11 Secrets of Hollywood Science Advisors

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AMC

The work of a Hollywood science advisor can be hard to spot. Rather than shoving science in the audience’s faces, it’s their job to make the world of a movie or TV show feel believable, from the physics of fight scenes to the theories that characters scrawl on the blackboard.

Science advisors are usually regular scientists working in fields like physics, astronomy, and chemistry; the main thing that often sets them apart from their peers is a passion for film and TV. Whether they're meeting with actors, checking equations, or shaping plot points, here are some of the ways they contribute to your favorite pieces of pop culture.

1. Science advisors are usually volunteers.

Most of the Hollywood science advisors that Mental Floss spoke to were doing the work pro bono. Donna Nelson, a chemist at the University of Oklahoma, learned that Breaking Bad was looking for a science advisor while reading an interview with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan. According to him, the series was in need of guidance from a real scientist, but there wasn’t enough room in the budget to hire one. So Nelson volunteered to lend her knowledge.

That was in Season 1, and over the next several years Breaking Bad exploded into a massive success. But even as the budget grew, Nelson never once accepted a paycheck for her advising work. “I was a volunteer from beginning to end,” she tells Mental Floss. “I was delighted to do it because my goal was to help the scientific community.”

The same usually holds true even when the advisors contributing their expertise to a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and science advisor on such films as Watchmen (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), tells Mental Floss, “All the consulting that I've done has been volunteering.”

2. Geeking out gets them noticed.

Before she became advisor on the TV show 12 Monkeys, Sophia Gad-Nasr, an astroparticle physicist at UC Irvine, was just a regular viewer talking about the episodes on social media. "I really liked it and I tweeted about it, so the showrunner reached out to me and let me know they were in need of a science advisor," she says.

Meanwhile, Kakalios was a comic book fan who had literally written the book on the physics of superheroes before he was asked to work on the Watchmen movie. "[Warner Bros.] contacted me and said 'We're making a movie about a comic book. Have you ever heard of this graphic novel called Watchmen?' And if you're into comic books, it's like saying 'Have you ever heard of this movie called Citizen Kane'?" he says. "So when I was done vibrating like a gong, I said 'Yes, I've heard of Watchmen.'"

3. They're sworn to secrecy.

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, did some consulting on the upcoming movie Avengers 4—the entire plot of which has been kept tightly under wraps. He says, “I know things about that I’m not allowed to tell anybody. And they do make sure that you understand that.”

For 12 Monkeys, Gad-Nasr was hired to help introduce the Hartle-Hawking state—physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle's theory that prior to the Big Bang there was only space and no time—into the show. Her work ended up being one of the biggest spoilers of the series. “[In 12 Monkeys] you keep getting hints about this 'red forest,' and that red forest was actually the Hartle-Hawking state I worked on. I had to sign an NDA.”

4. They need to be on-call 24/7.

Scientists who sign on to advise a TV show shouldn’t expect normal working hours. The makers of the show might reach out to them whenever a science question comes up during filming, which can be any time of day or night. While working on Breaking Bad, Nelson knew that being able to answer emails quickly was crucial. “I tried to put myself in [the filmmakers’] place and thought of them being on set, and you know they’re not going to hold up filming for a science advisor,” she says. “They’re very busy … so if they don’t get an answer it will be easy for them to write the science out.”

5. They sometimes meet directly with actors.

A science advisor mainly works with writers, producers, and directors, but occasionally they'll meet with members of the cast. While consulting on Watchmen, Kakalios chatted with actor Billy Crudup to help develop his character, Dr. Manhattan, who’s a nuclear physicist. "We were talking about [Dr. Manhattan's] attitudes of being cut-off from humanity and I was talking to him about how as a director of graduate studies I often saw students get overwhelmed by graduate school," he says. "They can kind of shut down but the one thing they focused on exclusively is their work—it's the one thing they have control over. Later on he said he thought that was helpful."

