Annual Report [2018]

Science Sandbox: “The Most Unknown”

Outreach and Education

So, this geologist walks into a physics lab …” sounds like the beginning of a good joke, but it’s actually one of the first scenes of “The Most Unknown,” a documentary film produced by Vice Media’s Motherboard and funded and co-produced by Science Sandbox, an outreach initiative of the Simons Foundation. The film is not the standard science documentary, in which experts hold forth on complex scientific ideas to a lay audience — “The Most Unknown” will not leave the viewer awash in science factoids. Instead, the creators hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for science as a human endeavor, and with an understanding of the very real passion and curiosity of scientists. (Also, for the record, the geologist’s attention does linger on the stalactites growing on the lab walls — and then she buckles down to learn about neutrinos.)

“I remember being taught science as a process of memorizing all that scientists had already learned, and seeing scientists as experts with all the answers,” director Ian Cheney says. “I wanted to craft a film that would instead fill people with a sense of how much we don’t know and how wondrous that is.”

The creative team took inspiration for the film’s structure from their extremely rich subject matter: science itself. After the opening credits, a message appears on the screen: “This is an experiment.” Cheney believes science filmmakers lean too heavily on the same few storytelling conventions and that more people would be interested in science movies if filmmakers took more risks. “I think there is tremendous interest in science,” he says. “But I don’t think science storytellers are as experimental as the scientists themselves.” 

Microbiologist Jennifer Macalady of Pennsylvania State University descends into Italy’s Frasassi Caves in search of mysterious slimes created by microbes. In “The Most Unknown,” Macalady kicks off a chain of encounters between researchers tackling some of science’s biggest questions. Photo courtesy of VICE/Motherboard

Cheney and the producers knew they wanted to show scientists interacting with and learning from one another, but they were concerned that scientists in the same field would end up using too much jargon and leave the audience behind. Then Cheney landed on the idea of the film as a chain of scientist ‘blind dates.’ One scientist would spend a few days visiting another scientist’s lab, learning about the questions that keep that scientist up at night, and possibly even identifying parallels with their own work. Then the scientist who had just been visited, in turn, would pay a visit to another scientist. 

Legendary director Werner Herzog served as an adviser on the film and early on suggested some ground rules, one of which was that the film should not cut away to any explainers for challenging scientific concepts. If a scientist started talking about life in a hot spring, there should be no cartoon protozoans to illustrate the point. The filmmakers could not rely on being able to add explanatory scaffolding after the fact; instead, they would extract whatever explanations they needed in situ from the scientists.

The creators hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for science as a human endeavor, and with an understanding of the very real passion and curiosity of scientists.

Content-wise, the film focuses on three fields of science that offer unknowns on different scales: physics, microbiology and neuroscience. The motivating questions: What is out there in the universe, and how did it get there? What is the origin of life, and where can life flourish? And how are we even able to ask these questions: What is consciousness? There were nine scientist meetings in the film; it turned out that by showing scientists plucked from their fields of expertise, the filmmakers could portray something about the nature of science more broadly. 

In the first scientist interaction, geobiologist Jennifer Macalady — freshly emerged from field work in an Italian cave — visits physicist Davide D’Angelo at his subterranean neutrino lab near Milan, Italy, where he tells her about his goal of understanding dark matter. D’Angelo then, in turn, heads to Brussels to meet cognitive psychologist Axel Cleeremans, who explains the challenge of understanding consciousness and puts him in an electrode hat so he can try to control a robotic hand with just his thoughts. This chain of visits works its way across the Atlantic, eventually getting as far as Mauna Kea in Hawai‘i before ending in Puerto Rico, where Yale University psychology professor Laurie Santos is studying the cognitive abilities of monkeys that inhabit Cayo Santiago island.

The scientists had no idea what to expect from the project when they first signed on. All were open to new experiences and decidedly passionate about their work, but the creative team gave them information on a ‘need-to-know’ basis only. They were told where they would be going and what broad field of science they would be learning about, but they didn’t learn their host scientist’s name or any specifics of their research until they arrived. “We wanted them to be seeing and learning something for the first time, alongside the audience,” Cheney says. “I was pretty much in the dark,” punned Macalady about her visit to the dark-matter lab.

During the third segment of The Most Unknown, physicist Davide D’Angelo of the University of Milan visits cognitive psychologist Axel Cleeremans of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. In an abandoned cooling tower in the Belgian town of Charleroi, Cleeremans expounds the mysterious connections between consciousness and how we interpret and interact with the world. Photo courtesy of VICE/Motherboard

Though each scientist met only one or two other scientists during filming, they have all been in touch via email since filming concluded. Many met later at screenings, and Macalady and Montana State University astrobiologist Luke McKay have even started a project together. But the main outcome for the scientists hasn’t been in collaborations but in sharing the process of science with one another and the broader public, and in coming to a greater understanding of what they have in common as scientists. Cleeremans says he has enjoyed connecting more broadly with scientists who are interested in outreach and seeing how they explain their work. 

Macalady agrees. “One of the most exciting things I took away was how much potential there is for better science communication through partnerships with people who are willing to spend a little time and invest a little in each other,” she says.

If the film was an experiment, then, what were the conclusions? First, the scientists had fun. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” McKay says. Also, critical reception was positive, with reviews often citing how the film emphasizes how important curiosity is to the scientific endeavor. And the viewership numbers on Netflix are good. Cheney has participated in several public screenings and is gratified by the audience response. “It’s fun to be with an audience who is laughing and learning together, and I think the raw joy of the scientists really comes across,” he says. “It’s had a much bigger reach than we ever imagined it would.”

At the W.M. Keck Observatory on the island of Hawai’i (top), astrophysicist Rachel Smith of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences studies star formation. After visiting the mountaintop observatory, she takes Luke McKay of Montana State University to where steam billows from the meeting of lava and seawater (bottom). Photo courtesy of VICE/Motherboard

“I wanted to craft a film that would instead fill people with a sense of how much we don’t know and how wondrous that is.”