Bridging Two Worlds: A Chat with Jennifer Ouellette

A speaker in the Science, Skeptics, and Writer’s Track, Jennifer Ouellette has authored fun and fascinating books The Physics of the Buffyverse, Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, and most recently The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. For two years she has been the director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that pairs technical experts with Hollywood creators. She took time on Sunday to chat with the Daily Dragon about her work in the glorious world of geeks.

Daily Dragon (DD): What can you tell us about your work with the Science and Entertainment Exchange? What’s the most challenging part of trying to connect those two sides?

Jennifer Ouellette (JO): Pragmatically, the hard part is getting their schedules to coincide, because they’re really really busy; also, science tends to plan far ahead and Hollywood is very last-minute. You never know if the star’s going to show up until usually two hours before the event. You can confirm them three days before and then they don’t show, or something happens and they end up going somewhere else, and you just don’t know. So you’re always thrilled when they show up! But the hard part also is that you have to find that sweet spot. When I started, a lot of people who did internet commentary on bad science in television went, “Man, you’re going to put us out of a job!” And I went, “No, trust me, there will always be bad science!”

We still want to build this community that does care about this sort of thing, and are talking to each other. On the science side, you want to pick scientists who understand narrative, and on the entertainment side, you want to pick people who respect science and understand that it will not ruin their storytelling–in fact, it can enhance it. Once those two people understand that, you need to get them in a room together and give them time. It usually takes an hour just to break the ice. Then they really need to start brainstorming. It’s a little harder to get to the right answer when you’re trying to get these two worlds together, but if you can find that sweet spot where it’s good science but it’s also great storytelling and you don’t have to sacrifice anything, it’s worth the two-hour conversation.

DD: You mentioned in the “Physics of the Whedonverse” panel yesterday something that I completely agree with, which is that good science makes stories better in so many cases. I always think, “Oh, I wish they had just known to put that in!”

JO: Was it so hard to just call a graduate student and say, “Could you read over our script and just fix the nuances that we almost got right and just kinda missed?”

DD: Especially ’cause they’d do it for free!

JO: They’ll do it for fun! In fact, ours are mostly volunteers. We have a couple of people–we found Caprica their tech consultant, and that person is paid–but those are rare. It’s generally something like The Big Bang Theory or Caprica or one of the sci-fi things, like Eureka has a technical consultant, but most of the others just have quick questions. We’ve done stuff for Castle, of all things! That’s not even an overtly science show, but since the mysteries tend to hinge on scientific questions, they’ll say, “Well, could you do this?” and I’ll say, “Well, let me find you a chemist and you can check.”

DD: Sometimes it’s not even stuff that they know to ask … There’s a lot of stuff I’ve learned about that seems like it would be so cool on TV if someone only knew about it.

JO: Exactly. I’ve talked about this with Jaime Paglia a lot, who is the showrunner for Eureka, because he works with a tech consultant quite closely. He told me, “It’s amazing to me–when we first were developing the show, we thought we were being so futuristic. We’d say, ‘we’re thinking of doing this and this, and we think that’s gonna be like really futuristic!'” I went, “Dude, that is so five years ago. We’re way beyond that now!” That’s when he said he realized he needed a tech consultant.

One of the things that I hope comes out of programs like the Exchange is more people like Jaime who understand that they need the scientists, that the scientists have something valuable to offer them that will enhance their storytelling and help them make a better show. And I think Eureka does it really well.

DD: So on the other side of that, what errors do you see that annoy you the most?

JO: Well–and I think most scientists would agree with me on this–when it doesn’t have to be wrong, when a quick phone call or email could make it right. Don’t get the small stuff wrong. If you’re going to have a huge violation of physics as a buy, make the focus on that and get the small stuff right. Because whether you realize it or not, your audience is picking up that you’re kind of BSing your way through it. We can all tell when someone is BSing it; we don’t have to be experts to know they’re winging it. Take that extra bit of effort to get the small details right. There’s no reason to get the speed of light wrong! Just these simple, easy, verifiable facts.

DD: What is the most satisfying part of science writing, of doing what you’re doing?

JO: I like being in on those conversations. I like watching the writer and the director and the scientist sit together–and you see that light go off, and they connect, and they all get really excited and passionate. Suddenly they’re all on the same page, and they’re invested in this story. Each one brings something unique to the table and they’re creating this wonderful thing.

DD: It’s cool to hear you talk about the moments of connection, because it’s so frustrating to me to see these two worlds diverge so much. They should come together more, because it’s so good when they do!

JO: It’s very funny to me that scientists are afraid of the word “narrative,” in the same way that humanities people are afraid of physics and calculus. It’s like, “oh, I thought I was done with that when I finished with high school.” Really?

I think one of the things that the scientists gain from talking to Hollywood is understanding that they’re not just making it up. When we brought in The Big Bang Theory tech consultant and one of the writers–he’s now on Castle, but I think he was on Without a Trace and a couple of others before that–he basically said, “Here’s the model for a one-hour drama. There are six acts, this has to happen here, then you do this; by act five this has to happen, there needs to be tension, et cetera et cetera …” You could see the scientist going: “Oh, there’s a model! There’s a theory! Now we get it! This makes sense!” He spoke their language.

I ended up making them try and make up their own science-based TV series, and they came up with the most derivative, trite stuff, and they realized it was really hard to be original in that restrictive format. You’ve got all these constraints. It’s just like trying to solve a problem and having to deal with thermodynamics. Math and physics and all these things are very creative; they’re just creative in different ways.

And it’s no accident that some of the best research is happening at interdisciplinary boundaries. Those fields that were a long time weren’t talking to each other are starting to compare notes, and that cross-talk is yielding some very interesting results.

DD: Speaking of research–what fields are you most excited about right now? What futuristic vision do you really want to see?

JO: A lot of the stuff I’d like to see I don’t think I’m going to, because it’s an energy problem, and if it’s an energy problem, you’re screwed. Thermodynamics, man, those laws just don’t budge!

I was on a panel with Jim Kakalios, and his new book is along the lines of “where’s my jetpack,” you know, we were promised all this stuff like teleportation. But we do have teleportation–we teleport information! It’s not physical stuff, because that’s actually really really difficult, but we can entangle and encode information and send that. That to me is fantastic. I’m amazed we can do that!

I think at some point we’re going to be able to surf the Internet with our thoughts. We’re going to have implants or headpieces–we’re already working on that–and I think if you give that twenty-five years, you’re going to have this amazing thing where we actually are able to control that at an incredibly precise level where we will be jacked in all the time. There’s a certain scary element to that, but change is always scary. Once you’re in it, it’s not scary. Change is neither good nor bad. It’s just change!

Author of the article

Nivair H. Gabriel has whiled away her twenty-four years of life on Earth as a writer, feminist, engineer, photographer, and fangirl. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and has contributed to, Fantasy Magazine, Pittsburgh Magazine, MIT's The Tech, and the Hugo Award-winning Weird Tales. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where she works as a technical writer by day and sometimes sleeps by night. She believes that the existence of Jon Stewart is proof of God's love for humankind. This is her fourth Dragon*Con.

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