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Marie Curie. Albert Einstein. Richard Feynman. Srinivasa Ramanujan. John Nash. Alan Turing. Rosalind Franklin. James Watson. Great minds that have blazed the trails of understanding whose larger than life stories speak to the human drama that swirls around profound discovery. Many of us, and the public more broadly, have come to know these figures through works of stage and screen. But what are the special challenges, pitfalls, opportunities and rare triumphs of seeking and synthesizing the essence of someone whose passion—quantum physics, number theory, nucleic acids, atomic species, computational design, gravitational phenomena—is so thoroughly foreign to the concerns of everyday life? Join us for an exploration of how writers artistically and faithfully capture the stories of science and the scientists who’ve made the stories.
Award-winning broadcaster and author Lynn Sherr spent more than thirty years with ABC News, covering a wide range of stories—from women’s issues and social change to investigative reports, politics and the space program—at 20/20 and World News.Read More
Matt Brown is the writer & director of The Man Who Knew Infinity starring Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Devika Bhise, Stephen Fry, and Toby Jones. The film was released domestically by IFC, and was produced by Edward R. Pressman of Pressman Film. It is the true story of a friendship that forever changed mathematics.Read More
Peter Parnell’s most recent play Dada Woof Papa Hot was produced by the Lincoln Center Theater Company in 2015. He wrote the new books for Disney Theatrical’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (music and lyrics Menken-Schwartz), and the Broadway revival of Lerner and Lane’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever starring Harry Connick, Jr. and Jessie Mueller.Read More
Anna Ziegler is a playwright, whose plays have been developed at The Sundance Theatre Lab, O’Neill Playwrights Conference, Williamstown Theatre Festival, New York Stage and Film, and Soho Rep, among others, and are published by Dramatists Play Service. An upcoming collection will be published by Oberon Books. She is a graduate of Yale and holds an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Tisch.Read More
Alan Lightman is a writer, astrophysicist, and educator. He is professor of the practice of the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As a theoretical physicist, he has contributed to the understanding of the unusual radiation processes, black holes, and stellar dynamics.Read More
Alan Alda, a seven-time Emmy® Award winner, played Hawkeye Pierce and wrote many of the episodes on the classic TV series M*A*S*H. He has starred in, written, and directed many films, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator.Read More
WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL-SCIENCE ON SCREEN
NARRATOR: What’s the problem?
NARRATOR: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
NARRATOR: I did it.
NARRATOR: You did what?
NARRATOR: I saw it shining in the bottom of the dish. Pure radium metal.
NARRATOR: Okay so let’s do the math. I have enough food to last for 50 days.
NARRATOR: So I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.
NARRATOR: The structure of DNA. The secret of life itself. Life unfolding right in front of us.
NARRATOR: For her achievement alone secured her place in history.
NARRATOR: Well, it should have.
NARRATOR: We could see everything. Really see it.
NARRATOR: I’m kind of an ancient figure now. Wheeled out on special occasions as a curiosity. I have reached an age when if someone tells me to wear socks I don’t have to.
NARRATOR: I’m a cosmologist.
NARRATOR: What’s that?
NARRATOR: I study the marriage of space and time.
NARRATOR: I’m just a mathematician.
NARRATOR: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of.
NARRATOR: And do the things that no one can imagine.
NARRATOR: Yes I thought if we were going to publish, it would be something groundbreaking.
NARRATOR: This is unexpected.
NARRATOR: This will take a lifetime.
NARRATOR: Maybe two.
LYNN SHERR, JOURNALIST: And what we’ve just seen is an example of what I think could be the biggest bravest challenge to screenwriters and playwrights everywhere and that is turning science into art. As you just saw, many have taken on the artistic challenge of portraying the human side of science. A Nobel Prize winning physicist confronting his own mortality. The woman who first glimpsed the structure of life, but was nearly forgotten by history. The man who could see infinity and then put it down on paper. Those were the objects-the subjects of a number of those films. These are not the usual plot lines that Hollywood undertakes or Broadway. And yet, these are powerful stories that have to be told. Stories that are just as memorable and just as meaningful as those from the world of politics and medicine. And at their core, all of these stories are simply about human beings. Human beings fulfilling their destinies and making connections with other human beings.
SHERR: This afternoon we’re going to hear from five people who have successfully tackled such intimidating topics as quantum physics, number theory, and DNA to tell the larger than life stories of the humans behind the science. And let me introduce them. First, needing no introduction but I’ll give it anyway, Alan Alda. Besides being a dear friend of this festival…
ALAN ALDA, ACTOR: I heard my name and I came out.
SHERR: Alan is of course, a seven time Emmy Award winning actor for some show that you may have seen on television and a number of other things. On Broadway, he appeared as a physicist, Richard Feynman, for the play QED. He is also the force behind the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Let’s have another hand for Alan. Now we have Matt Brown who is the director and the screenwriter of the film-you saw a little bit of a clip of it called The Man Who Knew Infinity, which tells the story of the East India- the East-the East Indian mathematician Ramanujan. It stars Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons and it is as they said- say- now playing at a theater near you. I have seen it. It is wonderful. Run do not walk, take everyone you know. Our next panelist is Alan Lightman. Alan Lightman is a writer, an astrophysicist, and an educator. He is the first professor at MIT to receive a joint appointment in science and the humanities. He is the author of the novel Einstein’s Dreams, which has been translated into 30 languages and several other art forms. Alan Lightman. Also with us today is Peter Parnell. Peter is the author and the playwright and among his many works are the plays QED, which starred Alan Alda as the physicist Richard Feynman, and the play Trumpery. Not about what you think it’s about. The chairs-The story of Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution. Peter Parnell. And finally, because it looks as if this is actually alphabetical, we have Anna Ziegler. Is the author of among other plays, Photograph 51. You saw a bit of a clip of that as well. Was staged in London last year with Nicole Kidman playing the scientist Rosalind Franklin. Anna knows this campus very well as she received her MFA in dramatic writing from NYU.
[00:05:49] SHERR: So welcome home to Anna. So Matt, let me start with you if I may. There is no shortage of human drama in scientists. We all know that scientists like everybody else, fall in love and they, as the cliche goes, put their pants on one leg at a time maybe or if their skirts. They die young. They win the Nobel Prize or not. But for playwrights and screenwriters, the challenge is to tell the stories of these remarkable people in a way that not only captures it accurately and factually, but also makes it interesting to the audience. So tell us a little bit about the challenges you faced in bringing Ramanujan’s story to the film.
MATT BROWN, WRITER-DIRECTOR: Sure. Well, I’m not a mathematician so I should start by saying that and for me I think that mathematics was something that growing up always felt a little esoteric and a little austere and it was far away. So originally, I came to this story interested in the human element, so often I think writers do when they approach really any subject. That said, I came to an understanding of the mathematicians, the pure mathematicians in the story of The Man Who Knew Infinity. Pure mathematics- I saw it as an art form and I realized that their passion for their art of mathematics was something I could relate to in my own life as a writer and a director. And it was something that I thought we could tap into and help a general audience, people who like myself are not mathematicians, be able to relate to and start to see mathematicians as people. Which I think frankly often, they’re not portrayed- they always portrayed as like the crazy scribbling or plastered or whatever it would be and these men weren’t that way. Ramanujan wasn’t some very eccentric crazy out- there person. He was a human with a human story and great courage and it was it was something that he wasn’t- I didn’t have to make him wacky. I didn’t have to make him-I just had to show his passion for what he does
SHERR: And when and how did you discover this story to begin with?
BROWN: Well I came across the biography by written by Robert Kanigel, which was an incredible biography and I was drawn to it because of the historical aspects. I was interested in the Great War at the time. I’d read a book called Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, loved it. And then when I came to infinity, that was also set against the Great War and that originally drew my interest. And then it was this human story about a man who for him an equation had no meaning unless it expressed the thought of God and he broke caste to go to England at the turn of the century, face incredible prejudice, and he is received on the other end of it by a man who is emotionally completely unavailable and an atheist to boot. So it was a human drama that was…
SHERR: We should point out that the real Ramanujan is- is on the screen behind you I believe.
