141: TCMFF And Reel Science 2.0
May 4, 2018 8:36 a.m.
Episode 141: TCMFF and Reel Science 2.0
This episode is a week late so that I could include a wrap-up from the TCM Classic Film Festival that ended Sunday and provide a preview of the San Diego Natural History Museum's new Reel Science Film Series that runs through May. Enjoy four real scientists — an entomologist, a neuroscientist and two physicists (no, that's not the opening of a joke) — as they discuss the reel science in films. Find out which bug is ready for a starring role in a sci-fi film and why the premise of using humans as batteries is all wrong.
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Related Story: Podcast Episode 141: TCMFF And Reel Science 2.0
Welcome back to another edition of listener supported PBS cinema Junkie podcast on Beth Accomando. My apologies for getting this podcast out a week late but I had the TCM Classic Film Festival and Real Science 2.0 to cover. But thanks for your patience. I didn't want to skip either the TCM Classic Film Festival or the San Diego Natural History Museum's latest installment of real science. So I've combined these two fabulous events for this one podcast. First the TCM Classic Film Festival the 2018 festival served up another fantastic year of classic cinema and amazing guests. I'll have a full wrap up on my cinema Junkie blog next week but here are a few highlights. I got to see 16 films and one presentation on trailblazing women animators in four days. One film was on nitrate. Most were on 35 millimeter and all were spectacular. The festival takes great care in making sure they show the films in the best way possible. Sometimes that means showing it in the volatile format of nitrate that could spontaneously combust at any moment. Other times it means it's a newly struck print or an archival print from a studio and other times it's a new digital restoration. Some of the films are well-known like the producers or George Romero's Night of the Living Dead while others like the world's greatest sinner is not available in any format so only a small cult following that sought in theaters or on VHS. Know about it. The festival is a mecca for film lovers and the care and presentation is well matched by the selection of people to introduce and give context to the film's TCM noir alley host Eddie Muller introduced the boxing noir the setup and had poet Malcolm Maiz read the poem that inspired the film a poem about a black fighter.
There were celebrities who came not to promote their own films but to show their love for films made by others.
John Carpenter who pretty much refuses to talk about his own films these days present at Howard Hawks his preco sensation Scarface classic movies has described the movie well.
Your program is perfect so I have a few tidbits tonight. This is based on the life of Al Capone. Obviously Al Capone had a scar. So is Paul Bewley who plays the title role. That wrote the screenplay that was a newspaper man. He was Peter Mansoor Kado during the bad old days. So he would put out a newspaper and axes for the bodies work. So our office decided let's put Xs in our scene. So you'll see that you can try to find them. I'm I challenge you to find your friends going to see where people have been killed or about to be killed. They are useful for voting seatwork Boris Karloff is an expert when she was going to kill a lot of bowling alley in the exorcist crime. There's the most incredible last scene where all he comes to the door and talks to George Ralph is an excellent these guys. So let me find always you'll be cool if you can. Help. The opening shot is a three and a half minute single day uninterrupted now for the time this was shot Haddon's amazing technology we have today. They didn't have the technology that Martin Scorsese had the powers that I had and how we had this big giant cameras. So it's a cheap shot. The sister in this movie is played by Edward.
There's a lot of sense this is also she more just tremendous. Also she was powerhouse's as Scarface star is rule is blackly funny.
TCM film festival ended on Sunday.
