NU Professors help Hollywood get their facts straight

    Gone are the days when sci-fi buffs scoffed at the scientific inaccuracies of TV shows.

    TV producers have recently called in the help of Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering professors after getting annoyed by complaints about the unrealistic portrayal of science in their shows.

    One TV series in particular, Caprica, has solicited McCormick professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering Malcolm MacIver to review and analyze its scripts. A sci-fi buff himself, MacIver was first to admit that he was “always dismayed by the scientific untruths in movies.”

    MacIver is now the technical script consultant for Caprica, a Battlestar Galactica prequel, whose two-hour premiere debuted on the Syfy Channel on Jan. 22.

    Initially, MacIver had joined a program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which connected writers, producers and directors in the entertainment industry with scientists and engineers from appropriate fields of research to improve the quality of science portrayed in shows and films.

    It was through the SEE that MacIver became the script consultant for Caprica, who wanted MacIver’s expertise in robotics, artificial intelligence and neuroscience.

    MacIver has brainstormed with Caprica’s writers, identified scientific details that would complement their storyline and reviewed and fact-checked the script for each episode. 

    “I introduced the concept of a generative algorithm for constructing artificial life to the writers, which refined the scientific basis of their storyline,” MacIver said.

    Working behind-the-scenes on  Caprica has been an exciting opportunity for MacIver.

    “I’ve had the chance to work with extremely good writers who are brimming with interesting ideas, and it’s been a pleasure working with them,” he said.

    MacIver said that while he has benefited from working on Caprica, the process is a two-way exchange.

    “TV shows benefit from the improved scientific validity and possibilities in their storylines, and scientists benefit because the entertainment industry provides an outlet for audiences to come into contact with scientific cutting-edge research,” MacIver said.

    An example of scientific research featured on TV shows is Professor Dirk Brockmann’s reconstructed human mobility network, which has found its way from the halls of Northwestern’s Technology Institute to the CBS hit show NUMB3RS.

    Brockmann, McCormick’s associate professor of engineering science and applied mathematics, recently utilized data from to find out patterns and regularities that govern human mobility. tracks the circulation of American dollar bills. Any US citizen can enter his local zip code and the serial number of the bill.

    Using this information, Brockmann reconstructed a comprehensive human mobility network for the United States that tracks commutes made by U.S. citizens.

    In the Jan. 8 episode of NUMB3RS, investigators use fractional diffusion equations from Brockmann’s work with human mobility networks to determine the area where the thieves stealing lottery tickets will strike next.

    MacIver said many contemporary concerns that revolve around science and technology, such as robots killing civilians in Afghanistan, are what creative writers and producers “feed off.”

    “Even though science and the entertainment industry are two different worlds, they have ample room to exchange and benefit from each other in the future,” MacIver said. “And who knows? Truth is stranger than fiction – maybe a pseudo-invention created by Hollywood producers will find its way into scientific reality.”


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