SHERR: When you when you decided to do this, how concerned were you about the idea that numbers and mathematics might put people off and might scare moviegoers away?
BROWN: I was less concerned about it than say the financier’s were. A lot of other people I mean it took me 10 years to get the movie financed and it was a real challenge. It was something that at one point a financier said, “well couldn’t Ramanujan fall in love with a white nurse?” Well he said… I was like, “no he can’t.” So authenticity to me it was incredibly important. It was important that the mathematics were treated authentically as well as culturally as much as, you know, there’s always going to be some liberties, but nothing outrageous. And I felt like the mathematics, if it was addressed and it played a role in this storytelling, then it was essential to essential to who he is so and to their relationship. So
BROWN: I, you know, I looked at their relationship and for them, for the story to me was about the cost that comes when two people wait out of fear to connect in their relationships. And at the center of that was these ideological issues, and it all centered around mathematics. It was about proof.
[00:10:11] SHERR: And how much- how much math did you actually wind up having to learn and learning as a result of this?
BROWN: Quite a bit. It was philosophically, Robert Kanigel, who wrote the biography, felt like if I didn’t wrap my head around it then he wasn’t going to allow me to have the book to begin with. So something that was important to him in the beginning and it was important to me. I wasn’t afraid of that aspect of it. I just wanted, you know, I wanted to find a way to let an audience understand it without having the flash numbers across the screen and that you know make it into some kind of…I don’t know something that wasn’t authentic to it.
SHERR: Or with a lot of graphics all the time right.
BROWN: So you know, we were lucky in the sense that they did work on partitions, which is something that I think most of us can grasp at least what the question is, or the problem. So we we did that. And then the big challenge was also for Ramanujan. This was a man who, when he was 13, he went to school one day and he had discovered trigonometry and by discover it, I mean he actually discovered the whole field. So he went into school and he said, “I’ve discovered trigonometry.” And they said, “we already know what that is.” And it actually exists as a field and you know so he- he didn’t waste time with proofs. He was always on to the next and the next and he was coming up with whole realms of mathematics and theories, which is, it’s pretty incredible. I can’t really explain that sort of thing. And for Hardy, his opposite in Cambridge, he was a man of rigor and he really truly believed in rigor as a discipline. For mathematics, it was essential and it probably was to a degree. But I mean, if had we known Ramanujan was going to pass so young maybe he would have just let him run.
SHERR: He died at age…
BROWN: 32 I think it was.
BROWN: So. I think at the center of this is a philosophical question of proof and rigor. And that was something that played a big role in the creative writing of this story.
SHERR: And it’s a perfect segue to Peter because in QED, of course you focus on Richard Feynman. The man who taught us so very much. QED stands for. Quantum Electrodynamics.
PETER PARNELL, PLAYWRIGHT: Did you have any second thoughts about putting that up in the theater marquee? No. But are there periods or not? So Q period E period D period something else. That sometimes happens.
SHERR: Right. That’s right. And tell us about why you thought this story needed to be on the stage.
PARNELL: Oh sure. This was a case- a project that came to me because I was working on- I had done an adaptation of a John Irving novel two part adaptation of the- that was done in Seattle, developed at Seattle rap-
SHERR: That was at Cider House?
PARNELL: Cider House Rules. Yes. And then it was done at the Taper in L.A. and Gordon Davidson, who was an artistic director, came to me and said, “There’s a book that Alan Alda is interested in adapting. If it’s- if there’s a way to do it for the stage for him to play Richard Feynman.” And so I actually I read the book and didn’t have a clue as to how to do it. But the idea of working on a character like Feynman, from what I found from both that book and then reading his other books and having Alan be Feynman, was so exciting to me that that’s how- how I came to it. After that, actually figuring out what the play was, it took a very long time and I actually wrote basically six very different, five or six, very different versions, completely different plays.
SHERR: Alan is shaking his head while you’re saying that.
PARNELL: He’s lived through all of it.
ALDA: We would- Peter would come to Gordon and me and say I think I got it. And we’d read it out loud and it would be terrific but we’d say, “I bet we could go deeper.” Or there’s aspects of Feynman which we could nail. But it was hard to nail Feynman down, because he was so many different people.
ALDA: He had a wealth of characters in him. So Peter was- I’ve never seen anybody so indefatigable as Peter. He literally would go away and come back with a whole other play a few months later. And each one got better than the last one. And finally, there was one there was no question it was so good. And we were finally able to open. We had thought we could open a year later. I think it took six years.
PARNELL: Yeah it was. Yeah.
SHERR: But in the course of this
SHERR: In the course of this, did you, like Matt, have to, want to learn physics have to learn…
[00:14:58] PARNELL: Yes. Yeah to some extent. I mean I’m also was terrible in math. So the whole mathematics part of it. But you’re dealing in metaphor and if you get to a point where you can have some kind of conversation with people at Cal Tech who knew Feynman and could, you know, that was overwhelming for me because I then- I, you know, I could at the end have the most basic- basic way. But I wanted to add to what Alan was saying which is that one of the challenges with Feynman is that he was a guy who knew which problems to try and solve. And he was very- having Alan play that part of him that was a great teacher and a great performer and very funny and a raconteur, was not that wasn’t going to be a problem. But where was the chink dramatically, if there was, in the armor of a character who basically had all the answers in front of him.
What was the question that he wasn’t going to be able to solve?, And we went back and forth that this over drafts because we came to the point of saying if there’s a guy who is willing to embrace uncertainty and doubt as part of the philosophy of his life, what do you do with that. Where’s the conflict? Is it an inner conflict? Is it an external antagonist? What-where’s the conflict? Where’s the play? And it was actually- Alan put it one day in saying it actually came to a point of writing about a character who began to doubt- doubt if just for a moment of wondering, “if I don’t solve this, even though I’m fine with the fact that I’m struggling and trying to get- I’m not well. And I would love to be able to solve my cancer but I can’t.” What do you do with that character? And how do you either have him to some extent lift the veil a little bit dramatically. And-
SHERR: So it’s about the human. I mean it gets back to what I said originally. It’s not about the math. It’s not about the physics. It’s about the human side. And I must tell you, I covered the Rogers Commission hearings into the Challenger explosion and I was sitting in the audience when Feynman famously dunked the piece of rubber from the O-Rings into the ice water. And, you know, in- in a minute and a half, explained brilliantly what nobody else could figure out a way to understand.
PARNELL: Yes. That was part of his- the idea was
PARNELL: So you have to really- if you really understand something, you should be able to explain it in a simplest- in terms that are not simple, but clear.
SHERR: Right. And- but now you chose to set your play towards the end of his life. He did so much. Why did you do that?
PARNELL: That was part of that question about what- where- what do you. Towards the end of his life there was an interview with Feynman in which he was asked about a unified theory. And did he feel that that would be found one day? And he was talking about- and he was talking about nature and about the fact that he had danced with nature. He saw nature as a woman in a way but she was never going to fully lift her veil for him, which is where-and he also tried to say in this interview, you probably won’t be a theory like that. I won’t be around for it. But there was also a little bit of regret, maybe anger there, in that there was something that we could pick up on that was saying, OK. What- finally you are human and you have- to go through something we all go through in different ways. A challenge that will not be solved. That you will not solve. And if you can dramatize that, even just for a little bit, in this case it’s over the course of a day, and maybe there’s, you know, there’s a way for an audience to climb in.
SHERR: Alan, was your interest in doing this, being this character the personal or the or the physics or the science or was it a combination and a way to communicate that?
ALDA: I think it was all of that. And what would I love to do in the pieces I’ve written on this that Peter wrote. What I’d love to take part in is a chance to show the scientist as a fellow human. With flaws, aspirations, making mistakes.
SHERR: Why is that so important?
ALDA: I think it’s very important because the distance that we feel between us and scientists is that we’ve historically felt keeps us apart from the work they do. We say well, these special people wearing white coats with their hair in disarray. You know, they’re different from us. They’re- they’re a brainiacs. They’re not like us. But they are like us. We are them and we need to learn their way of thinking. We need to have an evidence based form of thinking just the way they do. We need to know the difference between opinion and something that you have evidence for. I mean our existence might depend on that.
