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"Contagion" spreads across the nation on Friday. Will Hollywood get the science right?

Will a deadly pandemic rule the fall box office?  That's the question posed by Steven Soderbergh's blockbuster film, Contagion, which opens nationwide on Friday.

The story is simple: It's an action/thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease, and on the international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak. The actors are stellar: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne and Gwyneth Paltrow. And the director, Soderbergh: one of Hollywood's best and brightest. But does Contagion get the science right?  (Hollywood usually fails in that respect.)

Last Sunday, I read a New York Times article that described the technical team of scientists who served as advisors to the screenwriter, director and actors. Shortly after, I spoke with one of them, Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, for a 1:2:1 podcast.

During our conversation Lipkin described how he prepped two of the actors for their roles in one of Columbia's research labs, how the film's soundmen gathered the authentic thumping noises that ooze from machines scattered throughout Lipkin's research space and how he cajoled a reluctant Soderbergh to reshoot a scene to get it technically correct. He also told me that he hopes the audience will walk away from the film with a greater respect for scientists, along with a deeper understanding of what it takes to protect the nation's health and how important it is to invest in scientific research and in government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

Later, when I wrote to Lipkin to thank him for taking time to do the podcast, he replied: "Let's persuade more kids to go into the hard sciences and engineering and educate those who don't."  Hopefully, this marriage between Hollywood and science just might resonate.


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