And I've had the blues ever since. Fortunately the San Diego Natural History Museum kicks off their real science Season 2 this week to help lift me out of my depression. Real science pairs an actual scientist with a film so that science fact and science fiction can meet the museum's purpose in doing this is to find new ways to engage audiences in conversations about science. Pop culture proves to be a brilliant entry point for this film such as back to the future in the matrix can make science feel less threatening and more accessible. And then add in a real scientist to point out what the films get. Right or wrong and suddenly people are painlessly learning things. The films in the real science program screen on Fridays here in San Diego. But with this podcast you can enjoy the scientific insights of the four scientists from anywhere and you can seek out these films on your own. The scientists will also discuss their particular fields of research and expertise. For some insights into what real scientists do we also talk about other films that you might want to seek out. But if you are in San Diego I urge you to go see the films so you can actually talk to the scientists in person. First up is Michael wall curator of entomology and vice president of Science and Conservation at the San Diego Natural History Museum. This is his second year with real science and he also hosts film series where he does a kind of mystery science 3000 take on films and holds running commentaries about the accuracy of the science in films such as them and wasp woman wall presents the 1974 film phase 4 the only film directed by graphic designer Saul Bass.
Michael Murphy plays a scientist who is dealing with the ramifications of an unknown cosmic event that spring we were all watching the events from space and wondering what the final effect the astronomers argued over theory.
While engineers get pretty excited about variables and magnetic fields mystics predicted earthquakes and the end of life as we knew it when the effects came it was almost unnoticed because it happened to such a small and insignificant form of life.
One biologist an Englishman Ernest Hubbs saw something got nervous and started investigating. While I was playing around with number theory the university Hubbs was already under some. Ordinary ants a different species were doing things ants don't do. Meeting.
Communicating apparently making decisions by summer the rest of the world had moved on to other things. Hopes kept making notes.
Michael. This is the second time. The Natural History Museum has decided to do this real science program so this is already a scientist real scientist talking about our e e l science real science in films. So how did that first series go and what did you kind of learn from that in terms of how to interact with the public in these films.
Yeah so we did the first series in early 2017 and we were looking for ways to engage with different audiences at the San Diego Natural History Museum and also to find other community partners to partner up with to sort of get out in the community a little bit more so we partnered up with the digital gym and launched this series and we were kind of just doing it on a prayer and it ended up being really successful. We had a lot of positive feedback. I think people really enjoyed the getting to interact with scientists both you know sort of before and after the events but also just hearing peoples takes on these really wild colt sci fi movies.
Well and what's interesting too is as a museum you might think that you guys would have gone for documentaries are very kind of scientific films films that didn't have questionable science in them but your approach was to go with pop culture films films that people would probably know probably have some sort of connection with and approach science through that route.
One of the things the museums in the business of is education right. And like the best way to educate something someone about something is to sort of grab on to something they're already familiar with and then stretch it out to something that they're unfamiliar with. And so that's what the experiment was and you know as scientists we have to experiment. So we did it last year and we did four different films and the data came in and we were hugely successful.
So this program each scientist gets to pick a film they want to talk about. Now last year you picked Flash Gordon which was a great it was a lot of fun. So now you're moving on to something very different in tone and quality which is Phase Four so remind people what phase 4 is.
Most people probably haven't seen Phase 4 it's a sci fi movie. I think it was released in 1974 and it's about ants and it has the feel particularly when you look at the movie poster for it. It has the feel of a creature feature. You know.
Oh and are going to invade the world and kill a whole bunch of humans and that's somewhat the premise of it. But it also has this really weird arthouse feel to it's very contemplated it kind of reminds me of some levels of 2001 A Space Odyssey. Now in the next few moments we will try to give you an impression of a new kind of film experience. If.
What do they want. How do you fight a force that knows what your next move will be before you've seen. It. So what is your approach that you're going to take to it in terms of how you're going to dissect the signs of this.
Frank. Well it's interesting because the the movie is about scientists that the two main characters in the movie are scientists. One of them I think is like more of how can we kill ants kind of scientist. And the other one is into communication with animals.
And so he says that the premise of it at the beginning you find out that he had previously worked with orca whales trying to communicate with orca whales. And so there is science within it and particularly about trying to communicate with animals. And so what I'm. My approach is going to be is to talk a little bit about how ants actually communicate with one another and how they sort of spin off of that in this movie.
