11 Secrets of Hollywood Science Advisors

AMC
AMC

The work of a Hollywood science advisor can be hard to spot. Rather than shoving science in the audience’s faces, it’s their job to make the world of a movie or TV show feel believable, from the physics of fight scenes to the theories that characters scrawl on the blackboard.

Science advisors are usually regular scientists working in fields like physics, astronomy, and chemistry; the main thing that often sets them apart from their peers is a passion for film and TV. Whether they're meeting with actors, checking equations, or shaping plot points, here are some of the ways they contribute to your favorite pieces of pop culture.

1. Science advisors are usually volunteers.

Most of the Hollywood science advisors that Mental Floss spoke to were doing the work pro bono. Donna Nelson, a chemist at the University of Oklahoma, learned that Breaking Bad was looking for a science advisor while reading an interview with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan. According to him, the series was in need of guidance from a real scientist, but there wasn’t enough room in the budget to hire one. So Nelson volunteered to lend her knowledge.

That was in Season 1, and over the next several years Breaking Bad exploded into a massive success. But even as the budget grew, Nelson never once accepted a paycheck for her advising work. “I was a volunteer from beginning to end,” she tells Mental Floss. “I was delighted to do it because my goal was to help the scientific community.”

The same usually holds true even when the advisors contributing their expertise to a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and science advisor on such films as Watchmen (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), tells Mental Floss, “All the consulting that I've done has been volunteering.”

2. Geeking out gets them noticed.

Before she became advisor on the TV show 12 Monkeys, Sophia Gad-Nasr, an astroparticle physicist at UC Irvine, was just a regular viewer talking about the episodes on social media. "I really liked it and I tweeted about it, so the showrunner reached out to me and let me know they were in need of a science advisor," she says.

Meanwhile, Kakalios was a comic book fan who had literally written the book on the physics of superheroes before he was asked to work on the Watchmen movie. "[Warner Bros.] contacted me and said 'We're making a movie about a comic book. Have you ever heard of this graphic novel called Watchmen?' And if you're into comic books, it's like saying 'Have you ever heard of this movie called Citizen Kane'?" he says. "So when I was done vibrating like a gong, I said 'Yes, I've heard of Watchmen.'"

3. They're sworn to secrecy.

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, did some consulting on the upcoming movie Avengers 4—the entire plot of which has been kept tightly under wraps. He says, “I know things about that I’m not allowed to tell anybody. And they do make sure that you understand that.”

For 12 Monkeys, Gad-Nasr was hired to help introduce the Hartle-Hawking state—physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle's theory that prior to the Big Bang there was only space and no time—into the show. Her work ended up being one of the biggest spoilers of the series. “[In 12 Monkeys] you keep getting hints about this 'red forest,' and that red forest was actually the Hartle-Hawking state I worked on. I had to sign an NDA.”

4. They need to be on-call 24/7.

Scientists who sign on to advise a TV show shouldn’t expect normal working hours. The makers of the show might reach out to them whenever a science question comes up during filming, which can be any time of day or night. While working on Breaking Bad, Nelson knew that being able to answer emails quickly was crucial. “I tried to put myself in [the filmmakers’] place and thought of them being on set, and you know they’re not going to hold up filming for a science advisor,” she says. “They’re very busy … so if they don’t get an answer it will be easy for them to write the science out.”

5. They sometimes meet directly with actors.

A science advisor mainly works with writers, producers, and directors, but occasionally they'll meet with members of the cast. While consulting on Watchmen, Kakalios chatted with actor Billy Crudup to help develop his character, Dr. Manhattan, who’s a nuclear physicist. "We were talking about [Dr. Manhattan's] attitudes of being cut-off from humanity and I was talking to him about how as a director of graduate studies I often saw students get overwhelmed by graduate school," he says. "They can kind of shut down but the one thing they focused on exclusively is their work—it's the one thing they have control over. Later on he said he thought that was helpful."

