He goes into a conduit, or antechamber, or some other area, to personally TECH the TECH.]”

Then of course there’s this gem: “[TBD: CHARACTER is furiously TECHing his TECH (according to Network Standards and Practices we cannot show the TECH when it’s fully TECHed.)]”

Living and Dying at the Speed of Light

Much of science fiction — think Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. — hinges upon being able to move close to, as fast as, or faster than the speed of light. Speeding from galaxy to galaxy would be plain impossible with out it. Scientifically, this fact poses a list of problems the length of your arm.

Astronomer and Discovery News blogger Phil Plait explains this during his recent Google+ chat: “If you’re going to posit moving faster than the speed of light, things get a little funny. You don’t just go from point A to point B faster than light — it doesn’t work that way. In a sense it becomes time travel… This gets complicated, and I’ve discussed this with different physicists, and I get different answers, and it makes me crazy.”

Phil continues, “Travelling near the speed of light, you’d see events happening out of order and it’s hard to accommodate that stuff…. You’re travelling backwards in time…. That gets super complicated.”

We couldn’t agree more.

As I found out after beginning this piece, Kevin Grazier had begun working on a similar blog, ‘Five Things that Surprised Me About Being a Hollywood Science Advisor’, for the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Check it out for even more information.

Kevin R. Grazier, Ph.D. is a recovering rocket scientist: after spending 15 years on the Cassini/Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory he’s now a full-time writer/producer.  He served as the science adviser on such productions as Eureka, Battlestar Galactica, Falling Skies, the upcoming summer blockbuster Gravity, and SyFy’s new epic series Defiance.

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