Arts Lockdown Series Part 4: From Space with Astrophysicist Andy Howell, PhD

By Joanne A Calitri   |   August 27, 2020
Andy Howell hanging out with Star Wars fans before a lecture on science in movies (photo Credit: James Darling)

Transporting us from science to sci-fi films is astrophysicist Andy Howell, PhD. He is a staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO), where a global network of 23 telescopes operate 24/7. His team co-discovered the first “kiloanova” in 2017, two neutron stars that rotate around each other and release gravitational waves, merging to create a black hole and making waves in space time. It’s a theory Einstein talked about but thought we’d never see. Andy leads the Global Supernova Project, a team of more than 200 people from all over the world who use LCO telescopes to study supernovae. He is also an adjunct faculty in physics at UCSB. He received his undergrad at University of Florida, PhD at University of Texas, a postdoc in Saul Perlmutter’s group (Nobel Prize) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a second postdoc at the University of Toronto, where he was a founding member of the Supernova Legacy Survey.

Here is our Zoom interview.

Q. What does astrophysics teach us during this lockdown?

Calling from the Star Wars Rebel Base Station, Joanne Calitri talks via Zoom to Andy Howell, live from the Millennium Falcon

A. Astrophysicists are often on the cutting edge of technology development. We perfected digital cameras before they went into cell phones or movie cameras, and robotic telescopes before anyone had self-driving cars. We were early adopters of video-conferencing because we collaborate with people all over the world. As more people are learning during this pandemic, we’re all interconnected. And science transcends culture. You can believe what you want to believe, but there’s a right answer out there that anyone in the world can get to through science, and by working together we can get there faster. Science isn’t equations or nerds in lab coats; it is only a set of rules to make sure you are not BS-ing yourself. We all need more of that. The stakes are literally life and death. 

You advise on sci-fi films, write reviews on Ain’t It Cool News and your YouTube Channel, Science Vs Cinema. What got you into that?

When I was in grad school in Austin, Harry Knowles had started the Ain’t It Cool News website that was really the first site on the internet to do film reviews, get real insider information from film sets and preview screenings of movies. At that time, information was totally controlled by the studios, but Harry was saying, “Hey this new Batman movie is going to bomb.” The studio tried to lock it down, the head of the studio went on Good Morning America against Harry, looked like an idiot and got fired. Harry’s fame grew and grew. All the studios were reading the site to keep tabs on the rest of the industry. I had advance tickets to Contact, as an astronomer, and asked Harry to come see it with me. After that, I went to his backyard screenings, fell into the film community there and started writing film reviews.

When I got to LCO, Wayne Rosing, who founded the observatory, was sent a casting call looking for someone to explain astronomy on TV, he sent it to me and said, “This is you!” I sent in a one- to two-minute video explaining my science. They liked it, and asked me to come down to L.A. to audition. I said, “I can’t, I have a normal job doing science.” So, they asked me to record myself reading a prepared script. I thought I could make the script much better, did some calculations, completely rewrote it, and filmed myself doing that instead. They hired me without ever meeting me in person as one of the co-hosts for the third season of the show Known Universe on the National Geographic channel, which led to more TV work. My reviews about the science in movies started to really get noticed. People like Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios, would get in touch, or I would talk to James Cameron about Avatar. For my YouTube Channel, I met James Darling, a UCSB in Media Arts and Technology student, in Toronto for the Morgan Spurlock documentary Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, which he was in. He said, “Hey we should film your reviews.” We were originally going to pitch Science Vs. Cinema as a TV show, but all the TV people wanted to turn it into something different. So we just said, “screw it,” we’re going to film our own vision and put it on YouTube. Our first episode on The Martian received 1.6 million views. 

Andy Howell teaching astronomy in Saudi Arabia (photo courtesy of Andy Howell)

What sci-fi films did you advise on?

For the books Ready Player One, and Armada, I just read pre-publication drafts by Ernie Cline because we were buddies. He didn’t need the science help, but I’d still put in my two cents about some little angle here or there. When [Steven] Spielberg took over Ready Player One, I think even Ernie was only one voice among many. For Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Executive Producer John Knoll read one of my articles, and didn’t ask questions, but told me I had busted him on some cheats they had done. This was just in the teaser trailer, but he sent me some renderings to show that they were taking some of the things I had raised seriously. Later a writer asked me a question for a scene, but that ultimately got cut. I said, “While I have your attention, here are some cool ideas for planets I’ve never seen on screen.” One was that I’ve never seen a planet in a molecular cloud. If that’s where you lived, you wouldn’t see stars in the sky, only gas, and you might not even develop astronomy. Then, in the movie the planet Wobani looks like it is Hollywood’s idea of that, but it doesn’t go quite as far as I would have. 

Andy Weir (The Martian) has asked me a few things on other projects — he’s amazing. He’s already done all his research in detail that goes creatively way beyond what I could think of. What he wants out of me is just certain details you can’t look up – real out-of-the-box stuff.

Your top five sci-fi films:

1. Star Wars: Roger Ebert used to say that in 100 years, maybe only two movies from the 20th century will be remembered – Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. They are just that groundbreaking, that mythic, that much larger than life. They both changed movies forever.

2. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan: It just transcends Star Trek, and is something like a cross between Moby Dick and a Cold War submarine movie, told alongside a story about good friends struggling to find meaning as they age. And it is Spock’s finest hour. He’s every scientist’s hero. How I miss Leonard Nimoy.

3. The Matrix: It really introduced this dualism between the online world and reality in a way that was ahead of its time, and has mind-bending reveals and groundbreaking cinematography. It has just iconic scene after iconic scene.

4. Blade Runner: Nothing sets a time and place, and just puts you right into that world like this. Noir in space with Harrison Ford, from a story by Phillip K. Dick and a Vangelis score – what’s not to love? And the sequel by Denis Villeneuve is amazing. 

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Love is the most well-worn territory in narrative history, and somehow a science fiction angle can be so new and illuminating. Charlie Kaufman is one of the best writers in the business.

What’s next for you?

I continue to do science, make Science Vs. Cinema episodes, and I’m working on a new TV show for a major cable channel [sorry no spoiler here!]. And when there isn’t a pandemic, I host Astronomy on Tap at the M8RX in Santa Barbara.

Your advice to sci-fi filmmakers?

Talk to scientists. The universe is far more astounding than humans are creative.  Most people only get their knowledge of science through movies. So if you only copy what you saw in movies, you’ll always be derivative and you’re losing out on so much true awe and wonder. 

And sci-fi film fans?

Let’s broaden the fan base, and broaden the voices we’re hearing from. Science fiction has been dominated by white dudes forever. But we’ve been missing extraordinary creativity. There were token Black characters in lots of films, but look at what happened when we got Black Panther. It is extraordinary, and has inspired so many people. And for a long time in Hollywood, there was this ridiculous belief that you couldn’t have female leads or directors for these kinds of movies, but look at Wonder Woman beating out Batman and Superman. And look at Guillermo del Toro with The Shape of Water. Just imagine if we’d had all these kinds of voices for the last 100 years.



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