6. They help make fictional scientists feel human.

The makers of Breaking Bad often asked Nelson what a chemist might do in certain situations, from the words they use to the way they interact with their students and peers. One of her insights into the psychology of Walter White became a major plot point in the series. “They asked, ‘If there was a person who was working alongside another person and one man would go on to be a Nobel Prize winner and the other would go on to become a high school teacher, what is something that could happen to make them take different paths?’ And I said, ‘Is there a young woman involved? Have the successful one take the girlfriend away from the other one and that would devastate him.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

7. If you want to spot a science advisor’s work, check the blackboard.

One of the most common tasks science advisors are given is something most viewers never notice. If a movie or TV show contains a scene with a professor (or scientist, mathematician, etc.) in front of a blackboard, it’s the science advisor's job to make sure that whatever equations are behind him or her make sense.

“I spent three days on the set of the TV show Bones because they had a long set of sequences with writing on blackboards,” Carroll says. The character writing on the chalkboard in that episode was also a theoretical physicist, and Carroll was responsible for making sure the work was accurate.

Gad-Nasr was also called to set to double-check the math she had come up with for 12 Monkeys. “It wasn’t me who wrote it on the blackboard, but I just came by to make sure everything was cool.”

A blackboard full of nonsense can also be a sign of a film or TV show that doesn’t have a science advisor. Before signing onto Breaking Bad, Nelson noticed some bogus equations on the board in Walter White’s classroom in early episodes. “There were parts that weren’t accurate and I would have stepped up and said something,” she says. But she was able to make up for it later on when the makers of the show asked her to draw some alkene structures to feature on a blackboard. “A person who’s not paying attention might not see that, but a student who’s just had alkene as an undergrad in class or as a high school student taking organic chemistry—they may feel great to be able to look at the correct structures and not see something different from what they learned in class.”

8. Their advice can lead to rewrites ...

Much of a science advisor’s work boils down to small changes in the dialogue, but occasionally their input leads to more significant cuts. When working on Thor (2011), Carroll advised against one scene that depicted a character pushing another off a disc-shaped planet. “The problem is there’s no gravitational pull to pull you off the edge of the planet,” he says. “So scientifically that doesn’t quite make sense.” (On a disc-shaped planet, gravity would actually be working to pull you back to the center.)

9. ... But they usually try to keep changes minimal.

A scientist and director may disagree over the intricacies of superhero physics, but at the end of the day, a science advisor trusts that the filmmaker knows what’s best for their movie. When looking over scripts, Nelson says she made it her mission to keep the dialogue as intact as possible. “The [writers] knew how to write a successful script and I didn’t, so the number one thing I did not do was rewrite the page. So if there’s an incorrect word that’s a three-syllable word that starts with P, I would try to correct the sentence by substituting a different three-syllable word that started with P, because they in their writing might have a certain cadence in the sentence or alliteration or something like that that other people might miss, and I would always try not to destroy any of that.”

10. Their suggestions don’t always make it in.

No matter how much a filmmaker appreciates a science advisor’s input, they rarely choose science over story. “Very few movies or TV shows in the science fiction world try to be 100 percent accurate,” Carroll says. "Really they’re trying to tell a good story more than anything else.”

Nelson experienced this first-hand when she was asked for her opinion on one of the most famous examples of inaccurate science in Breaking Bad: Walt’s blue meth. “Vince [Gilligan] came and asked me, ‘What do you think about making the meth blue?’” she recalls. “And I said I wouldn’t do it, because meth is not blue, it’s white. He said ‘Isn’t there any reason why it might be blue under some circumstances?’ I said no, it will always be white. And as you know, they went ahead and made it blue because it was necessary for them to have a trademark for his meth. It was a plot device.”

11. More filmmakers are using them.

When the makers of Breaking Bad first brought Nelson on as a science advisor in 2008, hiring her was a bit of an experiment. "When I first started working, I was told in so many words that there was a rumor in Hollywood that you couldn’t have a hit show with a science advisor," she says. Today, working with a scientist is standard even in movies and TV shows with minimal scientific themes. Part of the job's growing prevalence can be credited to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program that connects entertainment industry professionals to scientists.

