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Hollywood Science

What if the 20-somethings on Friends were scientists? Columbia biology professor Darcy Kelley insists it could work. ?We?re just like regular people,? added Nobel laureate and Memorial Sloan Kettering director Harold Varmus. But does the rest of the country, perspectives shaped largely by the lenses of filmmakers, see scientists this way? Or are we pegged as either absent-minded superheroes or evil manipulators of human fate? Such was the topic of debate this week at the 20

By | October 10, 2005

What if the 20-somethings on Friends were scientists? Columbia biology professor Darcy Kelley insists it could work. ?We?re just like regular people,? added Nobel laureate and Memorial Sloan Kettering director Harold Varmus. But does the rest of the country, perspectives shaped largely by the lenses of filmmakers, see scientists this way? Or are we pegged as either absent-minded superheroes or evil manipulators of human fate? Such was the topic of debate this week at the 2005 Sloan Film Summit in New York, which celebrated the sometimes uneasy, frequently entertaining, and usually lucrative union of film and science. Presented by the Tribeca Film Institute, Thursday?s events began with panels on ?Science as Entertainment? and ?Good Science in Good Films? that brought the likes of Jim Watson, Kelley, Varmus, physicist Brian Greene (author of The Elegant Universe), neuroscientist turned filmmaker Ari Handel, and actor Ben Shenkman (?Angels in America,? ?Pi?) together to hash out this relationship. The conclusion? According to Varmus, film and tv creators give scientists huge audiences and ?cultural credibility,? while the scientists provide the interesting stories. Turning to the problem of scientists? often dark, condescending portrayal in television and movies, a point that was generally conceded on the panels, Varmus made a plaintive plea to the predominantly filmmaking audience to ?start from the perspective that scientists are not so different from anybody else.? The panelists broached the topics of science verses the conservatives, science verses intelligent design, and science vs. unrealistic science in movies, which Watson said ?has upset me since I was a child.? He suggested that American society is moving backwards in science literacy because ?science is getting much more difficult for the average person to understand.? Greene shot back with his trademark sense of wonder that this should be seen instead as ?the greatest opportunity to excite people about science.? The panels were followed by screenplay readings of films about science They were alternately heavy-handed and imaginative, but they all tell human stories that ultimately have the potential to change public perceptions of science and scientists. To my knowledge, there?s no Scientist Friends in the works, but at least this is progress.
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