[00:20:09] SHERR: I’m just laughing because I was about to say I think we’re not meant to get into politics.
ALDA: Exactly, I mean that’s the problem. I like to see the human side of scientists come out. And if it’s possible, to show that a human obstacle or human flaw reveals something or is analogous in some way to the science that they do, then you got both at once. That’s really lucky when you can find that combination.
SHERR: And speaking of the human side, Richard Feynman famously played the bongo drums. You had to learn how to do that. So there’s Richard Feynman. So was this also a way into his character, and by the way, you say you also had to learn.
ALDA: I had to learn how to do it and I foolishly made the mistake of saying to Peter, how about if he delivers this whole monologue while he’s drumming. You know it’s like doing this, you know.
SHERR: Do you-did you feel that you needed, wanted to do that to show his humanity or to reach the audience?
ALDA: Well it was part of how he was so many different people. He was a safecracker at Los Alamos. He would break into people’s safes and leave a little note, “safe cracker struck again.” Because he wanted to show them, this is the way people hack into companies, say, “see you’re vulnerable.” So he wanted to show them they were vulnerable. But meanwhile, he was cracking into safes and driving people crazy.
SHERR: Let’s talk a little bit about the place that you have written. It sounds as if you had a fair amount of input.
ALDA: I just bothered Peter. He wrote that play, he wrote it beautifully.
SHERR: You wrote a play based on the letters of Albert Einstein and you wrote a play about Marie Curie called Radiance. We saw a bit of both in the opening video Marie Curie’s life in particular is very rich material for a playwright. Why did she strike you?
ALDA: Well, because I knew it was a story that I knew a little about her life and I thought it would be great for the World Science Festival if I did a reading of her letters because I thought through her letters, an interesting life would come out. And then I found out that her letters are still in the library in Paris and they’re still radioactive. And you have to sign a piece of paper that says roughly, “je understand que je could die.” (You understand that you could die) So. I switched Einstein and then, and then I realized what a wonderful life she really had. And I decided to write a full- full kind of play about her.
SHERR: What was it about her life that struck you?
ALDA: You know what it was that really when I- the more I learned about Marie, and she became Marie to me.
SHERR: Of course.
ALDA: You know I felt very close to her. She became for me, someone who simply wouldn’t give up. She had so many obstacles in her life. The science itself, the fact that she was discovering radioactivity, something she didn’t even know what it was. She was-it was by accident. She thought she was measuring the radiation coming out of uranium. And then she realized it was radiation coming out of stuff that had no uranium in it. So it was a true discovery. So that was-she had to dig through seven tons of ore herself and boil it down. It took years and hard work and smelling the acid fumes. And then after all of that, she was facing the obstacle of being considered just a woman. She did most of the work, had the insights. And they wanted to give the Nobel Prize to her husband. So she had nothing but obstacles. But she never gave up. And it’s hard to write a play. And every time my spirits would flag, she was my hero and she was the one in a way saying to me, “what a schmuck. Don’t give up.”
SHERR: She said it in English? So this is a perfect segue to Anna’s play, which of course is about another female scientist who faced very similar misogyny, shall we say. Anna Ziegler. How did you come across Rosalind Franklin and what were your obstacles in writing about a woman who was a scientist in the 50s who was barely known for a while?
[00:24:45] ANNA ZIEGLER, PLAYWRIGHT: Right. Well I’m embarrassed to say I never heard of her. I was 26 and living in Washington D.C. and I had just finished grad school at NYU and a small theater in Maryland that was just getting going approached me to write a play that would appeal to-they wanted a series of plays that would appeal to different people in the in the sort of local area. And so mine would be the NIH play. And I don’t know why they thought I would be capable of doing this. Like some of my fellow panelists, I was not a science or math person. And in fact, would cry regularly during math tests until I was older that I would like to admit. But they approached me to write this play about three female scientists. And I had heard of one of them and that was Rachel Carson.
But I never even read Silent Spring and- and two of them- so Rachel Carson and this other scientist named Roger Young, who was the first African-American woman to get a Ph.D. in biology in the states, had Maryland connections. And then they threw in Rosalind Franklin because she’s fascinating. And as I started researching this play that no one thought I should write, I was just really taken by Rosalind Franklin. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of her. I just thought she was. She’s kind of exactly. I mean so many have been saying, what you look for in a great character. Very human, very flawed.
SHERR: Where did you find the research? How did you get to her?
ZIEGLER: Well because I had to convince this theater to let me redo my assignment and get rid of the two Maryland connected scientists. I had to write it really fast. So I mean, there’s a wonderful biography by Brenda Maddox about Rosalind Franklin. And there’s a ton online. I mean and then there’s the double helix so I think probably, the double helix and the Dark Lady of DNA were my main sources for the first draft of the play. And yeah, I was just I think, similar to what Alan said, you know about- about Curie. There was, you know, kind of a fascinating metaphor at the heart of the character. And I think for her, it was you know the same qualities that led her to become a successful female scientist in the 50s. When as you say, there were so many obstacles. You know, her independence, her strong will, her perfectionism, her intelligence, obviously, many of those qualities were the same ones that held her back in this sort of biggest race of her professional life, which she did not even know she was a part of.
SHERR: And she didn’t know she was a part of it because she died so young.
ZIEGLER: Well she didn’t know she was a part of it because it was- there was a sort of a gentlemen’s agreement in England at the time that different labs were not working on the same material. And so Rosalind Franklin felt pretty secure in the fact that her lab at King’s College was the only lab working to discover the structure of DNA at the time. But of course, Watson and Crick and Watson being an American who did not have that code, was happy to- to try to- to steal some of the limelight at the time. So she didn’t know that they were working on it.
SHERR: And then of course she died before the Nobel was awarded.
ZIEGLER: She did. Right.
SHERR: But you chose not to portray her as a victim. We’ll get into more of that in a little bit. But you chose not to portray her as a victim in the play. It’s not, Oh poor Rosalind. I mean she’s a very strong character.
ZIEGLER: Yeah. I don’t think she thought of herself as a victim at all I think. I think she had a lot of pride and in some ways that was it-as I said, it propelled her a great distance and then it also held her back. Because she was she didn’t want to collaborate with this man she didn’t get along with. And I think that had a lot to do with pride. It had a lot to do with other things too and that sort of complicated reality of the context in which she was working and the stakes were higher for her certainly, because she was a woman. If she made an error, I think it would have had greater consequences than certainly for Watson and Crick.
SHERR: And let me just ask you the same question I asked the others which is did you have to learn- did you have a hard time learning about…
ZIEGLER: I was afraid you were going to ask me that question. I learned not intentionally, but probably as little science as I possibly could to get away with writing this play. And I faked my way through a lot of it. I certainly know more about DNA than I did going in. But there are concepts I could not explain to you now that are in the play. So I think in some ways, it was an asset not to know a lot of it. Because I couldn’t put that much in the play that I didn’t understand. So it was therefore- it therefore became accessible to everyone because I was like the lowest common type.
[00:30:04] SHERR: I would just like to say that when I covered the space program- program for ABC News, I knew how to land the space shuttle. Just saying that. Alan Lightman this is not your problem, learning about your subject, because you know all about your subject. You have a really unique perspective on this. Number one, your- I realize the person you wrote about, except for your one on Einstein, most of these characters died reasonably young in their lives. Einstein obviously lived much, much longer. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Einstein’s Dreams. The book-the novel that you wrote. Why did you do it as a novel? What was your concept? Why did you want to do it that way?
ALAN LIGHTMAN, PHYSICIST, WRITER: Well can I make one comment, one observation before I answer your question.
SHERR: Are you going to tell me you had to learn the theory of relativity.
LIGHTMAN: No. But we’re all trying to figure out here how to put science into a work of art and have it be compelling. Not didactic, involve the viewer and the human story. And you’ll notice that three, well now four people, four plays, books, films we’ve mentioned. Richard Feynman, Ramanujan, Rosalind Franklin, and Albert Einstein, that all of those works were about an individual. So that the artistic device there for making the work of art is to focus around a person, a central person. So that is often a very good strategy for creating a work of art. And having it follow the human story, which we’re all interested in. I just wanted to point out that there’s a commonality there.
