In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences saw an opening for outreach: Get real science in the movies. And by November of that year, it had begun the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which offered a way for Hollywood to link up with scientists to advise and consult on projects.
Dr. Clifford V. Johnson, a professor of physics at USC in Los Angeles, had lent his knowledge about black holes and large energy masses to TV and film before the exchange. Now he’s so busy with requests that he takes a comically deep breath before he recounts the growing list of projects he has worked on. Among them are documentaries on space, of course, but also dramatic TV series such as National Geographic’s Genius, and a handful of high-profile Marvel properties, including Agent Carter, Avengers: Infinity War and Thor: Ragnarok.
Johnson is used to seeing raised eyebrows when he tells people he does science consulting for superhero movies. “Even colleagues of mine go, ‘I heard you worked on some superhero thing, but how could you even be talking to them about scientific accuracy when they have spaceships going faster than light and people flying?’”
His role, though, isn’t to endorse fantasy.
“What I spend most of my time doing involves scientific believability and consistency,” Johnson says. “I study how our existing universe works, and my job is to study those rules so I can help [creators] build a different universe with its own rules, where all your crazy stuff can happen. But then they have to allow me to help make it consistent.”
In this way, Johnson is able to sneak some real scientific concepts into the candy of mass media. Some filmmakers bring him on last-minute, though Johnson says it’s always better to show your science consultant your earliest drafts, as happened with ABC’s late Agent Carter series. The physicist braved multiple security checkpoints to get into their writers’ room (“It’s really like entering the Avengers Tower”), where he “tossed ideas about the kinds of physics that could resonate with some of the things they wanted to do with story.” To his delight, he watched the show and found that the writers had dumped whole chunks of this wisdom into the dialogue. In many cases, the science drove the story.
“I see physics as storytelling,” Johnson says. “To some extent, all of science is. Not just in communicating the idea but the whole business of finding out why a thing is the way it is and how that thing gets to be the way it is. These are the same sets of questions we ask when we’re telling stories. We just replace mechanism with motivation, and you’ve got the same structures and the same things you need to care about.”
For Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi also tapped Johnson early in the process, sending him drafts of the script and peppering him with questions about space travel. (Johnson has signed a serious nondisclosure agreement, so don’t even try to pry details from him.) What he can say is that Waititi was “receptive and super-excited” about the information Johnson supplied.
“I grew up reading comic books as well, so I know a lot of the older material that a lot of the team might not know, especially with Thor. I was giving them some physics that would wink at some of the classic old stuff. Over the years, people threw around ideas for how these pieces of magical tech — like Thor’s hammer — worked. And they’ve changed over time, so it’s fun for me to wink at some of those older ideas.”
Of course, Johnson has no idea what any filmmaker will or won’t use. He also has consulted for the new Star Trek: Discovery and is even more in the dark about whether (and how) its producers might utilize his concepts. But for Johnson, consulting is more of a public service than it is a job. In a time when scientists are seen by the administration as the bad guys, he’s even more dedicated to this cause. The makers of any given superhero movie could just make up whatever science they require, but Johnson argues that grounding stories in scientific truth is a way to fight back a little bit against “fake news” narratives. And, as a young, black physicist, he sees another aspect of his work as getting creators to see that how they portray scientists onscreen matters to the whole culture.
“Are the scientists all white males with crazy hair? Because scientists are people of color, women and young people,” he says. On Genius, which traverses the entirety of Albert Einstein’s life and career, Johnson was happy he was able to drill it home that the clichés about Einstein often aren’t based in truth.
For one, the physicist didn’t dream up his ideas in a vacuum — science is highly collaborative, and Einstein bounced theories off his friends and his classmate and first wife, Mileva Maric, an accomplished scientist in her own right. And he was quite young when he was doing his most important work. Johnson can easily forgive Doc Brown as a character but feels that perpetuating the idea of the old white male as the gatekeeper of science turns younger folks away from the field. In fact, Johnson bristles as the use of that word (“If I had my way, I wouldn’t title the show that”), and the implication that one is either a genius or not.
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“You don’t get that eureka moment without months and sometimes years of wandering around being confused, trying different things, talking with people, looking stuff up,” Johnson says, citing The Martian as a film that gets it right, especially with diversity. A film that irked him? Star Wars: Rogue One.
“There’s a scene where they’re at one of the engineering facilities and this person is asked to bring out his whole team of senior engineers for questioning.” Johnson shakes his head with a slight eye roll. “It’s a quick wide shot of the whole thing, but all the engineers are older, white and male. And we have another generation who’s going to go away thinking that’s what an engineer is.”
In his perfect world, Johnson would like scientists to become stock characters like the lawyer, the doctor, the nurse or the cop — just someone who lives next door and happens to be a neurobiologist. It would be a way of conveying that anyone can become a scientist with a little hard work, creativity and community. While that dream may be a way off, for now, Johnson dutifully picks up the phone when Marvel calls, and he tries his best to use the movies as a recruiting tool for young scientists.
“It’s hard to say ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and ‘It’s good for society’ in the same sentence,” Johnson says with a laugh. “But I actually do believe that.”