Another explanation is that today's media consumers hold filmmakers to higher standards. "I think there’s an increasing sophistication among the audience and you can’t just have any old thing happen," Carroll says. "We live in a generation post Cosmos and Brief History of Time where there are a lot of moviegoers who are very smart about what is plausible, and they want their plots to make sense."

10 Secrets of Airbnb Hosts

iStock/Tero Vesalainen
iStock/Tero Vesalainen

Since it launched in 2008, Airbnb has grown from a scrappy tech startup to a major force in the travel industry. The website acts as a middleman between hosts with empty rooms, guest houses, and vacation homes to rent out and travelers looking for an unconventional (and often affordable) place to stay. The company reportedly recently valued itself at $38 billion.

Tech-savvy globetrotters may be familiar with Airbnb from the guest side, but being a host offers its own experiences. If they're willing to endure the occasional clueless, tardy, or rude guest, hosts often learn that meeting people from around the world can be just as rewarding as travel—and a lot more lucrative. We spoke with a few Airbnb hosts to get their perspective on what it's like to provide a temporary home away from home.

1. Airbnb will send a photographer to host homes.

Airbnb wants its listings to be successful, and they offer hosts some pretty appealing perks to make that happen—including sending a professional photographer to their space for a free photoshoot, if hosts ask for one. “The photographer made the room look really nice,” Steve Wilson, an Airbnb host who manages a listing in Austin, Texas, tells Mental Floss. “And the pictures are certified, so people know Airbnb took them and they’re not fake picture I took from the internet.” Enlisting a professional photographer pays off for both the hosts and the company: According to Airbnb, hosts with professional photos see a 40 percent increase in earnings compared to other hosts in their area.

2. Airbnb hosts know that cute pet photos can lead to bookings.

Brenda Tucker's dog, Boo.
Brenda Tucker's dog, Boo.
Brenda Tucker

Brenda Tucker first listed the spare room of her San Francisco home on Airbnb in 2009. As one of the company’s earliest hosts, she had the honor of having CEO Brian Chesky stay in her home, and he shared some useful tips. One piece of advice he gave is something dating app users may already know: Including photos of your pets is a great way to get attention. “Their data was showing that people weren’t really reading the listings, which is true of myself when I use Airbnb,” Tucker tells Mental Floss. “So I put my dog and my cat in the photos early on and that has been very, very helpful.”

3. There's a reason some Airbnb hosts greet you in person.

Some hosts have a set-up that allows them to check in guests without ever meeting them in person, but Wilson prefers to greet guests the old-fashioned way. It’s a friendlier way of doing business, but he says there’s another motivation behind the protocol. “I’ve worked in retail, and it’s like when you try to say ‘hi’ to every [customer]. It’s nice to do, but it’s also a way to reduce people shoplifting,” he says. “They might be more respectful of the space that way if they see a real person there.”

4. Sometimes Airbnb hosts get gifts.

Beyond checking in on time and being considerate, Airbnb hosts don’t expect much from their guests. But occasionally they encounter a guest who goes above and beyond to leave a good impression. Carla (not her real name), a host in Dublin, Ireland, who’s retired, recalls a woman from Belgium who expressed her gratitude by crocheting her a tea cozy. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” she tells Mental Floss. "She showed me that she used to make these, and she showed me photographs, and [then] she made me one. She was lovely."

Early in his Airbnb career, Wilson received a gift from an unexpected source. “One of my first guests was this guy, he had the worst possible photo of himself. It was weird and out-of-focus and he just looked mean and angry. I begrudgingly accepted his invite, and he turned out to be the nicest, sweetest guy. He was from Seattle and he gave me some freeze-dried salmon and a really nice note he wrote me later on a card. That taught me not to judge anybody by their picture.”

5. Not every Airbnb hosting experience is positive, however.

Even if hosts have positive feelings overall toward their experience with Airbnb, they’re bound to collect a few horror stories after working with the service long enough. One traveler Tucker hosted made herself at home by ruining the walls. “She brought her bike up 36 steps from the street, which left tire marks everywhere.” After that incident, the guest proceeded to wash her dirty clothes in the bathtub and lay it over the furniture in the shared living room to dry. “She did not expect me to come home early that day.”