SHERR: Absolutely. And there is a narrative because…
LIGHTMAN: There’s a narrative with a person and if you’re going to make, say a movie or a play about climate change without featuring a particular individual, and there have been a number of those made too, you have a more difficult task in front of you.
SHERR: So if you’re interested, you’re saying in explaining the science, go for the individual as opposed to trying to do a lecture on science.
LIGHTMAN: That’s an easier path. Right. So your- your question was why did I choose Einstein?
LIGHTMAN: Well I didn’t set out to initially to write about Einstein. What happened for me in that book is the that title came to me, Einstein’s Dreams. It just came into my consciousness somehow. And that title, to me, represented the conflict between our rational side and our intuitive side with Einstein representing the rational, logical, scientific side of us and dreams representing our intuitive, more imaginative side. Although science has plenty of intuition and imagination in it. And a lot of my thinking and writing life has been trying to- to deal or portray or understand that full dimensionality of human beings. That we both have an intuitive side, a logic intuitive, imaginative, spontaneous side and we also have a more deliberate, rational side. Most of us have all of those things combined in a sentence. It’s a fascinating comment or understanding about what human beings are.
And so that tension between the intuitive and the rational, which what was what propelled the book. And of course then I’ve been a fan in general of the magic realist writers. People like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino. And Calvino, you know, wrote a little book called Invisible Cities. I don’t know, maybe some of you have read it. But it’s a it’s a fictitious book about Genghis Khan’s empire. And Genghis Khan had such a big empire that he didn’t even know everything that was in it. So he sent out the Marc- the explorer, Marco Polo to survey his empire and come back and make reports. And he makes each report in a little chapter in the book. This is all fictional. Which is this incredible, vivid, lyrical, beautiful, imaginative description of one of the cities. And Genghis Khan’s empire. And so I was sort of inspired by that book, at least it was in the back of my mind, and I don’t think we really know all of the inspirations that cause us to create something, but that was one thing that I can point to. And so I decided to do, for a time, what Calvino had done for space.
[00:35:25] SHERR: But you chose fiction as opposed to doing a report or doing it in a nonfiction way. Here’s the question I want to ask and I want to get into this area now. How true to science does a novel or a play or a movie have to be? And in what you did which is essentially very beautiful meditations about time, how true did you have to be to what Einstein really would have thought or said?
LIGHTMAN: Well I felt like I didn’t have to be true at all. And I mean, one of the 30 chapters deals with the actual theory of relativity and the other 29 are totally made up. And my general point of view on that is that if you’re creating a work of art that is- that has a factual basis, or at least an underpinning. And of course there are many, many, many of those. I don’t think that the artist is obligated to be- to portray all of the facts accurately. Because it’s a work of art. What you do have to deal with is the fact that if you’re dealing with a historical figure like Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman, that many of your readers or viewers are going to know something about that figure.
LIGHTMAN: So there’s already a certain amount of geography and they’re head dealing with that person. And if you write something that’s too dissonant with what’s already in their head or create a film, or play that’s too, dissonant with what’s already in their head, there’s going to be a conflict that you’re going to have to deal with somehow or another. So you have to take into account the fact that you’re not starting from a blank slate when you deal with a historical figure. That doesn’t mean you have to get every biographical detail correct.
SHERR: Right. Right. And that- and with all of you, I want to actually brace this with all of you, but let me just for a moment go to Anna, and we did a couple of years ago, I hope some of you might have been there at the World Science Festival when there was a-we showed the-you did a performance of the play and I had the great honor of interviewing James Watson and two collaborators who were there at the time. And essentially, they all three started out by saying, no it wasn’t like that at all. No it wasn’t like that at all. And then the two of them came around and Watson never did. You were sitting in the audience. What is that like for you to hear these guys say. No, no, no. She got it all wrong?
ZIEGLER: Just good that I wasn’t on the panel. It was better to be in the audience. No. I mean I think well for one thing, when I wrote this play, and they said I was quite young and it was a tiny commission for tiny theater, I never dreamed of the idea that some of the actual players I was depicting would see the play one day. I never dreamed of the fact that you know Rosalind Franklin’s family members would see this play. So I didn’t feel the burden of depicting- I wasn’t trying to create, to imitate who these people -seemed to be in life and I- In fact I think it’s almost impossible to do so. You can you can read and research and maybe- maybe find some essence of these people, but if you didn’t know them, you didn’t know them. And- and I think responsibility is then first to entertain and to create a palette of characters who do interesting things with each other and get interesting things out of each other. And so I think while it’s never fun to have the actual people say oh gosh that wasn’t how it was, I suppose at the time I was first of all really just kind of thrilled they were there. And second of all, you know didn’t really feel like that was necessarily what I was going for.
SHERR: And there were some fireworks on that panel as well about the misogyny and about the way they treated Rosalind Franklin.
ZIEGLER: I mean I was going to say what ended up happening was I thought they ended up kind of getting to a point of argument that then kind of validated the play. Because they were all kind of disagreeing about what had actually happened about-with Rosalind Franklin, which is precisely what the characters in the play do. So it actually, I thought in a sort of funny way, ended up being quite a parallel to what he had to perform.
[00:40:04] SHERR: Yes. Alan Alda let me ask you about that. Does the art have to be critically specifically factual?
ALDA: I think that science has to be as correct as possible. The, who the people are and what they do and how they behave. I have a personal preference to make it as close to what really happened as possible. And sometimes it gets in my way. My own preferences gets in my way. I was looking at Marie a couple of days ago and the play I wrote and some of the parts I liked the best were the things I totally made up.
SHERR: And did anybody catch you on that? Asked you? Did you do have you know letters to the editor, a tweet, an e-mail saying this never happened?
ALDA: No, I mean, I used her own words. Right. And she said many things that were extremely emotional. She wrote a diary to her dead husband for the whole year and some of those passages are heartbreaking. So that was that was. I mean it couldn’t match her writing in her real life writing.
SHERR: Tell me also about playing Feynman. How much in your head did you feel I have to look like I have to have the right gestures?
ALDA: Almost not at all. I tried to get an accent close to his far Rockaway accent but I don’t think there’s even a far Rockaway accent. I think he made it up. His sister doesn’t talk like that at all. And I think he -he is a man of the people and one was a man of the people wanted to present themselves that way. And I think there were people who came back and said to me, you know I’m from far Rockaway, that’s not the way you talk. And I said, I know and neither does he. But I didn’t try to do one of personation. I tried, as you know, as you said before, I tried to get the essence of it.
SHERR: Matt Brown, your film was shown at Trinity College, where Ramanujan was, and at the Royal Society. He famously became a fellow at both. Were you were a little nervous about the reaction then?
BROWN: I was. I was nervous about it. There was a funny story where we were shooting a scene where Ramanujan gets a fellowship at Trinity and we were a low budget independent film and I had about two takes per scene at times. It was challenging and we had this one scene and all my actors decided to surprise me and knock on the table. You know, for when they come in to give them the fellowship as like the high praise. And I just sat there and said, oh no I’ve got time for like one more shot and I don’t know if that’s historically accurate or not. And I was like, we better just go with and it works emotionally and we’re going to stick with this. So they showed the film at Trinity. And I was wondering what they were going to say and I guess nobody brought it up. I don’t know if it’s now going to be tradition at Trinity or not.
They said we were the first film to get permission to shoot at Trinity College, which was quite an honor. And it was pretty amazing, because when I gave them the script, it had a lot of racism and it didn’t portray them in a especially kind light. But they- they decided this was an important story and they wanted to tell it. And they gave us -they gave us permission and they said well you can shoot here you can shoot everywhere but the Wren library and I was like well I don’t want to be the guy to burn the Wren library down so that’s just fine. And so we snuck down the road to Oxford and shot the library.
SHERR: Well talk about you know you’re being historically accurate by telling us about it now. So Peter Parnell, let’s talk about Trumpery a little bit. Charles Darwin was not around to fact check that one, but his biographer was, right?
