As one of the earliest participants in the Science and Entertainment Exchange Program of the US National Academy of Sciences, I would like to counter Daniel Sarewitz's criticisms (Nature 466, 27; 2010) by highlighting its success in promoting science to the public.
The Exchange was set up in 2008 in response to Hollywood's demand for scientific advice. True to its name, it also provides a boost for science by stimulating the audience's interest in scientific topics through the resulting film or television programme.
I worked as a physics consultant on the 2009 film Watchmen and on a video discussing the science behind it. The video intercut scenes from the film with a discussion of the physics of wave interference and an experimental demonstration of electron diffraction. It was posted on several websites, including Ain't It Cool News and Pharyngula, as well as on blogs run by Richard Dawkins and film critic Roger Ebert.
Within a few months, the video had been watched more than 1.5 million times. I could teach 1,000 students a year for 15 centuries before I would reach that many people. I doubt that I could get even 15 people to view a straightforward video demonstrating the wave–particle duality that underlies quantum physics. But, by tying the facts to a major motion picture, people who came for the fiction stayed for the science.
Fans of fantastic fiction are excited by cool ideas, especially if they turn out to be true. The Exchange programme helps to feed that excitement, providing an opportunity to connect scientists to people they would not normally reach.
This spring, more than 14 million people (many of whom are registered voters) watched an episode of the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory. It featured a scene in which a group of physics and astronomy PhDs sets up a powerful laser on the roof of their apartment to bounce a signal from the reflectors placed on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. The group is jubilant about the trace on an oscilloscope screen because it relays evidence of man-made objects on the Moon, “put there by a member of a species that only 60 years before had just invented the airplane”.
Such examples are a testament to the value of the Science and Entertainment Exchange's efforts to promote science awareness.