Category Archives: Books

Profile: ‘ER’ TV Writer/Advisor Channels Storytelling Towards Social Activism

Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.
Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.

It has become compulsory for modern medical (or scientifically-relevant) shows to rely on a team of advisors and experts for maximal technical accuracy and verisimilitude on screen. Many of these shows have become so culturally embedded that they’ve changed people’s perceptions and influenced policy. Even the Gates Foundation has partnered with popular television shows to embed important storyline messages pertinent to public health, HIV prevention and infectious diseases. But this was not always the case. When Neal Baer joined ER as a young writer and simultaneous medical student, he became the first technical expert to be subsumed as an official part of a production team. His subsequent canon of work has reshaped the integration of socially relevant issues in television content, but has also ushered in an age of public health awareness in Hollywood, and outreach beyond it. Dr. Baer sat down with ScriptPhD to discuss how lessons from ER have fueled his public health efforts as a professor and founder of UCLA’s Global Media Center For Social Impact, including storytelling through public health metrics and leveraging digital technology for propelling action.
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“The Panic Virus” and the Origins of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The Panic Virus paperback version ©2012, Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.

On February 28, 1998, the revered British medical journal The Lancet published a brief paper by then-high profile but controversial gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that claimed to have linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with regressive autism and inflammation of the colon in a small case number of children. A subsequent paper published four years later claimed to have isolated the strain of attenuated measles virus used in the MMR vaccine in the colons of autistic children through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR amplification). The effect on vaccination rates in the UK was immediate, with MMR vaccinations reaching a record low in 2003/2004, and parts of London losing herd immunity with vaccination rates of 62%. 15 American states currently have immunization rates below the recommended 90% threshold. Wakefield was eventually exposed as a scientific fraud and an opportunist trying to cash in on people’s fears with ‘alternative clinics’ and pre-planned a ‘safe’ vaccine of his own before the Lancet paper was ever published. Even the 12 children in his study turned out to have been selectively referred by parents convinced of a link between the MMR vaccine and their children’s autism. The original Lancet paper was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. By that point, irreparable damage had been done that may take decades to reverse.

How could a single fraudulent scientific paper, unable to be replicated or validated by the medical community, cause such widespread panic? How could it influence legions of otherwise rational parents to not vaccinate their children against devastating, preventable diseases, at a cost of millions of dollars in treatment and worse yet, unnecessary child fatalities? And why, despite all evidence to the contrary, have people remained adamant in their beliefs that vaccines are responsible for harming otherwise healthy children, whether through autism or other insidious side effects? In his brilliant, timely, meticulously-researched book The Panic Virus, author Seth Mnookin disseminates the aggregate effect of media coverage, echo chamber information exchange, cognitive biases and the desperate anguish of autism parents as fuel for the recent anti-vaccine movement. In doing so, he retraces the triumphs and missteps in the history of vaccines, examines the social impact of rejecting the scientific method in a more broad perspective, and ways that this current utterly preventable public health crisis can be avoided in future scenarios. A review of The Panic Virus, an enthusiastic ScriptPhD.com Editor’s Selection, follows below.
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New Comic-Con Documentary Celebrates Fandom and The Rise of the Geek

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope poster and all film stills ©2012 Wreckin Hill Entertainment, all rights reserved.

Every July, hundreds of thousands of fans descend upon the city of San Diego for a four-day celebration of comics, sci-fi, popular arts fandom and (growingly) previews of mainstream television and film blockbusters. What is this spectacular nexus of nerds? Comic-Con International, of course! From ScriptPhD’s comprehensive past coverage, one can easily glean the diversity of events, guests and panels, with enormous throngs patiently queueing to see their favorites. But who are these fans? Where do they come from? What kinds of passions drive their journeys to Comic-Con from all over the world? And what microcosms are categorized under the general umbrella of fandom? Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attempts to answer these questions by crafting the sweet, intimate, honest documentary-as-ethnography Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. Through the archetypes of five 2009 Comic-Con attendees, Spurlock guides us through the history of the Con, its growth (and the subsequent conflicts that this has engendered), and most importantly, the conclusion that underneath all of those Spider-Man and Klingon costumes, geeks really do come in all shapes, colors and sizes. For full ScriptPhD review, click “continue reading.”
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Editor’s Selection: Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema book cover ©2011 MIT Press, all rights reserved

Read through any archive of science fiction movies, and you quickly realize that the merger of pop culture and science dates as far back as the dawn of cinema in the early 1920s. Even more surprising than the enduring prevalence of science in film is that the relationship between film directors, scribes and the science advisors that have influenced their works is equally as rich and timeless. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema (2011, MIT Press), one of the most in-depth books on the intersection of science and Hollywood to date, serves as the backdrop for recounting the history of science and technology in film, how it influenced real-world research and the scientists that contributed their ideas to improve the cinematic realism of science and scientists. For a full ScriptPhD.com review and in-depth extended discussion of science advising in the film industry, please click the “continue reading” cut.

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REVIEW: ‘The Science of Battlestar Galactica’

"The Science of Battlestar Galactica" ©Wiley Books and NBC Universal, all rights reserved.

