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Backstory: The Pentagon goes Hollywood

It funds a program to turn scientists into screenwriters, hoping to lure more young people into the sciences.

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If it were up to Martin Gundersen, Robert Barker, and Alex Singer, the next Hollywood blockbuster script would read something like this: INTERIOR LAB – DAY OR NIGHT (WHO CAN EVER TELL IN THESE PLACES?)

Strains of Chopin float through a science lab. An intense woman in a white smock – let's call her something heroic like DIANA CURIE (picture Beyoncé or Penelope Cruz) – is about to fire a round of argon from her nanoparticle gun. Suddenly, her beeping phone pierces the calm. She flips it open – a red "S" flashes on the screen. She drops the gun and dashes to the door.


Curie glances around furtively. She takes off her glasses and quickly unbuttons her lab coat to reveal blue tights emblazoned with a giant red "S" ... followed by the letters "c-i-e-n-c-e."

Now in her superhero costume, she goes to the window, dons an antigravity pack, and flies off to save the world – once again – for Truth, Justice, and the American Scientific Way....

We'll leave the rest of the screenplay to William Goldman because you're probably getting the point by now. However exaggerated the above confection may be, the triumvirate of Messrs. Gundersen, Barker, and Singer is serious about getting science – and scientific heroes – into the movies. In fact, they see it as vital to the health of American technological prowess, to say nothing of national security.

So what they've done for the past three years is convene a three-to-five-day screenwriting class at the venerated American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Called the Catalyst Workshop, it's a lot like other screenwriting classes that have become a cottage industry across the nation. But here's the twist – all participants in this one are actually scientists. Hardcore, PhD-laden, lab-certified scientists. Here's the second twist – the training was all paid for by the Pentagon.

These screenwriting classes are indeed your Department of Defense tax dollars at work. Egregious example of DOD waste? Some bizarre recruiting promise? The cinematic equivalent of $700 toilet seats? Actually, it's the Pentagon's way of trying to enhance the nation's science-and-technology adroitness.



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