PARNELL: Yeah. Actually I got interested in Darwin through Alfred Russel Wallace who I read about and I was very interested in the fact that these two scientists, one of whom was sort of well-off and the other of whom was actually working for him as a specimen hunter, that these two scientists in two different parts of the world essentially came up with the theory of natural selection and Wallace sent his abstract, his first essay, to Darwin and Darwin hadn’t published yet. And he was going through a lot of we don’t know whether his how much psycho were his illnesses were psychosomatic. He was working on The Origin of Species for 20 years and he got- he freaked out and he thought he would be forestalled. He wrote to his colleagues and had this essay with him. Anyway, I got very interested in the fact of what is it about ideas and how do ideas come into our day? Are they through one person only and what- and but I did a lot of research and the great Darwin biography is by Janet Brown. It’s a two- it’s a two volume, you know, thousand page book that it’s fantastic. And what’s one of the things that’s so great about it is you do feel that you are sort of in Darwin’s world and in that study at Down House and that the days, day in and day out, all of the experiments all of the things he was doing with his children and his wife, working on this problem this problem that it’s just it was overwhelming to me and I did use it.
I read a lot of other books but I did use her book and the show- the play was done at the Atlantic Theater and the night before the end of its run, my husband, Justin and I were having dinner near the theater and we went back to just to see the end of the play to see the second act and an usher came up to me and said there’s a Miss Brown who is looking for you. And I just I was really, really terrified. Janet now teaches at Harvard. And she read about the play, an interview I’d done in the Science Times and came to see it. And it was really fantastic. We had dinner afterwards and then became friends and I spoke about the play at the Darwin Festival in 2009 at her invitation. So that turned out really well. But I, you know, it’s you never know and I was very, very scared about it. But it was it ended happily.
[00:46:44] SHERR: Ok, well good. Alan Lightman, let me give you the last word on this part of it, which is, there were couple of movies in the opening clip- clips of movies in the opening video, The Martian and then of course, we have Interstellar. There’s a bunch of movies that have become very popular and people say- scientists have said, science is not quite right. I mean in the Martian, even Andy Weir, the author has said, it’s true there couldn’t be a storm like that on Mars but and in Interstellar, is that really what a wormhole is and how it works? Does it matter in terms of conveying the message that you want to convey?
LIGHTMAN: To get the science right? No. I mean, I agree with Alan here that the science part should be right, but I think that that what everybody here is saying is is that the message that we’re trying to and works of art as opposed to documentaries, the message we’re trying to do is convey something about the human side of science and the culture of science the world that scientists live in, the way that scientists think. And so I don’t think that for that message, that all of the science has to be right. Right. There might be other considerations, which would be a matter of opinion, as to whether the science needs to be right. But the message that you’re trying to convey in a work of art, as opposed to like the order decreases if you’re trying to convey the second law of thermodynamics. The message, I think that we’re all trying to convey here is the human landscape of scientists and the way scientists are as people.
SHERR: And in order to convey that, you’ve got to get them in the theater or to buy the book or to watch, to listen, to read. My question, Peter, let me turn to you. How do you approach making one of these extraordinary figures popular enough, interesting enough, likable enough, approachable enough that you can get A. you can get financing in some cases or that you can get people to want to come and see? It’s not a football hero. It’s not an entertainment hero. It’s a different kind of animal we’re dealing with.
PARNELL: Yes, but again I mean I think you know all of these cases, you’re talking about hopefully, good storytelling which does involve some very basic things that audiences can, you know, climb in with. What do audiences want?
SHERR: Ask the filmmaker. It’s a hard it’s, you know, audiences want to be surprised and they want to be obviously engaged. Do they want a good story? Isn’t it as simple as that at some level?
PARNELL: Yeah I guess so. I mean, that’s I have to really- that’s a really you know it’s interesting.
SHERR: Matt? Do you want to take a stab at that?
BROWN: Yeah I mean I think that a good story is a big, a good place to start. I think a story is very important. I don’t know if I entirely agree about the authenticity argument. I think that I think it- I think it is really important that the science is right at least as a filmmaker. For me it’s been that the mathematics has been right with this film. If it wasn’t right, I think I would have lost the whole audience. Think that is so happy and it means so much to them.
[00:50:17] SHERR: Tell them- tell them what you told me before about the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies screening.
BROWN: We showed the film. It’s been incredible, the response that- I never took it for granted that the mathematics community would -people said well, “people who like math will watch your movie.” And I was like, I don’t know. Let’s see. And they’ve embraced it so we showed the- we showed the film to the Institute of Advanced Studies. And this sort of speaks to what you were saying before is you can’t ever- you don’t know these people. You know, how do you really know what they’re like. But so an older gentleman comes up to me afterwards and he goes, “Well, I knew Hardy-” and this is the movie is set in 1914. And I’m like. And he says, “I knew Hardy and you got it all wrong.” But you got it all right. And what he meant by that, it was Freeman Dyson.
And Freeman, he said that Hardy’s personality was slightly different. So how do you ever really know what they’re like? And he said that his sense of humor was inappropriate in a way that maybe wasn’t conveyed in this film but he said that the essence of it was all right and that the mathematics was all correct and that it meant so much to him that to see mathematicians portrayed authentically and correctly so to that end, I think it matters. I think from film to film it matters. I mean is it important for Interstellar to be 100 percent right? I don’t know, or Star Wars? But is it important for these kinds of stories that we’re talking about? Maybe it is. I think it is.
SHERR: Alan Alda, are plays about scientists screenplays a tougher sell in Hollywood than anything else?
ALDA: I don’t know I haven’t sold the movie to Hollywood. I think you have to be lucky with any kind of a play that you get it on and that people go see it and that it’s worth seeing. You have to be lucky in every way. And you may even have to be a little luckier if it’s about science, because a lot of people assume that science, a play about science will be didactic and not human and not engaging. But I think- I think when you search for the human story and you show somebody trying to achieve something of great value against terrific obstacles, it’s hard to take your eyes off that person. You want that person to succeed or if it’s a bad person, you want them to fail.
SHERR: Which is- which is about the story and about the individual. We’re showing them an image from, I believe this is Ra- this is Radiance, right? And so does it help when you have Liev Schreiber and Maggie Gyllenhaal to play the roles?
ALDA: I mean, we had a credible cast that night and it was it was fun for me to hear the words and they just sat and read them. They did it as reading. They didn’t get up and act it out. But it was- I’ve seen it done now with a number of casts. Some of them are really extraordinary actors. And it’s I don’t know, if you guys have had this feeling, the first time we did a staged reading of it where they were in costume in Seattle and they were carrying scripts. But they came out- the women came out in their long 1906 dresses. My heart stopped. It was-I thought it was Marie. There she is. It was such a wonderful feeling. I was like a kid.
SHERR: Let me rephrase the question I asked you before. Is it harder to sell a play about science than a movie about science, do you think? Or is movie easier?
ALDA: They’re both very hard. It’s very- it’s really amazingly hard to get either one made. You spent how many years? Yeah. And that’s with almost any kind of movie. Doesn’t matter whether it’s about science or not.
SHERR: No, I get that. But this- but the subject is-talk a little bit about- Hollywood seems to like a story about a lone wolf, the individual fighting against the odds. Alan you’re shaking your head. I mean, I guess I’m thinking about the Alan Turing, the Stephen Hawking movies. Are these- does something like that I mean, do you have to go find a scientist like that?
ALDA: Well as Alan pointed out, if you don’t have a lone character that you can identify with, it’s very difficult to tell the story.
[00:55:05] SHERR: But does it have to be a lone wolf? Does it-
SHERR: What do you think Alan? Does it have to be- or could you do a group? Would a group work as well?
ALDA: I think very hard to make a movie about a committee.
PARNELL: The Warren Commission.
ALDA: I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Go ahead.
SHERR: The Warren Commission, right. I don’t know if you want to answer that. I don’t know if you have an answer.
LIGHTMAN: Well I think having I agree that having a single central character makes life easier. I don’t know whether that person has to be struggling against the establishment to make an interesting story. I think there are other ways that they could be having an inner struggle. It would also make an interesting story. And I think what you were talking about with Feynman, his later life was an inner struggle, which you were describing.