Wilson recalls a guest who dealt with mosquito season by nearly setting his room on fire. “A few mosquitos had gotten in, he had basically let them in, so he kind of freaked out about it and bought all these mosquito candles and left them under the bed.” Fortunately, Wilson caught the fire hazard before it turned disastrous.

6. Hosts appreciate it when you clean up.

People who host on Airbnb know that cleaning up after guests is part of the job, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it when people go out of their way to be neat. “It’s nice when they clean up a bit,” Wilson says. “They can leave their sheets or towels wherever. I don’t care about that stuff, but it's a nice little touch when they do the dishes. It's not that big of a deal but I feel like it’s considerate.”

7. Airbnb hosts hate it when you're late.

Traveling can be stressful and unpredictable, but if you tell your Airbnb host you’ll arrive at a certain time, try your best to stick to it if you want to stay on their good side. “I don’t want to wait around for hours and hours,” Tucker says. “I understand if your flight is late and that’s something you can’t help, but there have been a few people who unfortunately think I have nothing to do on a Saturday except wait around for six hours. When people are rude or have the expectation that you are a personal concierge and you should behave as a hotel, that makes things more difficult for me.”

Wilson repeats the same sentiment, adding that updating your host if you know you’re going to be late is much better than not communicating with them at all. “I always appreciate it when people give me a decent ballpark figure of when they’re planning to get in, and if they don’t make it at that time if they could possibly give me a heads-up that they’re going to be a little later than they were expecting. I have a set check-in and check-out time, but sometimes I can give people a little more time if they need it.”

8. Airbnb hosts don’t want to give you a bad review.

Airbnb hosts know how important reviews can be, and they aren’t quick to assign negative ratings to guests. Tucker says she always tries to confront issues with her guests in person before airing out the problems online. “I try to be diplomatic. Generally I can have a discussion in person where I can feel heard and there’s some kind of understanding,” she says.

But in some cases, even diplomatic hosts may feel forced to rate guests poorly as a warning to future hosts. Tucker says, “I had a woman who was very challenging. She came too early and she seemed a little entitled. She requested a refund because she was leaving early but she hadn’t let me know. I think that was probably the most negative review I ever gave.”

9. It's hard to make a living just from Airbnb hosting.

Many hosts use Airbnb as a source of supplemental income. For her day job, Tucker is the director of arts marketing for the San Francisco Travel Association, and Wilson is a freelance writer. Both say the money they make from Airbnb is a nice cushion, but it’s not enough to make a real living. “It’s not super lucrative, it’s just a stable stream of dough. I don’t think anyone would get rich off it, especially in a place where you’re taxed and have to have a [short-term rental] license,” Wilson says. Airbnb also takes a service fee of at least 3 percent from hosts for every night they book.

For Tucker, being an Airbnb host is more about meeting new people and being exposed to different cultures than it is about making money. “That opportunity to intersect with other cultures is incredibly interesting to me, and something that has enriched my life quite a bit,” she says.

10. Sometimes hosts make lifelong friendships with guests.

The relationship between Airbnb host and guest doesn’t necessarily end at check-out time. Thanks to her hosting gig, Tucker has developed lasting friendships with former guests who are scattered around the globe. “I've made very close friends with people who’ve stayed with me. I’ve traveled with an Italian guest of mine in France and in Italy. I’ve gone to Sweden twice to see a guest I keep in touch with. Those opportunities have been pretty amazing.”

7 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Roadies

Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus
Lindrik/iStock/GettyImagesPlus

Although the word roadie may conjure up images of non-stop partying with rock stars, the reality is that most work unglamorous, physically and emotionally demanding jobs. They lug the gear, set up the instruments, manage the stage, run the sound, sell the merch, drive the bus, and generally do whatever it takes to make concerts possible. Mental Floss talked to a few roadies (who probably wish we'd stop calling them that—see below) to get the inside scoop.