Battlestar Galactica is one of the defining, genre-changing science fiction shows of its, or perhaps any, time. The remake of the 1970s cult classic was sexy, sophisticated, and set a new standard for the science fiction shows and movies that will follow in its path. In addition to exploring staple concepts such as life, survival, politics and war, BSG reawakened its audience to science and its role in moral, ethical, and daily impact in our lives, especially given the technologically-driven era that we live in. “Writers were not allowed to jettison science for the sake of the story,” declares co-executive producer Jane Espenson in her foreword to the book. “Other than in specific instances of intentionally inexplicable phenomena, science was respected.” In an artful afterword, Richard Hatch (the original Apollo and Tom Zarek in the new series) concurs. “BSG used science not as a veneer, but as a key thematic component for driving many of the character stories… which is the art of science fiction.” The sustained use of complex, correct science as a plot element to the degree that was done in Battlestar Galactica is also a hallmark first. This is the topic of the new book The Science of Battlestar Galactica, newly released from Wiley Books, and written by Kevin R. Grazier, the very science advisor who consulted with the BSG writing staff on all things science, with a contribution from Wired writer Patrick DiJusto. Now, for the first time, everyone from casual fans to astrophysicists can gain insight into the research used to construct major stories and technology of the show—and learn some very cool science along the way. Our review of The Science of Battlestar Galactica (and our 100th blog post!) under the “continue reading” cut.
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REVIEW: The Naked Lady Who Stood On Her Head

The Naked Lady Who Stood On Her Head ©2010 William Morrow Publishing, all rights reserved.

One of the most captivating books of 2010 was not a gory science-fiction thriller or a gripping end-of-the world page-turner, though its subject matter is equally engrossing and out of the ordinary. It is about somewhat crazy people doing crazy things as seen through the lenses of the man that has been treating them for decades. The Naked Lady Who Stood On Her Head is the first psych ward memoir, a tale of a curious doctor/scientist and his most extreme, bizarre, and sometimes touching cases from the nation’s most prestigious neurology centers and universities. Included in ScriptPhD.com’s review is a podcast interview with Dr. Small, as well as the opportunity to win a free autographed copy of his book. Our end-of-the year science library pick is under the “continue reading” cut.

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Guest Post: Is Brain Training Real?

The brain's neuron, a remarkably plastic, trainable cell.

Each of the brain’s 100 billion neurons has somewhere in the realm of 7,000 connections to other neurons, creating a tangled roadmap of about 700 trillion possible turns. But thinking of the brain as roads makes it sound very fixed—you know, pavement, and rebar, and steel girders and all. But the opposite is true: at work in our brains are never-sleeping teams of Fraggles and Doozers who rip apart the roads, build new ones, and are constantly at work retooling the brain’s intersections. This study of Fraggles and Doozers is the booming field of neuroplasticity: how the basic architecture of the brain changes over time. Scientist, neuro math geek, Science Channel personality and accomplished author Garth Sundem writes for ScriptPhD.com about the phenomenon of brain training and memory.
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Comic-Con 2010: Day 4

As Comic-Con winds down on the shortened Day 4, we conclude our coverage with two panels that exemplify what Comic-Con is all about. As promised, we dissect the “Comics Design” panel of the world’s top logo designers deconstructing their work, coupled with images of their work. We also bring you an interesting panel of ethnographers, consisting of undergraduate and graduate student, studying the culture and the varying forces that shape Comic-Con. Seriously, they’re studying nerds! Finally, we are delighted to shine our ScriptPhD.com spotlight on new sci-fi author Charles Yu, who presented his new novel at his first (of what we are sure are many) Comic-Con appearance. We sat down and chatted with Charles, and are pleased to publish the interview. And of course, our Day 4 Costume of the Day. Comic-Con 2010 (through the eyes of ScriptPhD.com) ends under the “continue reading” cut!
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Comic-Con 2010: Day 3

Street signs adorning the City of San Diego for Comic-Con 2010

Day 3 was Star Wars Day at San Diego Comic-Con International and we have something shocking to report, ladies and gentlemen. We did not see a single light saber, not one! Since we almost incurred an unfortunate eye injury last year due to an overenthusiastic Jedi, this was most welcome relief. For ScriptPhD.com, today was all about science and technology. In a day that could not have been more tailor-made for our website, we enjoyed panels with the eminent sci-fi television writers of today discussing writing for genre TV (a must-read for any aspiring TV writers out there!), a visit from the greatest science fiction writer in the history of science fiction, Ray Bradbury, a preview of next season’s sci-fi show The Event, and a panel on how exactly shows like CSI “tech” out with gadgets galore. Oh, yes, did we mention we got to hang out privately with the MythBusters?? With the help of our intrepid reporter Bryy Miller, we bring you the most complete Comic-Con coverage on the web. Plus, our Costume of the Day, after the “continue reading” cut!
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Comic-Con 2010: Day 2

Day 2 of Comic-Con is over and now, the Convention is really underway! Today’s ScriptPhD.com coverage has a heavy focus on television, and sci-fi television to be specific. Really, is there any other kind? We spent time in the press room with the stars and producers of SyFy Channel hits Caprica and Stargate Universe, our favorite geeky physics show Big Bang Theory and the exciting (first-time ever!) Comic-Con Discovery Channel unveiling of their new scripted series Reign of the Dinosaurs. As always we try to pay hommage to the roots of Comic-Con with coverage of the design tricks behind comics and graphic novels. Additionally, we provide pictorial documentation of the costumes and happenings of the Con, and our Day 2 Costume of the Day. Complete coverage under the “continue reading” cut.
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