SHERR: Peter, you’ve got a TV series coming up. A TV show which is a sitcom.
PARNELL: N, no, no. It’s- I’m one of the writers on it. I didn’t create it. But it’s, no it’s a show called brain dead. It will be on in two weeks.
SHERR: And it’s about?
PARNELL: It’s-it’s from Michelle and Robert King who created and were the head writers of The Good Wife. And it but it’s very different and it’s a political satire mixed with science fiction so and very much in a way of the moment. It’s in the Senate and it is about- really about political extremism and what happens when the extreme right and the extreme left are unable to speak to each other. And so it’s really-
SHERR: That could never happen.
PARNELL: It’s about the inability to- the difficulty of governing and of having a change happen within the system.
SHERR: So much of what we see on television reflects what’s going on. Occasionally, it leads us were you surprised about the success of the Big Bang Theory? That here’s a bunch of young science nerds who are suddenly the hottest show on television?
PARNELL: Oh gosh, well.
SHERR: Anyone have a reaction to that? I mean these are scientists and the world loves it. Or maybe none of you watch television. No? No reaction.
ZIEGLER: It’s funny, just move on. It’s successfully funny. You know, there aren’t that many shows that are successfully funny.
SHERR: You, Nicole Kidman starred in Photograph 51 in London in the West End, is that right? Back to the same question about getting an audience. Once again, getting a big star like Nicole Kidman. Does that help to get this out there?
ZIEGLER: I can say it helped, yeah. I mean.
SHERR: How did that come about anyway? Did you know about it?-
ZIEGLER: I mean it was actually sort of funny is that the producers in England had no idea that the play had had a somewhat substantial life in the United States before- before they got their hands on it. I think it had 10, 12 productions here and one in New York that had been reviewed, you know. So it was- it was kind of out there and getting some momentum on its own. But they-how they got it is one of those really round about sort of, you know, sort of random showbiz stories. It was like Michael Grandage, who was the director and also the producer had seen a different play of mine in England at a tiny pub theatre years ago. And so I think I was a little bit on his radar because of that and then and then when Photograph 51 was getting some traction here, I think one of his donors, he used to run the Donmar Warehouse, and one of his big donors, who was an American couple, had seen the play in Washington D.C. And I think that’s how they got- how he read it. I don’t think I got it to him. I don’t.
SHERR: So Nicole Kidman is not a closet scientist?
ZIEGLER: Well she actually she-I think when he pitched it to her, I think it did hold special appeal because her father was a scientist.
SHERR: Oh, nice.
ZIEGLER: And so she in fact is sort of a closet scientist in a way. So it did. It did have some resonance.
SHERR: You gave the commencement address just the other day, right? Is it Rosalind Franklin University? In Chicago. What did you tell the students that resonated- that could resonate with them about her life?
ZIEGLER: Yeah. Well I mean I I think I was-in thinking about it, really struck by and writing this speech, really struck by the idea that this university had elected to name itself after someone who did not come in first and who was overlooked for a long time. And so it made me think about how you know, we’re not, it’s sort of cheesy, but we’re not the sum of our achievements. And that what she stood for, which was an incredible integrity, and kind of had-I think similar to Curie, never giving up. And really enjoying the science. She was really she would work for years on projects with no end in sight. And in some ways, was the ideal scientist because she would not-there was a line I wanted to put in my address that I took out, but that she so did not want to put the cart before the horse that sometimes people ran away with her horse. You know, she just- she couldn’t- she did not want to be wrong. She wanted to have that kind of integrity. And so, I talked about that a little bit and also I think on the flip side, the lesson one can take from her life is that there are risks that we should take. That she didn’t take. For many reasons and legitimate ones. And I don’t judge her. In fact, she’s a hero of mine. But I…
[01:01:12] SHERR: I like- I like the message that even if you come in second, you can get a school named after you.
ZIEGLER: Right. Exactly.
SHERR: Very good. Yeah. We’re going to open it up for questions in just a minute. But let me let me see. I would bet in this audience there are some people who might be thinking of writing a play about an individual and might be looking to a scientist to fictionalize their lives. Advice? What do you tell somebody who wants to do that sort of thing?
ALDA: I would say, make sure you fall in love with the person you’re writing about. Because you’re going to spend a lot of time with that person. And you have to give them the chance to be who they are and you won’t do it unless you are in love with them. Because they’ll be truculent from time to time and they’ll do things you don’t like. And you have to go along with them and let them be who they are.
BROWN: I mean along those lines, I think you have to have true passion for if you’re going to do it, because it’s a long ride. Whether it’s a film or a play. So I think you’ll discover that on your own. But you’ll find that if you go the distance, you’ll have that real passion. Because I don’t think you can fake it. It’s got to come from your heart.
SHERR: Can’t fake it. Absolutely. Alan?
LIGHTMAN: Well I would say find a character who has an interesting story. There are a lot of great scientists who, for one reason or another, don’t have lives that would lend themselves to dramatic rendering. But I think also that the interesting story should have a message that you feel passionate about. And just like Alan says, that you should fall in love with that character, I think that you should feel passion for
LIGHTMAN: the message and the story that you want to tell.
PARNELL: Yeah I know. I think that’s I- I would just add, I think, to not be afraid to try to touch what is personal. To try to figure out why you are invested, so in love with this character. Because ultimately, and it does speak a bit to what both Alan’s and what Matt has been saying. Ultimately, I don’t -I think you’re capturing an aspect or a part of this scientist. But you’re also actually writing about yourself on some level. You may not have to fully understand it, but don’t be afraid to engage that part of yourself. Because it’s the personal thing that makes you want to return and be in love with this particular character or characters.
SHERR: Right. Wonderful advice. Anna?
ZIEGLER: I agree very deeply with all of that. I think I would only add, in terms of looking for material, that contested Nobel Prizes are very good places to find people with good stories and people with some bones to pick. So there are so many of those stories out there.
SHERR: Oh good. Well we go we could go on all day. I even have more questions, but I want to give you folks an opportunity. Perhaps the lights can come up? And if you have questions, I think there are two people with microphones who will be circulating.
ALDA: Oh my God.
BROWN: I know. I couldn’t see anything.
SHERR: Over here, yes.
AUDIENCE: Hello. Hi. So I know this whole time we’ve been talking about the human element and the individual and the character and you’re saying that’s, you know, you’ll have an easier time. Are there any examples in film or plays or novel where they manage to, you know, portray science in some sort of dramatized form. And there wasn’t a person involved who wasn’t a central figure? I mean you’re all saying that would be very difficult. Did anybody manage to pull it off or-?
[01:05:04] SHERR: Science without a scientist basically. Or drama- what science drama without a scientist. Anybody think of one?
ZIEGLER: There’s a book I like by Allegra Goodman called Intuition, which is set in a science lab in Cambridge that it’s not about- it’s not about a famous scientist. It’s purely fiction that I think, or I’ve been told both depicts the world as science very accurately. And I think tells a pretty compelling story. So that’s one that I like.
SHERR: So it can be done.
ZIEGLER: Sure I think. Yeah of course.
SHERR: Thank you. More questions? Back here, yes.
AUDIENCE: High my favorite science movie is Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. I think it’s like a combo. You get a lot of science and you’ve got the biography. What’s yours?
SHERR: Favorite science movie. Who wants to take that? I don’t see any hands going up. You could say Dr. Strangelove. That’s sort of science.
ALDA: I loved the Matt’s movie. That’s the-that’s the most recent one I’ve seen, but it’s- it’s thoroughly lovable. I mean it has all the elements we’re talking about. A human story and you walk away thinking you understand something about deep math. And that’s- that’s an amazing accomplishment.
BROWN: Thank you.
SHERR: And your favorite science movie?
BROWN: Oh gosh I don’t know. I don’t have a particular one on hand.
SHERR: OK I’m not going to-I won’t make everybody answer unless somebody wants to.