1. Roadie is an outdated term.

Some roadies who worked in the 1960s through the 1980s later wrote books bragging about their sexual conquests, wild partying, and drug use while on the road. Although that lifestyle is not completely obsolete—genres such as metal, rap, and hip hop supposedly see more illegal activity than indie, pop, folk, and alternative—most roadies don’t refer to themselves as such.

Morgan Paros, a violinist and singer based in Los Angeles, says that the generic term roadie seems slightly derogatory now. Instead, it’s better to use terms that more specifically describe individual duties. “Anyone on a tour is generally working very hard to fulfill their role of tour manager, front of house (sound engineer), light tech, stage manager, instrument tech, or merchandise manager,” Paros says. “These individuals make everything possible for the performers every night.”

2. Roadies work insanely long hours.

Most roadies work 16- to 20-hour days. Waking up early and going to sleep late is part of the job description, as Meg MacRae, a production coordinator who’s been on the road with Bon Jovi and the Eagles, attests. A typical day for her starts with a 6 a.m. bus pickup, after which she sets up a temporary production office at the venue. After a long day of problem-solving, booking flights and hotels, and making sure the crew is taken care of, she ends her day at 1:30 or 2 a.m.

3. Roadies get used to roughing it.

Unless they’re working for an A+ list performer, most roadies are not living the high life, sleeping in luxury hotel suites and flying on private jets. Being on the road can be hard work. Depending on the band’s budget level, the road crew may sleep on the floor of a shared hotel room, or sit in a crowded Ford Econoline or Chevrolet Express van for hours.

Tour conditions offer minimal privacy and maximum mess. “You wouldn’t believe how insanely messy a van can get after a 6-week tour of the country,” says Michael Lerner of Telekinesis.

David, a front-of-house sound engineer based in New York, also describes the dirty working conditions in many venues. “Consider how grimy some music venues look. The dusty mixing board in the back coated in spilled beer, the germs of hundreds of singers talking/spitting/shouting into the same microphones night after night, and the questionable odors of green rooms inhabited by people who spend a solid portion of their days packed into a van … this is your office. Good luck not getting sick.”

4. Roadies usually have good reasons for putting up with it all.

So why do roadies subject themselves to the long hours and less-than-glamorous conditions? Many say they love music so much that they can’t imagine working in any other field. “For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have a job in music,” tour manager and sound engineer William Pepple writes. Some roadies also get into it because they love traveling all over the world, seeing new cities, and meeting new people.

5. Maintaining relationships at home is a big challenge for roadies.

Being a roadie is a lifestyle rather than just a job. Because they travel so frequently for work, roadies often struggle to maintain relationships with loved ones. Technology such as FaceTime and Skype has made keeping up with family, friends, and significant others easier, but it can still be a challenge to find privacy to make phone calls. Roadies who travel on buses have a little more privacy and time to connect with loved ones back home, since bus tours often give them the freedom of waking up in the city where the band’s next show is, while road crew on van tours spend the majority of the daytime driving to the next show.

6. They probably have at least one horror story from the road.

Whether it’s an unscrupulous promoter cheating the band out of their earnings, a bus overheating, a van breaking down, or driving through dangerous winter storms, roadies probably have at least one horror story. Most awful promoters or venues, though, are usually due to simple misunderstandings. “Most bad days are due to either bad communication or a lack of understanding that most touring people just want simple comforts: a clean shower, clean towels, a safe place to put their stuff, laundry machines, and good food,” says Mahina Gannet, who’s worked as a tour manager and production coordinator for bands such as The Postal Service, Death Cab For Cutie, and Neko Case.

7. Good roadies are there to work, not just hang out with the band.

Achieving a balance between being professional and having fun is harder on tours because “you are working, living and traveling with your co-workers,” Gannet adds. “I’m there to get a job done, and when it’s done, I love to hang out. A lot of tour managers I’ve seen definitely can go to either extreme (some actually thinking they are a member of the band, some so distant the band can’t talk to them), but it’s like everything else in life. It’s about finding your own personal balance.”

This piece first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER