Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Hoping to Create More Compelling Science Stories

The New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which typically supports science and technology initiatives through such conventional approaches as fellowships and research grants, has recently made a number of grants to writers who are developing screenplays with science or technology themes, the New York Times reports.

This year the foundation awarded $48,000 to Gretchen Somerfeld, a Los Angeles writer, to refine her screenplay about Hedy Lamarr, the WWII-era actress and sex symbol who, in the 1940s, in collaboration with the composer George Antheil, devised a wireless system enabling airplanes to direct torpedoes toward their targets. Antheil and Lamarr patented the scheme, called "frequency hopping," and donated it to the U.S. government. The Navy, doubting that the system could be built, declined to pursue it but nonetheless classified the idea.

But the idea re-surfaced in the late 1950s, when it began to be used in military computer chips. Because the patent remained classified until 1985, however, Lamarr received no recognition. Since then, the idea has been applied to cellphones, cordless phones, and Wi-Fi Internet protocols, which make it possible for many people to share the same range of radio frequencies. In 1997 Lamarr, who lived a reclusive life in her later years, was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in honor of her achievement.

This month at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, actors read from "Face Value," Somerfeld's screenplay about Lamarr. The Sloan Foundation supports the festival, along with the Sundance and Hamptons film festivals. "We think there are great opportunities here, great characters, great stories that have been largely unexplored," said Doron Weber, director of Sloan's program for public understanding of science and technology. "And when I speak of opportunities, I don't mean in an educational sense. We're speaking of what we believe are box office opportunities."

The foundation also supports the development of popular science books and plays. The goal, Weber said, is "to create more realistic and compelling and entertaining stories about science and technology, and challenge existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in the popular imagination."

Kenneth Chang. "Hollywood Star's Wartime Secret Becomes a Screenplay." New York Times 05/04/2004.