LIGHTMAN:I love the Matrix and I mean it’s not about the scientists and it’s not about the world we live in. It’s science fiction. But I think it has very interesting ideas. And very imaginative.
SHERR: And we haven’t talked about Copenhagen and we haven’t talked about Proof.
ALDA: Proof was a very interesting human story, but I didn’t think there was much math in that. I mean when I walked out, I didn’t have the feeling that I did. When I walked out of your movie, that I had touched me and been touched by it. It was, it could have been about-I thought it could- and I’m not denigrating it for this, but it could have been about a business that had been taken over by somebody. Rather than a thesis.
SHERR: Right. It didn’t have to be science.
ALDA: It didn’t have to be.
SHERR: But how about Copenhagen. Copenhagen certainly was a lot of science.
ALDA: A lot of science in there.
SHERR: And I got to volunteer The Martian, because I loved The Martian. I loved the book. I loved the movie. I thought it was- they did a great job and that and bringing science up to the forefront of that. Just to turn people into scientists and to care about scientists and science, I thought was amazing.
ALDA: And the other Alan, did you think that the storm on Mars was a bad thing to do? Was it OK even though it couldn’t happen? That’s an interesting situation where they were criticized for having a storm on Mars and that was a critical moment in the story but it.
ALDA: couldn’t happen. Apparently.
LIGHTMAN: That didn’t bother me because there could have been other catastrophes on Mars that would have produced the same story. And so I think I consider that to be a detail, and everything else was- was totally convincing to me.
ALDA: Hardly anybody stood up at the screening I was at and complained.
SHERR: Yeah but then you didn’t see it with a lot of NASA people. More questions. Back here. Yes.
AUDIENCE: We have a mike nice. Thank you everyone for being here. I’m in the software industry and I have a very similar challenge. If you replaced scientist with the software engineers, we have a hard time sometimes conveying certain feature sets or certain reasons of why we want to code websites or software to do certain things. And we have to use story in the same way. So l want to ask, when you were trying to convey that technical science pieces in your plays and you’re in the movie as well, did you try to do the minimum amount of technical explanation and more story to convey that type of message? For example, were you using formulas or whatever the case may be. Or did you go full fledged into the technical explanations and hope that the audience would understand what you were trying to convey?
SHERR: Matt? Go ahead.
BROWN: Well I hope that some of it would play in subtext when I was writing because I knew that there was no way that- that people were going to. I mean most people aren’t going to understand pure mathematics or what they’re talking about. But I thought that I’d put it into the dialogue and I thought that we would get the essence and sometimes it would sort of line up in a way that subtextual it was playing. I mean like partitions, just the idea of what partitions is and these two such different people. It kind of, when they were talking about certain things sometimes- in going there with it and not shying away from it, I felt like we kind of got to a place that was- we knew as an audience what was going on. I think that there were some people that were more concerned that I was doing that. But the audiences didn’t seem to mind it at all and in fact, if there’s something I’ve learned from this whole thing is they wish I had even gone deeper with it. So, you know.
[01:10:48] SHERR: You wish you had put more math into the movie?
BROWN: Well I think some people wish that I had gone a little bit deeper with it in places where, you know, I felt very comfortable with -with the level that we went to and not exceeding. But I think that there have been people that wish that it even had gone deeper.
ALDA: Ever night that we did QED, I was amazed and grateful that Peter could get so much quantum electrodynamics into this play and the audience watched it with interest and involvement. I mean were you surprised at how well we were able to do there?
PARNELL: Yes, Alan, but also you were you were wonderful and so-
ALDA: Well I forgot.
PARNELL: But I think, no I do think that -in this in the case of QED, the form of the play was allowing Feynman to teach us. And so there was a certain amount and we would go over it and it took, you know, we worked it and reworked it so that it would feel seamless. But sometimes, Feynman was thinking about something else but he was using the…
SHERR: But that’s what- what you’re saying is interesting in terms of translating into software because having a character who is teaching it sort of takes care of that issue. Interesting. Yes, down up front?
ALDA: Here comes the mike.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Not really off topic, but Lynn, you wrote an amazing biography of Sally Ride. And I have to say like most people when I read a biography of someone I know, it’s really hard not to like it and think you got it wrong. And I thought you did a fantastic job. Is anybody doing a movie or a play?
SHERR: Thank you for saying that. I promise you we’re not related. I’ve never met you. Yeah it’s Sony HBO are doing a movie out of it. So it will be a multi-part TV movie. Thank you. Which I’m not writing. That will be that’s next you know. I’ll discuss. But what I want to do next with these guys. More questions. Yes. Let’s go in the back there. We have them all the way in the back.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. So Dr. Lightman you brought up the book by Italo Calvino, which is a favorite book of mine. But I was wondering if you can comment on this like kind of resolution between the postmodernist thought of art that kind of clashes with like the scientific materialist thought that you’re so ingrained with in the field. So I was wondering if that was a problem maybe trying to resolve these two philosophies? And also the panel as well, trying to combine the fields of art and science, things that clash so often. I was wondering if you can comment on that struggle?
LIGHTMAN: I’m not sure what the postmodernist clash is. But I-I do agree with-with Matthew and Alan that the-the science and a work of art that has science in it should be correct. And when I was talking about that the artist was not obligated to-to follow all the factual material, I was talking about the life and the society surrounding the science. Some of the biography of the people involved. But I-there is an opening scene of Don DeLillo’s great novel, Underworld. In which we’re at a baseball game and it’s a famous, historically famous baseball game. It’s the Yankees against somebody. I think it’s- it’s a World Series.
I’m- I’m actually from Boston so it should have been the Boston Red Sox. But anyway, in the audience as I remember right, DeLillo places Frank Sinatra and J Edgar Hoover. And one or two other famous historical characters that- that almost certainly were not there at the game. And. Is that -is that a clash or not? Is that allowable? It’s- it’s a fantastic novel and it adds color.
[01:15:17] LIGHTMAN: And I think that the-that a work of art is permitted to do that. That you can’t let the facts get in the way of your imagination. And when I was writing Einstein’s Dreams I did not want to visit the city of Bern while I was writing the book because I didn’t want the facts of this city to- to inhibit my imagination too much. When I was finished, I sent the first draft to people who lived in Bern to make sure that I hadn’t gotten things very wrong but and creating the book. I sort of tried to respect my imagination. And so-so I believe that that the imagination, the creative imagination, has to come first and the kind of art that we’re talking about. I mean there’s plenty of vehicles for presenting science factually. There are documentaries. There’s NOVA. There are lots of other wonderful books by great science writers. And I think that that-that using the work of art where your primary focus is to get all of the science, is to teach science. I think it’s like using a hammer. To screw in-using a screwdriver to hammer a nail that you’ve got the wrong vehicle. You’ve got the wrong tool. So while I think it’s very important to get the scientific facts right, I think that we should honor our imagination in creating the rest of the work as DeLillo did with Underworld.
SHERR: Now let’s take a couple of more questions. Let’s take one from back here. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I guess my question is for Alan Alda. You have, it seems, like ever since I’ve seen you on screen, been trying to convey accurate science and marry human nature with science and just try to make it a melding versus like a clash. What inspired you to start doing that?
ALDA: I don’t know- I don’t know why I’ve loved-I’ve been curious since I was a little boy. And I did not-I was not encouraged in that curiosity by the people who taught me biology in high school or mathematics. It was just when I got into my early 20s and started reading Scientific American and other books about science that I could follow my curiosity wherever it lead. I guess in a way, the way a scientist follows his or her curiosity and- and actually does science. But for me, it was just a beautiful, wonderful, fun experience and exploration. And when I was doing the program Scientific American Frontiers, where I must have interviewed about 700 scientists, I realized that this conversational approach we took brought the real them out and they were human and engaging because we were just improvising together, wasn’t responding to a set of questions. It was a real live conversation and I think that all added to my- my wish to bring that in other forms to this stage. But it also helped me decide that I thought I had something to offer scientists and helping them make their stories clearer to the public and to Congress who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
SHERR: I told you we’re not doing this
ALDA: They’ve spent their lives learning other things and so. Scientists have to make it clear to them.
SHERR: Back here. Yes.