Little sons of bitches. No no no. They're not individuals their individual cells. Tiny. Functioning parts of the. Think of the society with perfect harmony. Perfect altruism and self-sacrifice. Ethic division of labor. Organized for preordained roles. Think of the building elaborate and complex structures according to plans that they know nothing of. And yet execute perfectly. Their ability to evolve. And adapt. Ways that are.
So beautiful. Still so I'm and all could take. One. Simple fool. So defenseless individual. So powerful in.
Entomology is your specialty and have appeared in a number of science fiction films. What do you think about ants makes them appealing to science fiction to use them.
I think definitely it is the the mob nature of them the sort of single mind mob it's kind of at some level it's the same reason why I think we find zombies appealing because they seem to be this mindless Mass. But they also can at least in some movies move in concert with one another. And so this idea of a mindless horde I think is inherently sort of frightening and it also you know oftentimes symbolizes I think in sci fi movies and particularly actually in face for the way in which we often paint our enemies. So that like during the Vietnam war the Communists are a mindless mob in some sort of way. And so it springs off of that sort of fear of the commune is going to take down democracy.
You know do ants get a bad rap in science fiction films or is science fiction kind of tapping into something about them that is accurate in some way.
You know in this film in particular I mean I think obviously they get a bad rap right now because there are plenty of like ant invasion movies where they're like you know seemed to be acting with some sort of vengeance in some sort of way you know where we're projecting these human emotions of revenge upon them or are there are inherently evil in some sort of way. And but where there where this film in particular is really accurate is we're actually in the cinematography of it.
They've got a wildlife photographer to do the filming of the ants and it's some of the best actual footage I've seen of ants in motion and the amazing thing about it is they they set up these set pieces for these ants to crawl through and I can't imagine like the countless amount of hours it was when you see some of these scenes how they got these ants to do some of these things. I mean it's almost like they're trained animals and it's pretty pretty crazy and really awesome.
I understand that this is a film you haven't revisited since you were young so how is this film kind of change for you going back to it and singing again. What did you think of it.
Yeah I was telling my wife that the last time I saw this movie I think I was probably about 8 years old and you know I was probably sitting on like the plush carpet in our den you know watching it on a on a tube TV. And I remember the time being like wow this is really weird you know. But but just it was another sort of it probably came on on a Saturday during a creature feature. I often watch those on the weekends and we were watching the other night. And as an entomologist I was really appreciating the cinematography of the ants in particular.
There is no one at that is a major character as weird as that sounds.
And they do. I thought my wife didn't quite agree with me as much as I thought but they do a really good job of doing a portrait of an ant like actually giving that the ant some personality like the ants do feel like actors in this which is a really very unusual to see their props. They're scary things and a bunch of like your standard operating sci fi movies. But in this like there's some emotional resonance that at least I felt and I think it probably goes back to my background as an entomologist you know but I really enjoyed that part of the movie of it and it was interesting because it is a very contemplated movie. It's not a high action though. There are plenty of action scenes in it but it's not. It's not nonstop scary jump scares and high action. And it was interesting to think about it afterwards like okay so what was the point of that.
And maybe it made you think of what do you think that film in any way laid a foundation for you becoming an entomologist.
Boy that would be that would be an amazing Deepcut if I like. You know I went to counseling and they pulled that out of my memory. But you know I certainly think that science fiction in general contributed to my my path my professional path that I was always fascinated with science fiction from a very early age.
And I think that like imagining the possibilities as part of what science is about in terms of all these and films that there are is this one of your favorites or are there some others that you'd want to mention.
Well I mean the classic film is them and that's of course the giant the giant and film from the 50s that was kind of one of the results of nuclear testing in the Arizona desert and it got really big direction of the president of the United States stayed in your home. You stayed in your homes.
Personal safety the safety of the entire city depend on your full cooperation with the military authorities. Yes cities nature. Even civilization itself. With annihilation.
Because in one moment of history making violence. Major. Matt. RANMA. Its most awesome creation blowing the swirling inferno of radioactive dust where things are. So terrifying. So hideous. There is no way. To describe.
