Oberth was assisted in that experiment by a young Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocketeer who was recruited by the U.S. government after World War II along with more than a thousand other German scientists as part of Operation Paperclip. He would ultimately become the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that finally did carry men to the moon. Both von Braun and Oberth were in turn deeply inspired by Jules Verne’s sci-fi classic From the Earth to the Moon, a crystal-clear example of the sci-fi feedback loop, where sci-fi influences science, which influences sci-fi, which influences science.
One key aspect of this feedback loop is what the scientist turned communications-studies professor David Kirby calls “diegetic prototypes.” In his book Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, Kirby explains that fictional technologies can “foster public support for potential or emerging technologies.” For example, the space travel and AI technologies of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the driverless cars, targeted advertising, and gestural interfaces of Minority Report—which themselves were developed in close collaboration with real scientists and technologists—have helped define our shared visions of the future and drive innovation in the real world.
Beyond prototyping physical products, scientists have also used Hollywood consulting as an opportunity to test out new concepts and theories that could feed back into their real-world research. When the renowned physicist Kip Thorne served as a scientific advisor for Interstellar, he wrestled for months with the equations that would describe the behavior of black holes and wormholes for the film. Thorne was then able to leverage the movie’s massive CGI budget to visualize his theories, which led him to new insights and multiple scientific papers.
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As the director Christopher Nolan said in a recent interview, speaking of Thorne and his team: “They’ve got all the equations. They’ve got all the mathematics. But they don’t have the indulgence that we have, of months and months of [digital-effects] render times.”
Mika McKinnon is another physicist who has consulted regularly for Hollywood. She got her start on the TV show Stargate: Atlantis, and in the process she “discovered” a stellar phenomenon before it was ever observed in reality. For one episode, the writers needed a destructive radioactive event that repeated every 45 minutes. They wanted to use a pulsar, a particular type of neutron star that sends out periodic waves of radiation. But a regular pulsar’s radioactive pulse wouldn’t be powerful enough. So McKinnon imagined a fictional binary pulsar system where a second star fed the energy of the first. As she told me later, “My pride and joy is that a couple of years ago, astronomers found a system like the one I described. I got to predict it in Stargate, and then they found it in real life.”