AUDIENCE: You’re going to hold it for me. Okay thank you. Something that-I guess to continue the conversation that kind of just began here. Something that we keep coming back to is sort of engaging audiences and how to engage audiences in these conversations. And so I’m wondering what the role of artists are and storytellers are in terms of science literacy and so
AUDIENCE: scientific literacy and sort of the literacy of our society that we as storytellers have. And I’m kind of curious to hear from everyone about.
[01:20:06] SHERR: You’re asking let me see-
AUDIENCE: What- what’s the role of the artist and the storyteller in terms of scientific literacy.
SHERR: Alan? You’re shaking your head as if you want to answer that Alan.
LIGHTMAN: Well anybody can answer that.
ALDA: No, go ahead.
LIGHTMAN: Okay, well I think
ALDA: Because you- you have a unique position of being both in the science and literate.
LIGHTMAN: Well I think that’s- that’s different from what we’ve been talking about here because I think if your goal is science literacy, so you’re trying to actually teach science and that’s your main mission. And I think is that- that you use every means at your disposal. And I think storytelling is an excellent means for doing that with there-there are some wonderful examples of successful conveying science successfully with storytelling. But I don’t think that- that’s the principal motive of science literacy. What we’ve been talking about here. Am I wrong?
SHERR: No, I think you’re right because science literacy is fact as opposed to what- what you’re doing, what you all are doing, which is storytelling as a vehicle for fiction.
ALDA: There’s also the blurry edge of science literacy where it’s- where you don’t become a scientist because you are scientifically literate, but you think a little bit more like a scientist. You will you regard the evidence as important. You have an awareness of how science is done so that you don’t say a year ago they say coffee was bad for you and they say it’s good for you. So they don’t know what they’re talking about. Well if you understand a little bit more about how scientists act, you realize they’re not looking for the truth. They’re looking for more truth. And you with them in their quest.
SHERR: It’s so interesting. And I’m- we’ll take a couple of more questions from the audience in just a second. I keep thinking about the thing that was so hot when I was probably, I think in high school, which was C.P. Snow and that and the divided world and the two-
LIGHTMAN: The Two Cultures
SHERR: The Two Cultures, thank you. And it was science over here and it was our humanities over here and schools, certainly after Sputnik went up, there was a big effort to get more science. But are we- are we be just on that point, and take it into the fictional world if you want, but are we trying to get beyond that? Are we beyond that? Are we any closer to bringing the two cultures together do you think?
BROWN: I mean it’s a little closer. I mean it’s- it’s a little closer. The two movies that were up for Academy Awards last year were science films. Which-that’s justice for film, but it does- it does meld the two worlds. I think that there is this like- I’m totally in agreement with you about storytelling and creativity and it should be unhampered and should be able to do whatever you want to do as an artist 100 percent. That said there is also this incredible opportunity of outreach and this incredible opportunity to tell some true stories and get them out to the world. And there’s something wonderful about that. Does that mean that every story needs to be 100 percent authentic? No I don’t think so. I mean, you can do whatever you want to do.
SHERR: So it’s about chipping away a little bit to bring these two worlds together to get people comfortable.
BROWN: I think so. I think it’s amazing. I think it’s amazing that for a general audience to go to a movie about mathematics or are a general audience to learn about Turing or to learn about Hawking, even if they have to go way on that side of the human story to get it out there. I think it’s a good thing because we’re all people and science shouldn’t be on this side and humanities.
ALDA: And there was a time, I remember movies in the 40s that sometimes dealt with great scientists and they told a compelling human story, which was free to be fictional as much as they chose. But they also felt free to make the science fictional as they chose. And I think there’s less of a regard for that kind of behavior now.- I think- I think that there’s more attention paid to accuracy in science. It’s a little harder to do. But you- if you find out what the real facts are and try to make the story work with the real facts of the science or the medicine, it’s more exciting. You have to work a little harder.
BROWN: Exactly. I completely agree with you.
SHERR: And you do have to work harder though that’s the case. Yeah let’s- let’s take two more questions if we may. Over here. Oh sorry. Then we’ll come over here.
[01:25:00] ALDA: It’s somebody. I didn’t see you.
AUDIENCE: Hello. My question is there have been very few movies that the main character are alive while the production of the film, such as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything or Dr. Patch Adams. Do you think it will be easier or harder to make a movie if the main character was alive or are harder?
SHERR: Interesting. Does-does being dead make it easier? To get a movie made about you.
AUDIENCE: Contradictions Do you think they would be OK that will be some contradiction in their lives in the movie for it?
ALDA: Well you have a living person in your play.
ZIEGLER: Yeah-yeah. I have three now. Yes. No, I mean I think it certainly creates more obstacles. Not to mention sort of rights wise but I- I you know, I think there are a lot of people who would be thrilled to have them he made about them. And where that wouldn’t, you know, wouldn’t be an issue, but certainly-
SHERR: But it would make your job harder, Anna, don’t you think?
ZIEGLER: Yeah, I think you would feel the responsibility in a deeper way to try to be true to that person and not to depict them in such a negative light. I mean I think that that might be the tricky thing is to is to tamp down the need to be wholly positive about someone who is still living because of course you want to depict them in the way that they really are, which is complicated.
SHERR: It does sort of make it hard on the scientist, though, if I have to die in order to get the movie.
ZIEGLER: It’s a bummer.
SHERR: Let’s take one more question over here. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I’d love you to all talk a little bit about the challenge of actually getting the science, after the story is written, getting that science onto the screen or onto the stage. And as background,, we won a contest by the National Academy of Engineering called the next MacGyver contest to try and get a female MacGyver engineering character onto television. Now that we’ve finished the story we are at the beginning of that journey and it’s really difficult to convince people that that’s going to be something that people want to see. So how did you guys do it?
SHERR: You want to hear the pitch right? Matt you’re probably- you’ve done it most recently.
BROWN: It’s hard it’s-it’s- I mean I had an Indian mathematician at the turn of the century. There’s no, you know, there is no white nurse and there was a love story with his wife at home. It was really, really difficult. And as a result of it, I’m actually beginning a foundation right now to try to make more films in an authentic fashion that have to deal with the world esteem because I don’t ever want to go through that again and I don’t want anyone else to go. I don’t really have a good answer for it other than it’s just perseverance but I think that there is incredible stories to be told. We were actually considering doing a story about Emmy Noether, the female mathematician who had to publish under a male’s- a male’s name to get it done. And that- that doesn’t get made by Hollywood. I mean it just doesn’t. So I think it’s just perseverance and piecing things together and not giving up and I don’t know what else to say. It’s hard.
SHERR: Anybody else have advice? Peter?
PARNELL: Yeah I agree with Matt. I mean I think you- some of it is what you first put on the page and then as you’re working, I assume with actors and in front of the cameras, certainly onstage, you work it and rework it so that it is clearer and so that it does feel like it’s all of a piece. And it’s not, you don’t get it the first time. I mean, it take- it takes..
ALDA: I’ll give you something that I learned by experience. They- the people who guard the gate, the ones who had the money, the networks, the channels that will buy it, want to make sure that they’ll get viewers. So they’ll probably want your leading character to be a really dominant figure in the play. The whole play has to be, has to show off that person’s acting talent. And it has to be a big star. So you need to get the involvement of the actor or actress right away and a director who can make it happen, that they- that they’ll be crazy about- you have to put it together and then they’ll fall all over you.
SHERR: No better advice than that.
PARNELL: And the Sloan Foundation. Doron’s here. They were very supportive.
SHERR: There you go. We’ve got lot of people involved. I thought she was going to go to your foundation that you’re just starting.
BROWN: We’re just starting a different kind of one. But I mean these guys gave us-
ALDA: Yeah, don’t back out now.
BROWN: They gave us seed money for our film. That was, you know, very, very helpful. And yeah but he’s right you need a good actor.
[01:30:09] SHERR: So- so get it done and then that will be part of the panel the next time around. There you go. Thank you to a wonderful audience. Thank you to an extraordinary panel. Thank you for all the movies and films And. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for helping us all to understand that scientists are just people too.
ALDA: Thank you too.