Media is an important tool for communicating science. Popular media (film, television, etc.) plays a central role, providing not only a framework for our understanding of scientific concepts, but also a sociocultural context in which science and scientists are portrayed. Working side-by-side with talented writers, scientists have become increasingly involved in this process by serving as scientific consultants. Take, for example, the critically-acclaimed scientific drama Manhattan, which recently ran two seasons on WGN America. More than a fictional retelling about a famous scientific event, Manhattan is a story about the lives of the scientists responsible for building the world's first nuclear weapon in Los Alamos, New Mexico during WWII. We recently sat down with Sam Shaw (creator/executive producer/writer of Manhattan) and Dr. David Saltzberg (particle physicist at UCLA and science consultant for Manhattan and The Big Bang Theory) to learn more about what it's like to produce a television show which portrays both science and scientists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To see the full interview, click here.
Signal to Noise Magazine (StN): What inspired you to tell the story of the Manhattan Project – the building of the atomic bomb - and do it from such a strong science perspective? You could've easily told a story like this from just a strictly historical/political perspective but you chose not to. What motivated you to do that?
Shaw: The origin story of the bomb really seemed to shed a lot of light on contemporary problems and questions that have to do with civil liberties and with the trade offs between security and freedom. Also I think there is a big contemporary conversation we're having now about the role of politics and science and this is sort of the birthplace of that conflict too . . . . But there was this huge barrier to entry: I hadn't taken a physics course since I was a sophomore in high school. That actually made it a really exciting process because even when I didn't agree with some of the politics of the characters that I was thinking about and writing about, I had such admiration for their intellects.
Saltzberg: Sam's being modest because the first time I talked to him on the phone, I know physics, but I don't know 1940s nuclear physics off the tip of my tongue [like he did]. Sam had read probably 100 books on the Manhattan Project. It was clear that I had to quickly do my homework if I was going to keep talking to Sam.
StN: You realize at some point you had to get into this and understand the physics. Did that deter you in any way or were you just like we're going to go head on into this and see what happens?
Shaw: I love research, and maybe it's because there's a part of me that wishes I could have been a student forever. I only realized retrospectively once I was out of school that that was the golden moment to have your job be to get smarter and more interesting. I knew there was a lot I had to read and think about before I ever started writing [Manhattan]. I loved that. It [working with David] became such an indispensable relationship for me and for the writers, because there were times when a kernel of something that David would bring to the table would suggest an avenue for a story. There were times where we had a story and we knew that it required a kind of scientific context or a problem that the characters were trying to solve, and had some idea of what the parameters of the problem would be. It has to be a problem that can be cracked with a kind of AHA! light bulb-like insight. Or it has to be a problem that is going to require hours and hours of trial and error. Not everybody is suited to helping talk through that kind of a narrative problem. David was really great at it.
Saltzberg: It's sort of like problem solving, which is fun. The hard part was getting to understand . . . did they want something quick or did they want something that's involved. If you just said “come up with some physics thing that people are doing in the 1940s,” forget it, your mind would draw a blank. But when you're saying they're in the room and there's a lot of electricity going on and something has to happen in three seconds that makes some guy fall across the room, immediately something pops into your head. So the constraints actually help the creative process of coming up with some ideas.
StN: At any point were you ever in conflict with how the scientists were acting in the show?
Saltzberg: Sometimes they acted in a way that a scientist wouldn't have acted then or now and the wonderful thing about working with Sam and the others is that they would just accept that. To give a concrete example, there was a major plot point about plagiarism. It was a little bit more about stealing the words originally, which someone from the Iowa Writers' Workshop would probably focus on, but for a scientist . . . that wouldn't be the big sin. The problem is really stealing the ideas.
Shaw: How do you dramatize it? Is it about hearing a few lines that were taken from the paper, or what it feels like in the scene? That's such a great example, because my point of entry to thinking about plagiarism is it's like stealing a beautiful sentence or simile or something like that.
Saltzberg: There were a small number of times that we talked about plot points, [like] how a nuclear reactor might fail, and just adding some of the danger there. But again, I had the easy part. I just had to read about how reactors fail. In the end it's actually quite educational for me. I'm a particle physicist, not a nuclear physicist, these people are my cousins and I can understand their language very well.
StN: How different was it to work on a historical drama versus a comedy like The Big Bang Theory?
Saltzberg: What's different on The Big Bang Theory [is] these are folks that live in our time . . . and things that are new in my world are new in their world. They live in our world and for the first eight seasons jump around from topic to topic. Only in the last season . . . [did] they actually work on one idea, one invention. Whereas with Manhattan it was all about this one project and pieces of this project in great detail. Sometimes they needed words like how much the density increased inside the implosion device. Luckily Los Alamos has posted essentially all the internal notes that they were writing at the time. You can read something that Seth Neddermeyer wrote about implosion and see pictures of his imploded pipes. You can read stuff that Richard Feynman wrote in 1944 . . . . You can pick it up from those documents.
StN: As a scientist it's clear that you really want to have science be extremely accurate for both Manhattan and The Big Bang Theory. How do you balance between the science and the story?
Saltzberg: The whole decision of whether or not something's gonna be scientifically accurate is a creative decision. It's defining the playground that they're working in. The example I like to use is imagine you had a science consultant on Back to the Future and they say you've gotta go back in time and save your parents' relationship. Then the consultant says, “well, actually, you can't make a time machine that goes back in time.” So then what are you [going to] do for the other 89 minutes of the movie? It's a creative decision how much you [want to] listen to science consultants. That said, once I'm called in I love to make it right.
Shaw: It was interesting figuring out how to dramatize the science. Part of what was interesting is that there weren't a lot of templates for us. I think there's a reason why you see so many cop shows and medical shows on television. The conflict is obvious in a story that's about crime fighting . . . or about suturing up a wound. There's also this rich dramatic tradition and there are all these conventions and tropes and we know what the parameters of the storytelling are. But it was fun for us and also challenging to figure out how to tell a story about working on a reactor, about trying to figure out how to solve a problem of shock waves and building an implosion bomb. For us the big thing was that fundamentally the show is about scientists and about the scientific project, but essentially the show is about the relationships between the characters. The science scenes were crucial to us when they could help dramatize essential difference[s] between characters or conflict or open a window into somebody's obsession or whatever it was. We were constantly trying to reinvent the ways that we would use science in the storytelling.
StN: You have this very strong science-y fiction show. Did you ever think about how the audience would perceive it? How they might think about science or scientists?
Shaw: A really cool thing for me about the experience of making the show is that I got to talk to a lot of scientists and read a lot of memoirs of scientists. If there's one thing that I hope our show occasioned for people to think or talk about. . .[it's the] relationship between science and politics. The politicizing of science, and the manufacturing of noise that pretends to be science, or opinion that is unscientific that pretends to be science and actually kind of clutters the conversation. They're not just problems within the world of science; they're problems for non-scientists because those issues have direct implications on the lives that everybody else leads too. It was interesting and it felt like a useful way to spend a day . . . .helping to bring some attention to a conversation about how science interacts with the real world aside from the work that happens in a laboratory.
Saltzberg: One of the themes of your magazine is communicating science. One thing I've noticed in working with this show and [The Big Bang Theory] is I'm glad that the story ultimately comes first. Some people say you really should write a show that promotes science and then covers it with story sort of like applesauce over the aspirin. I think it doesn't work. The point is you can tell that the story is not their primary goal and I expect people can spot that a mile away. I think it's great that writers like Sam and other writers I've dealt with have such a love of science it comes through, but really the story is what people are tuning in for.
Shaw: There's a whole conversation about representation in television and media in terms of race and gender and sexual orientation, about whose stories get told and how they get told. Often what you find is that there's a kind of tokenism in stories . . . sort of like a character can only play one role. Since we're talking about science and how science gets represented, I hope that [Manhattan is] a show in which there are a lot of different kinds of scientists who think about science in different ways. For some of them it's a job, just like any other job; for some of them it is a passionate obsession; some of them have kind of hitched the wagon of their scientific work to a political agenda that we may not agree with. [It] could be a show...[with] more heroes who are scientists instead of Bond villains who want to create a ray that's gonna destroy the world . . . . The truth is that there's a whole lot of different ways that people can be a scientist.
Manhattan Season One is available on Hulu; Season Two on Amazon or iTunes.
To learn more about the Manhattan Project check out:
Historian and Manhattan consultant Alex Wellerstein's blog Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog
Atomic Heritage Foundation, non-profit organization dedicated to documenting the history and legacy of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age
Voices of the Manhattan Project, public archive of oral history collections of Manhattan Project veterans and their families
Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology