Film Fest Fetes Science
At Issue: How do you communicate science without dumbing it down? | By Barry A. Palevitz
It's getting to be an old story: the National Science Board recently concluded, "Science literacy in the U.S. is fairly low." Moreover, said the board, "most Americans are unfamiliar with the scientific process."1
Since people form opinions based on what they read in newspapers and see on the silver screen, the media may be part of the problem. "The charming and charismatic scientist is not an image that populates popular culture," the science board report states. "The entertainment industry often portrays certain professions such as medicine, law and journalism as exciting and glamorous, whereas scientists and engineers are almost always portrayed as unattractive, reclusive, socially inept white men or foreigners working in dull, unglamorous careers."
If films like Frankenstein and Spiderman give scientists a bad rap, maybe media moguls can help repair the damage. That's just what New York's TriBeCa film festival explored on May 10. Named for the Triangular neighborhood Below Canal Street (and just north of Ground Zero), the festival was organized by Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro to rival the Sundance Film Festival and buff up the Big Apple's shine after Sept. 11. Featuring more than 150 films, festivities included a panel discussion on "Making Science More Sexy."
Sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and moderated by ABC News correspondent Robert Krulwich, the group included Alan Alda, Paula Apsell, Ann Druyan, and Brian Greene. Alda hosts the Scientific American Frontiers series on public television. He also created and stars in QED, a Broadway play based on the life of Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. Apsell is executive producer of PBS's NOVA, the award-winning granddaddy of science programming. Druyan, wife of the greatest popularizer of science in modern history, the late Carl Sagan, is an accomplished science communicator in her own right, having cowritten and produced the film Contact and other projects. Columbia University physicist Greene authored the bestseller Elegant Universe about his pet research area, superstring theory. He'll host a PBS special on the subject this fall.
IT'S THE IMAGES The panelists' combined horsepower drove a lively discussion. The four stars tried to peel away the usual mad-scientist metaphors to get at the heart of why science is so important, yet many people distrust and misunderstand it.
Druyan thinks the media has to do a better job making science more fathomable: "If I can't understand it, it's unclear." Alda added, using Feynman as an example: "He reinvented things. He thought if he could figure things out, others could too." Both Alda and Greene agreed that communicating science effectively means more than making pretty pictures on a screen. They have to form in the mind's eye, too--mental images are crucial. "I don't truly understand something if I don't have a picture in my mind," insisted Greene. "Images help me triangulate ideas," said Alda.
Still, Alda regretted not knowing more of the math underlying Feynman's work. "If I had a better understanding of the basic tools, I wouldn't need as many metaphors," he said. "I think I'm always outside the door because I don't have the tools." Greene disagreed, though. "You really do have it. Even if you went to graduate school, you'd come back to the images."
As for communicating those images, Alda and Greene think that carefully chosen metaphors are key. "It's a kind of lie," Alda admitted. "You have to decide what lies are okay...in capturing the essence of an idea."
MAKE IT PASSIONATE, AND PERSONAL Good communication also means showing how passionate you are about the subject. "When you communicate science, it's important to love it," Alda said. "If you don't love it, it will show. For me, science is ice cream, not vegetables. Brian is passionate and personal about science."
Apsell's passion for science ignited as a work student watching bubble chambers at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Druyan was turned on to science as a kid when she weighed herself "on Jupiter" at New York's Hayden Planetarium. "People learn about the passion of science by seeing it," said Alda, who was an amateur inventor at age 10. And that means making science personal, even conversational, which is what he tried to do in QED.
Alda decided to do the show after reading popular books by and about Feynman, such as Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. "I thought he was an image of humanity. He wouldn't fool himself or let other people fool him."
RIGOR, AND A HEALTHY DOLLUP OF SKEPTICISM Love is one thing; understanding something that can be pretty dense, like string theory or the cell cycle, is quite another. For Druyan, it all comes down to the philosophy of science. "How to do you teach the rigors of skepticism [in science], but teach it with wonder?" she asked. "People should become more comfortable with uncertainty," Druyan suggested.
Science says, "We will give you rewards if you can disprove our basic beliefs," an idea that's contrary to religious practice, Druyan insisted. To her, traditional answers to basic questions about the universe and how humans got here are at the heart of the problem. "I was dissatisfied with religious explanations, which didn't satisfy my curiosity about how nature came to be," she said. The biblical caution against eating from the tree of life "led to a disconnect between our hearts and our minds. Science gives us a chance to leave that behind."
Greene challenged cinematographers to probe science's "quest for origins, even before the big bang, which is really about cosmic evolution. We have no idea how it began," he said.
Communicating how science is practiced isn't easy, noted Alda. "There's a lot of physics in QED. We took seven or eight years to get to this point. But lots of people come, including kids, and they want to know about the science." Said Apsell about Greene's PBS special, "deciding to do three shows on string theory is scary. It takes a lot of skill, money, planning, and hard work."
Apsell faulted movies and television for promising people science "but giving them bigfoot and weather porn, like hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis." She even pointed to a NOVA project, The Miracle of Life, which titilated viewers with shots of gushing sperm after human ejaculation. Druyan agreed, scorning the use of "gimmicks to make science sexy." Apsell admitted, "good shows bring people into the tent," but she thinks that they need to go deeper. When Krulwich wondered if "stupidity and amulets are the norm" in science stories these days, Alda responded, "That can't make us dumb down the stuff. We have to respect people. We all don't know the answers. Brian doesn't know how it all began."
STAYING UPBEAT When a member of the audience accused science of being anti-working class in promoting techologies such as genetically modified foods, Alda argued that science has helped humanity, citing the green revolution as an example. Still, Apsell cautioned that the media cannot be "cheerleaders for science. We have to have a very skeptical eye. Can science do harm?"
Greene is an optimist: "I do think things are shifting. People used to think science is bizarre, otherworldly. Now they are beginning to believe that science can give deeper meaning."
Apsell thinks it's also getting easier for scientists to come out of the closet and popularize what they do. Commenting on the treatment Sagan got from his colleagues, who denied him membership in the National Academy of Sciences, "More scientists will risk it as the line is blurred between pure and applied science," she said. "It's getting easier to be a popularizer."
Math teacher Bruce Winokur, who brought students from his advanced research course at nearby Peter Stuyvesant High School to the event, was also enthusiastic. "I like the idea of popularizing science--making it sexy. That's what we do at Stuyvesant."
Barry A. Palevitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor.
©2002, The Scientist Inc.