6. They help make fictional scientists feel human.

The makers of Breaking Bad often asked Nelson what a chemist might do in certain situations, from the words they use to the way they interact with their students and peers. One of her insights into the psychology of Walter White became a major plot point in the series. “They asked, ‘If there was a person who was working alongside another person and one man would go on to be a Nobel Prize winner and the other would go on to become a high school teacher, what is something that could happen to make them take different paths?’ And I said, ‘Is there a young woman involved? Have the successful one take the girlfriend away from the other one and that would devastate him.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

7. If you want to spot a science advisor’s work, check the blackboard.

One of the most common tasks science advisors are given is something most viewers never notice. If a movie or TV show contains a scene with a professor (or scientist, mathematician, etc.) in front of a blackboard, it’s the science advisor's job to make sure that whatever equations are behind him or her make sense.

“I spent three days on the set of the TV show Bones because they had a long set of sequences with writing on blackboards,” Carroll says. The character writing on the chalkboard in that episode was also a theoretical physicist, and Carroll was responsible for making sure the work was accurate.

Gad-Nasr was also called to set to double-check the math she had come up with for 12 Monkeys. “It wasn’t me who wrote it on the blackboard, but I just came by to make sure everything was cool.”

A blackboard full of nonsense can also be a sign of a film or TV show that doesn’t have a science advisor. Before signing onto Breaking Bad, Nelson noticed some bogus equations on the board in Walter White’s classroom in early episodes. “There were parts that weren’t accurate and I would have stepped up and said something,” she says. But she was able to make up for it later on when the makers of the show asked her to draw some alkene structures to feature on a blackboard. “A person who’s not paying attention might not see that, but a student who’s just had alkene as an undergrad in class or as a high school student taking organic chemistry—they may feel great to be able to look at the correct structures and not see something different from what they learned in class.”

8. Their advice can lead to rewrites ...

Much of a science advisor’s work boils down to small changes in the dialogue, but occasionally their input leads to more significant cuts. When working on Thor (2011), Carroll advised against one scene that depicted a character pushing another off a disc-shaped planet. “The problem is there’s no gravitational pull to pull you off the edge of the planet,” he says. “So scientifically that doesn’t quite make sense.” (On a disc-shaped planet, gravity would actually be working to pull you back to the center.)

9. ... But they usually try to keep changes minimal.

A scientist and director may disagree over the intricacies of superhero physics, but at the end of the day, a science advisor trusts that the filmmaker knows what’s best for their movie. When looking over scripts, Nelson says she made it her mission to keep the dialogue as intact as possible. “The [writers] knew how to write a successful script and I didn’t, so the number one thing I did not do was rewrite the page. So if there’s an incorrect word that’s a three-syllable word that starts with P, I would try to correct the sentence by substituting a different three-syllable word that started with P, because they in their writing might have a certain cadence in the sentence or alliteration or something like that that other people might miss, and I would always try not to destroy any of that.”

10. Their suggestions don’t always make it in.

No matter how much a filmmaker appreciates a science advisor’s input, they rarely choose science over story. “Very few movies or TV shows in the science fiction world try to be 100 percent accurate,” Carroll says. "Really they’re trying to tell a good story more than anything else.”

Nelson experienced this first-hand when she was asked for her opinion on one of the most famous examples of inaccurate science in Breaking Bad: Walt’s blue meth. “Vince [Gilligan] came and asked me, ‘What do you think about making the meth blue?’” she recalls. “And I said I wouldn’t do it, because meth is not blue, it’s white. He said ‘Isn’t there any reason why it might be blue under some circumstances?’ I said no, it will always be white. And as you know, they went ahead and made it blue because it was necessary for them to have a trademark for his meth. It was a plot device.”

11. More filmmakers are using them.

When the makers of Breaking Bad first brought Nelson on as a science advisor in 2008, hiring her was a bit of an experiment. "When I first started working, I was told in so many words that there was a rumor in Hollywood that you couldn’t have a hit show with a science advisor," she says. Today, working with a scientist is standard even in movies and TV shows with minimal scientific themes. Part of the job's growing prevalence can be credited to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program that connects entertainment industry professionals to scientists.

Another explanation is that today's media consumers hold filmmakers to higher standards. "I think there’s an increasing sophistication among the audience and you can’t just have any old thing happen," Carroll says. "We live in a generation post Cosmos and Brief History of Time where there are a lot of moviegoers who are very smart about what is plausible, and they want their plots to make sense."

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

iStock.com/andykazie
iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

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