What happens when researchers from very different fields meet to discuss the questions that fuel their interest in science?
A new movie called The Most Unknown is an experiment to find out. Director Ian Cheney, with funding from the Simons Foundation and Motherboard, sets up a chain of nine interviews between researchers from disparate disciplines. The film employs a unique setup where the first scientist visits the second’s home turf, and then the second scientist visits the third one, on and on, until the final scientist returns to visit the first. Instead of focusing on the details of their work, they discuss how they approach the big questions: What is consciousness? How did life begin? What is the nature of the universe?
The film can’t provide answers, of course. But in the process, it offers a window into the scientists’ sense of wonder at the mysteries of the universe, which feeds their desire to keep chipping away at those questions.
Remarkably, three of the featured scientists are affiliated with the DCO Deep Life Community. Geomicrobiologist Jennifer Macalady (Penn State University, USA), astrobiologist Luke McKay (Montana State University, USA), and geobiologist Victoria Orphan (California Institute of Technology, USA) all participated in the experiment.
The resulting film debuted at the Copenhagen International Film Festival in March 2018, followed by a red-carpet screening in New York City in April. Both showings included panel discussions with participating scientists. Now, theaters are showing the film in the USA, and viewers can stream the movie on Netflix.
Macalady and McKay talked with DCO science writer Patricia Waldron over Skype about their experiences participating in The Most Unknown.
Geomicrobiologist at Penn State University, USA
How did the filmmakers contact you? Do you know why you were selected?
Out of the blue, to tell you the truth. All of the nine scientists involved are curious about that very question and none of us have gotten much satisfaction out of the producers. We don’t really know why we were tapped.
What was it like? How did the shooting go?
It was very experimental. I was the first scientist that they filmed and there was a lot of concept development going on during the shoot. I think the director was waiting to see if it would work to have a scientist interview another scientist in a way that reveals something about the process of science and the nature of scientists.
These were “blind dates,” and I had a great time with mine. His name is Davide D’Angelo. He is an Italian who studies dark matter physics. I went to visit him in his lab underground in Abruzzo in Central Italy. It was really, really fun and I learned a ton about dark matter physics. We had a lot of unexpected common ground, just in terms of the process of science, and I think that was what the director, Ian Cheney, was really hoping would emerge. I’ve got to hand it to him (Cheney), he took a lot of risks to carry out the experiment.
Did these meetings spark any research ideas for you?
Not really. I think scientists have to drill down so deeply into their field to make a contribution. So in practical terms, I don’t think there is any direct collaboration potential. But I did get reenergized and refilled with wonder about the process of science we all participate in, and that was very valuable.
I was amazed that three of the nine scientists are related to the DCO.
That is an argument for the relevance and the hipness of the DCO. I think DCO should take credit for roping in and supporting people who are trying to bring science mystery and curiosity to the public. When I come into contact with DCO at meetings, I get the sense that it’s an organization that is nimble and open to ideas about how to make the science relevant to people.
Were you trying to convey any main ideas from your research to the audience?
I think the big idea is related to the title of the film. We know that something is a mystery and that motivates us to go find out something about it. My job was to convey what it is about microbes and life underground that is mysterious.
What did you think of the final result?
I thought it was wonderful! Ian Cheney, his film crews, and the production staff all did a great job. It was an experiment, and they just went for it. I’ve watched the film five or six times now in theaters. I still get excited, and that’s despite the discomfort of seeing myself on film.
How did this experience compare to other media work that you’ve done?
It was much more fun. The standard model of a science documentary involves bringing science content to people via some limited face time with a scientist, but via an intermediary, like a narrator, whose job it is to make the content interesting and exciting. That model doesn’t apply to this film. There was no narrator, no voiceover, just scientists being themselves in the places where they love to work.
It’s always fun to bring people to the places where I do research, and the filming really did have the air of an experiment. It’s the kind of intellectual exercise that you don’t get to participate in very often.
Do you have any guidance or advice for scientists who are approached with similar opportunities?
My advice would be to have an open mind and put yourself in the hands of the professionals. Try not to have too many preconceived notions about the story that someone is going to tell; just try to help them tell the story. Obviously this is not a plea to do whatever a media person asks you to do, but they’re storytellers and you can learn a lot from them.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this experience?
