Tuesday Feature Episode 28: David Kirby

Last week we featured the creator of the new Life Science Broadcast series and this week we feature a man who looks at the way science is portrayed in popular media. Read all about David Kirby and his work that looks at science on the screen.


Explain your research for the general public in about ten sentences of less.

As a science communication scholar, what I’m interested in are the ways that entertainment media serve as vehicles for science communication. By entertainment media I mean movies, television, graphic novels – things that we would think of as popular culture. I’m interested in the ways in which they disseminate messages about science and I’m interested in how those messages influence or impact real world science, technology and medicine.

How does this research benefit the general public?

Entertainment media like movies and television can have a significant impact on the ways in which the public think about science or technology. By examining the depictions of science in movies or on television and understanding how they are produced, how they are disseminated and how they are received by audiences, we can try and make these depictions better. We can try to ensure that those depictions match up with real world science – to make those depictions authentic, whether it is the depiction of science, scientists or the relationship between science and society.

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How did you first become interested in your research area?

I’m trained as a scientist with a PhD in evolutionary genetics. I taught in a biology department for a while and during that time I became interested in the ways that media were depicting science. I had always had an interest in movies and that led me to undertake a retraining postdoc at Cornell University to study the relationships between science and media. Given my interest in film, I started looking at those relationships in particular. In terms of the research that I have done, I thought about the ways in which scientists have become involved in the making of entertainment products like movies and television. I thought it’d be a good idea to see the types of influences scientists might have on these media.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Yeah, in terms of scientists who inspired me to take this path, I would point to Carl Sagan. This is especially because I’m an American who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s. Cosmos was a major television show in the US at that time and it’s considered one of the seminal, popular depictions of science in media. Not only was Carl Sagan an inspiring figure in terms of being a prominent and articulate scientist, but the ways in which he made science understandable and made science something other people wanted to study, was important to me. So when I made the shift to look at science and media I kind of took Sagan as a model.

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

Working in Manchester has helped me because it brought me to the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which is one of the top centres for studying science and society in the world. Being here amongst my colleagues and being someone who made that transition from bench science into studying science’s relationship to society, it was actually really useful to me being here. Being in CHSTM allowed me to see how some of the top scholars in the world have studied this particular topic. I think I can rightfully say that had I not received the job here 11 years ago, my book Lab Coats in Hollywood would not have been as successful as it was. I owe the book’s success to being here in Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I have a lovely wife, Laura, and two cats and we enjoy doing a lot of travelling. In terms of activities for enjoyment, I play a sport called softball. It’s an American sport that is surprisingly popular here in Britain, especially in Manchester. We have a thriving league with over 30 teams, so we’re talking over 350 people playing the sport. I think its popularity in the UK surprises many people. For me it is a kind of life-line back to my roots in America.

#PlayingGod videos

We told you all about the Playing God Film Series in a previous post, but now we have even more information from the organisers and contributors.

Dr David Kirby tells us the idea behind the series:

Amy Chambers discusses the potential audiences:

And Dr William Macauley gives a bit more info about the films included:

 

All six films will be shown at The Anthony Burgess Foundation and entrance is free. They’ll be looking at The Bride of Frankenstein, The Exorcist, Planet of the Apes, Solaris, Creation, and Altered States.

Which ones are you most looking forward to? Tell us in the comments.

Playing God in Manchester

Playing God postcardA unique and fascinating film series kicks off in Manchester on March 5, bringing together the diverse themes of religion and science.

The Playing God Film Series will explore the portrayal of these subjects in six classic movies. Each screening, showing at the Anthony Burgess Foundation across March, April, and May, will be introduced by an expert speaker and followed by a panel discussion.

The events have been organised by the Science and Entertainment Laboratory, based in the Faculty’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Dr David Kirby explains the thinking behind the series:

“We wanted to look at all six films in a new and different way, asking fresh questions about the content and challenging audiences to consider the nature of, and connections between, science and religion.”

The films are free to attend and booking is not required. All screenings, listed below, start at 18:30:

Bride of Frankenstein5th March: The Bride of Frankenstein

The film will be introduced by the science studies scholar Dr David Kirby.

Exorcist_19th March19th March: The Exorcist

With an introduction by film scholar Professor Mark Jancovich.

Planet of the Apes_16h April16th April: Planet of the Apes

Introduced by sci-fi expert Dr Amy Chambers.

Solaris_30th April30th April: Solaris

With an introduction by filmmaker Sean Martin.

Creation_14th May14th May: Creation

Introduced by theologian Professor Peter Scott and historian Professor Joe Cain.

altered_states_198021st May: Altered States

With an introduction by historian Dr William Macauley.

With a list of such controversial and at times genre-defining films, the discussions surrounding the Playing God Film Series promises to be fascinating. You can follow the conversations using the #PlayingGod hashtag on Twitter.

Dr David Kirby discusses science advisers in film and TV

Faculty researcher Dr David Kirby was recently featured in an article and podcast for Nature Jobs, focusing on the role of The front cover of Dr Kirby's bookscience advisers in film and television. In his book, Lab Coats in Hollywood, science communication and film studies expert Dr Kirby looked at what draws scientists to the world of film. He interviewed 25 scientists to investigate how film producers used scientists on films such as Hulk, Finding Nemo, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

According to Dr Kirby, in an age where stereotypes are closely scrutinised, producers and writers are often most interested in knowing what scientists are really like. The questions the scientists are asked, and the time the advisers are needed for, varies depending on the film or TV series.

After many years immersed in the world of Hollywood media, Dr Kirby feels he has learnt a great deal. For any scientist wishing to follow his footsteps, he suggests they need to really understand the world of entertainment to work well with filmmakers and television producers. He says:

“Scientists underestimate how much science is communicated through films and television shows. Science is not just defined as what you find in a textbook. Science includes images of scientists themselves, the scientific process, scientific institutions, and science’s place in society. My research shows that when scientists become involved as consultants for the entertainment industry they are able to positively influence representations for all of these aspects in addition to making scientific facts more accurate.”

To find out more about Dr Kirby’s research, and the role of the science advisers in general, read the Nature article and listen to the podcast.