That it is probably my favorite just because it is it's it's just has all it hits all the right notes for me in terms of a creature feature and it has to do with an entomology acid do with insects but I would say like I do quite like this film.
I'm not going to I'm not going to mince any words about it.
It's really weird but I really appreciate the portrait they paint of ants in this film and the way that it sort of makes me think about ants in a different way.
Looking back on it it seems very much like the 70s in terms of that kind of maybe you drop a little acid and think about something in detail.
Yeah absolutely. I mean this is you can totally see plenty of people smoking smoking some reefer dropping acid and watching this movie and having their minds blown kind of thing because it is.
It definitely hits all those tones or some psychedelic ish sequences in it. Some really visually like crazy sequences particularly the micro photography of the ants there's a couple scenes that are really wonky with that and then also the soundtrack for it is just kind of like really stark sense kind of like.
You know all of it put together totally has that feel of the 70s.
And it also has a bit of that kind of political consciousness element that was really popular in those films.
Yeah absolutely. Most the consensus is that it is sort of a commentary on the Vietnam War at some level. The Danes represent the the mindless horde of of the Viet Minh needs the Viet Cong and that and that science is trying to provide an answer for defeating the mindless whore.
There's a scene that is very symbolic of the use of napalm.
So there is undoubtedly a political message behind it as well by showing this what are you hoping to kind of connect with audiences or you know what kind of a point do you want to try and make or bring out with this film.
Yeah well again I keep harping on how impressed I am with the footage of the ants in this. And again to me this gives Anne's personality and I do like when I'm trying to do education about the work that I do. I always say that the species of the world are a cast of characters and they're performing the biggest play on earth kind of thing and that telling the stories of nature and making people feel familiar and feel like that they have a connection in some way with nature is a path to conservation at some level. And so I think this movie does a really good job of personifying ants you know and some people might go oh yeah it personified them as evil you know but I think other people will look at it and make a connection somewhat with ants and if in my presentation at the beginning of it where I'm sort of contextualizing the movie and contextualizing it communication I can sort of nudge that over the top.
I think all achieve my goal.
Insects do seem to be very popular in science fiction.
Do you see insects have different personalities that attract them in different ways to science fiction writers because and seem to be used like you see giant ants in a number of films but like something like a tarantula always seems to be popular not necessarily in science fiction only but it's like it's big it's very it's kind of scary and people seem to turn to that but do bugs have like certain personality types that lead them in different ways to science fiction.
Yeah sure. I mean I think if you just think in your mind through the different groups of insects you're automatically going to have some sort of like visceral reaction and it could be in a positive way. When people think about butterflies they go oh butterflies you know kind of thing but when people think about roaches or they think about like maggots or flies you know they have another reaction. And spiders are one that I mean it's. Well there's a movie all about arachnophobia. You know it's well acknowledged that that is something that causes a great deal of fear and Peiper people so get the biggest when you can and put it on somebody's back and have them like slowly turn around and you know you're going to get a jump scare at least out of some segment of the audience that's arachnophobic. But it is interesting to think about that. You know when when do you see sort of insects painted in a positive light within film. And I can't really think of too many other than you know maybe within the world of Pokemon. You know there's plenty of insect related characters that are sweet flutter by.
You know so but yeah generally the reaction is either there or associated with disease and vermin and some sort of way or there are venomous and they're going to kill us or giant wasps or attack of the Killer Bees type stuff or this idea of this sort of mindless horde. I guess you can go to Japan for Mothra.
Yeah totally monster states that it seems like you mention wasps and bees but it seems like these the ability of these tiny tiny things to hold the venom that could potentially kill you is something that ignites imagination.
Sure yeah. And you know again it goes to the strength the numbers kind of thing because the sting of one individual normal sized is certainly not dangerous to most people unless they are allergic to them.
But if you get mobbed by honeybees or you know in some I'm not sure I've ever heard of death by mass and ventilation but it's probably possible then you know it becomes an issue. So this again I think this idea of the mindless horde not just mindless but it's got weapons you know it's pretty frightening.
