Long before Prometheus launched, director Ridley Scott stopped by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA to talk a little exobiology.
Opening June 8 in the U.S., the prequel to Scott’s 1979 Alien chronicles an ill-fated exploration team that travels to a distant planet in search of humankind’s origin. To ground the plot in scientific plausibility, Scott turned to Kevin Hand, JPL’s deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration, to explain the kind of terrain, atmosphere, or ecosystem astronauts might encounter on a planet outside of our solar system.
"I met with Ridley and his creative team early in the process to see how science could be utilized in plotlines," says Hand. "They had lots of questions about what it takes for humans to travel to distant worlds, how those worlds might be uninhabitable for humans, the constraints to consider when thinking about alien life, and how it might have adapted to that environment. It became a creative brainstorming session where we bounced ideas and questions off one another. My goal was to help them get the science right while maintaining a plot that tells a compelling story."
Among the issues discussed were ways in which a localized portion of a human-friendly atmosphere might suddenly turn toxic. Hand cited volcanic outpouring of toxic gases. Scott also asked him for scientifically justifiable reasons a building interior could contain enough oxygen for astronauts to remove their helmets when the exterior atmosphere did not. Hand suggested water electrolysis (electricity splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen), and radioactive decay, which could also split water molecules.
"I haven’t seen the final film, so I don’t know what they incorporated," says Hand. "Directors like James Cameron and Ridley Scott are dedicated to getting the science as right as possible, as part of the dialogue and conversation. At the same time you have to know when to let go of the science and allow things to be a fun, action-packed adventure. No one wants to listen to characters explaining five minutes of scientific concept."
Hand is an established liaison to Hollywood. In addition to consulting on another Scott film in development, he’s also worked with James Cameron. Hand consulted on and appeared in Cameron’s 2005 IMAX documentary Aliens of the Deep, consulted on Avatar, and was among the scientists involved in his March expedition to the Pacific Ocean’s Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth. Hand, who holds a Ph.D. in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University, has an expertise is planetary science and astrobiology, particularly the sub-surface oceans of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s respective moons, Europa and Enceladus.
Hollywood’s interest in scientific accuracy is a growing trend, in part, due to organizations such as Hollywood Health and Society and the Science and Entertainment Exchange that connect filmmakers and TV showrunners with scientists and physicians.
"We are becoming a more technological society, but I also think it makes for a better story if you get it right, because you appeal to the critical thinking skills of the audience," says Hand. "It’s the difference between a mash-up bang-up science fiction film where people guffaw at everything that’s wrong scientifically, and a great science fiction film that tells an amazing story, while also expanding people’s understanding of science."