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MindFood: Real Science Hollywood Should Use

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Apr 27, 2011 | 6:08am EDT

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Sci-fi is a typically tough nut for Hollywood to crack. I wish I had an explanation as to why Source Code is the only true bit of science fiction to come out so far in 2011, but I don’t really have one.  By now, studio executives should've learned a hundred times over that you can have fun with science without being stupid, yet it’s still hard for movies like Source Code to make it through the Hollywood system. As big-budget and cool as they are, movies like Battle: Los Angeles are more Syfy than sci-fi, so I’m just going to assume it's because the people greenlighting movies don’t read daily science news and are thus oblivious to the fact that it’s the year 2011 and that there are plenty of real-world topics just begging to be exploited on the big screen.

Source Code PosterSo to save everyone some time, here are a handful of developments in the science community going down right now that Hollywood may want to pay attention to:

Earth on Verge of Major Extinction Episode

I hesitate to bring this story up, because it just makes me think of Mark Wahlberg in The Happening sounding deeply concerned and mystified about the plight of dying honeybees -- and anything that brings The Happening to mind is just inviting in bad mojo. But the catastrophic decline in amphibian populations is actually a pretty serious issue that few are talking about. (Frogs be dyin’, yo.)

No, this isn’t fodder for another climate-change disaster movie. Amphibians the world over aren’t dying strictly because of global warming; they’re dying because a wide array of reasons that are, unfortunately, pretty much irreversible at this point (spoiler alert: the humans did it). As near as we can tell, we’re about to experience a mass extinction period, thanks to amphibians vanishing at a rate that’s 200 times faster than any other class of animal.

Now how could this be used in a movie? Any number of ways, really. The decline in frog populations may not have a huge impact in, say, New York City, but if you live in a third world country rife with malaria, losing any species that eats disease carriers for breakfast isn’t exactly a good thing. You could base an entire movie around this -- a virus running rampant after the frog population that kept it in check goes belly-up -- or you could just use it as one of a handful of signs that the world is ending.

SETI Takes a Hit

This story actually isn’t a huge deal, because, contrary to what a lot of headlines suggest, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program has not shuttered its doors completely. It has, however, been forced by lack of budget to cease operation at its largest array of ET-finding radio towers (Dr. Arroway would be pissed). Fiscal instability doesn’t exactly make for a thrilling movie story, though, so it’d be understandable if a screenwriter wanted to twist this black eye for SETI into something a bit more dramatic. Hey, maybe they found something and the government denying funding is just a cover-up! Or maybe now we just won’t see the aliens coming! Either way, if Skyline can quote Stephen Hawking in its trailer, then a future alien-invasion movie can certainly use news clips about SETI shutting down to set the stage for Mars taking over Earth.

Synthetic Brains Move Closer to Reality

Terminator CyborgThere have been plenty of movies about the inevitable robo-apocalypse that will happen once artificial intelligence gets too unwieldy. This has resulted in an entire genre niche of stories about robots whose thought processes work like those of humans, but no one has told a horror story about what robots whose brains actually work like ours do. That’s because currently all AI runs on distinctly machine-based circuitry that looks not unlike the inside of your desktop PC, but now that scientists have been able to artificially re-create the process of neuron synapses firing electrical impulses using breakthroughs in carbon nanotube technology, just imagine the possibilities! Seriously, re-read that sentence and just marvel at the buzzwords that lead up to the big daddy of science terms these days: carbon nanotubes. If scientists can just figure out how to work antimatter in there somehow, we’ve got ourselves the perfect storm of technobabble to put together a screenplay.

All kidding aside, science is making big strides in regards to not just creating artificial thought but artificial brains that will generate those artificial thoughts. If full-on cyborg aren't isn’t fuel enough to get a script greenlit, then I give up.

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