I have to confess that at one point in my life I was interested in going into zoology and interested in going. My grandfather had worked in Africa and I like it. Be great to work with wildlife preserves. And then someone pointed out there were these six inch Goliath beetles in Africa.
And for some reason insects have that power to kind of make you go like you.
Yeah. It's interesting because like there is where my hardwiring is wrong. Because there are very few insects.
And in fact I can't think of insects that make me go like the one the one sort of arthropod that creeps me out are our centipedes like giant centipedes creep me out because they are really dying fast and they are venomous. There's something about them that's creepy to me. But yeah it's without a doubt. You know the bigger they are the more likely they are.
But you know also the more fascinating they are because in our collection at the museum we've got a few education drawers that we pull out when we're giving people behind the scenes tours and stuff like that and we've got one drawer that I call the WoW drawer. And that's because that's the reaction I get when I pull it out of the cabinet and what's it filled with. It's filled with a lot of big beetles and big you know it's the biggest and the best kind of thing. If somebody saw that like on their shoulder when they were walking through the rainforest then yeah the reaction would probably be.
GROSS But when you get a chance to sort of reflect on them when they're safely dead and pinned behind glass you know then it's wow awesome. You know I just feel like that all the time.
Like every time I say well I have to say when did the first times I had met you I was here with a camera person and a scorpion fell on the ground and we're we're kind of like let's it's not dangerous right and you're don't like don't worry about it. And my camera person was like it like it can't kill you or anything and you're like. Oh no.
It's lethal or and it would hurt. Yeah I remember that I think I remember like right because I had it in a container and I had some long forceps and I was pulling it out with like as I was pulling and she was freaking out and and I said oh don't worry I won't drop it. And then of course I did. It was pretty bad. And you were completely unperturbed by the Jim.
Talk a little bit about what led you into entomology what was it about bugs in particular that fascinated you.
I'm interested in this actually goes back to something I said earlier about like nature being a play in which we've got all these cast of characters and what and I don't know why this interests me it just inherently interests me but I'm interested in the way organisms interact with one another. So I started off and bought me actually when I was an undergraduate and I started getting interested in the way other things interact with plants so the things that eat plants the things that pollinate plants and the things that disperse the seeds of plants and that just automatically leads you down the road to getting more interested in insects and about that same time my wife was an undergraduate in entomology and she was taken in general entomology class and she was going up to study one night and I like a puppy dog followed her up there to study with her. And there were these samples that they had been extracting all the little tiny invertebrates out of leaf litter from a forest. And while she was studying I was just getting the samples and putting them underneath the microscope and looking at this like sort of soup of insects in a petri dish and ethanol. And that was totally what like that night it really it was it was just so fascinating to see these things that looked like little Gritz of dirt and then to realize oh wow those have legs and like the morphological diversity in something that is so small you wouldn't even recognise it to be living is amazing when you get it on a microscope and that's what I'd love to do just like I mean if I could you know if I won the lottery Morrow I would I would still continue to do entomology but I would just sit in front of a microscope and look at little tiny things.
So how we discovered all the insects that exist we have not by a long shot discovered all the insects that exist so right now there is about one point one million described species of insects and the most conservative estimate is that there is at least four million and so that means there's three times as many left to discover than what's already been discovered.
And there's some estimates that are even higher than that and really where a lot of the diversity lies that we haven't discovered goes back and turns back around into sci fi again is that there are a lot of parasitic wasps and we know there are already a lot of parasitic wasps but what's acknowledged to be sort of the biggest group of insects is beetles so like one about one out of every five animals of described species of animals as a beetle and I can't recall what the total number of them is. It's somewhere around 300 let's say 350000 well these parasitic wasps are can be highly specialized so they only parasitized say one species of beetle and then within that they can be even more specialized where there might be one parasitic wasp that only parasitized as the eggs of the beetle and another one that parasitized is the larvae of the beetle and another pair of studies is the adult of the beetle and then there's parasitic wasp parasitized the parasitic wasps that you can see how the numbers just like explode exponentially and that's where a lot of folks think that that there's just a huge chunk of undiscovered diversity in these parasitic wasps people are readily aware of the fact that we may not know everything about space that there's all this stuff out there that we haven't seen and can't discover and then to think that like in a cup full of dirt there might still be things that we don't know about yeah.