This film is great for subsurface science. The movie starts and ends underground in caves, and features microscopic phenomena that are relevant to the search for life on other planets as well as to the cycling of carbon on our planet. Even though the film is not about me or about the science I do in particular, it’s great exposure for our field. I’m really happy to have been able to participate.
Hot spring microbial ecologist and astrobiologist at Montana State University, USA
How did you get involved with this film?
I’m a microbial ecologist who researches microbial communities associated with extreme thermal environments – superhot places. I do this because I’m curious about how life originated and scientists think it very well might have originated in a hot place like a hydrothermal vent or hot spring. The producers of The Most Unknown wanted to involve a scientist doing hot spring research related to astrobiology and, at the time, I was on a fellowship with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
What appealed to you about this project?
When I was growing up in Alabama, I wanted to be a TV biologist like Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) or Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin. I wanted to go to exotic locales and catch giant lizards and venomous snakes but then in college I got into molecular biology and genetics, which became more interesting to me. So when the opportunity came up, I thought, “whoa, cool, I’m pursuing the career I love, and I get to tell the world how great microbes are.”
Did you have any reservations about getting involved with the movie?
Only one. I definitely was really nervous before I saw the movie. A lot of scientists suffer from imposter syndrome, or the fear that they’re not smart enough to be in their particular position. There’s this pressure to never be wrong in front of your colleagues so, before seeing the film, I was thinking, “Oh no, what did I say?” But it was all good. The filmmakers didn’t want to make us look bad. They were on our side.
So were you happy with the final product?
Definitely. It was awesome to see how down-to-earth all of the scientists were. The movie does such a great job of portraying scientists as regular people who do really rad experiments. But I was also shocked at how much they edited the footage. There is so much more than what is in the movie. Almost every one of the nine different shoots was five days long, pretty much filming the whole time. The filmmakers had hundreds of hours of footage that they distilled to 88 minutes. I’m really happy with what they did, but I feel like they could have made seven movies out of it.
What did you think of the movie’s interview structure?
I think it was a really cool experiment that ended up showcasing very complicated science in a way that is of broad interest to the general public. If, for example, Jenn Macalady (geomicrobiologist at Penn State University) or Victoria Orphan (geobiologist at California Institute of Technology) and I had interacted in the film, we probably would have talked in great and boring detail about specific microbes, metabolisms, or methodologies. Instead, I was talking to a cognitive psychologist, Axel Cleeremans, and explaining the basics of DNA as a tool to understand microbial communities in hot springs, which was all novel to him. And then I went to visit Rachel Smith, who is an amazing scientist studying how planets form around stars in the center of the Milky Way. To me, that is completely foreign, but there were very cool overlaps. Filming those interdisciplinary interactions kept our conversations on a level where people can understand that, at the end of the day, I’m just a person who is really fascinated by what this other person is doing. And I think that process is what the filmmakers were trying to capture. It definitely leaves people wanting more science, which I think is always a good thing.
Did either of those interactions inspire any ideas for your own research?
Not really, because our research is too different. But the interview process makes you zoom out and explain your research on a more fundamental level so that more people can understand. The experience definitely gave me a wider perspective of why I’m doing what I’m doing and a renewed passion for it.
I think scientists often can get bogged down in their research. But if you recapture that childlike sense of amazement and fascination that got you into science in the first place, that’s really awesome. For me that’s probably the biggest takeaway from this.
Do you have any advice for other scientists who are asked to do this kind of media work?
Get to know the people behind it. I knew that the Simons Foundation funds really great research and they also have this major initiative to engage the public in science, so I trusted them. Vice [which owns Motherboard], as a media group can be provocative but they also have access to a large younger audience, so I wondered, “hmm what are they going to do?” But I kind of liked the combination of the Simons Foundation and Vice. The movie had aspects that appealed to the younger crowd, but also had a legitimate interest in science.
I would say also, what people seem to be responding to about this movie, is that the scientists are people; that they’re relatable. So, if you are considering doing something like this, don’t try to overdo the science. Don’t try to be the smartest person ever. Just let yourself be a human being.
Main image: Luke McKay, Axel Cleeremans, and Brian Hedlund (microbiologist the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA) collect samples from a hot spring in Nevada. Credit: Photo courtesy of Abramorama