And that's the thing that I mean you know I would say I've got good job security. There's plenty to keep us busy. Unfortunately there's not a lot of corporations hiring. There's a lot of work to do but nobody ironing. But yeah absolutely.
Mean the you know it's often a rant that you hear amongst biodiversity scientists people who study the living world that grew real good mood news. So you know kind of thing and it's true there's a lot that remains to be discovered here and we don't know a large percentage of what's going on around the planet.
Well what you need to do is you need to make a science fiction film about how a cup of dirt with a few undiscovered creatures in it ends up like taking over the planet you can make big big dollars on box office and then channel it into science or just terrify people to the point that they start demanding we need more science on those things that we don't know about yet scare tactics you know for people who may not be aware of all this.
Why is it important for us to kind of go through and catalogue all these possible creatures that are out there again going back into childhood that this wasn't childhood I think it was in college when I was watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on afternoons but he had this one demonstration that is stuck in my mind for a long time of a Jenga tower. Most people are familiar with the game Jenga right.
And if you picture the world or an ecosystem like a Jenga tower and you know species go extinct we know that we are driving species to extinction we're in the middle of what they're calling the six The Sixth Extinction. It's one of the largest extinction events in geological history so we know species are going extinct. So you've got your Jenga tower you've got your ecosystem composed of all these wooden blocks that are species and you start pulling out Jenga pieces and there's typically in most ecosystems and within there are enough redundancy built in that you can pull out some animals can go extinct in the jingoists hour will stay upright kind of thing but eventually you pull out enough pieces and in the end the tower crumbles and the ecosystem starts to fail and we as humans are very dependent upon ecosystems we're dependent upon you know obviously plants to generate oxygen for us the bees to pollinate our plants we eat the the the bacteria and all the things that are in the soil to filter our water to go back down into the off of aquifers and be clean.
And so you know we've got to we should be very invested in understanding our world better so that we don't pull out too many Jenga pieces and is it hard to get people kind of on the side of insects in the sense of Amy I think people completely side with the idea of like we've got to make sure that pandas stay here because they're cute and cuddly looking or a jaguar or something like that but to defend we need to have roaches.
Yeah yeah. Is it a tough battle.
Yeah it is definitively difficult to defend insects in that context so we call your jaguars and your pandas charismatic megafauna and that the but I think of the entomological world is the charismatic microphone. There's a lot of care charisma there and again this sort of goes back to the movie on why I really appreciate this movie is the cinematography you know of a painting a character of what it's like to be an agent. But at the same time like you I've never met like 3 or 4 year old who isn't fascinated by insects. I mean if if they're not then it's very clearly that they've been taught from an early age to like spiders you know kind of thing. And so we we I think hopefully we don't beat it out of children but you know we we certainly derive it out of children at some age this like where they become. GROSS And maybe it's just the experience of actually seeing maggots in the trash can for the first time or roaches and stuff like that that teaches us. But at the same time going back to our Jenga pieces some of that charismatic megafauna is one species and we can pull that piece out and there is and the tower may or may not fall.
But it's you know definitive that you know plants are what keep us alive. They produce oxygen and then the once you get past plants sort of the next line of defense that we have is insects because insects are doing all sorts of what we call ecosystem services. They're pollinating they're degrading they're eating they're breaking down poop.
If it weren't for insects we'd be like up to our eyeballs in poop because like there is no other things that break down food. You know even though it's a tough row to hoe. You know I think there's a lot of compelling arguments to be made for why we should be much more invested in entomology. And it's just a matter of getting the word out and that's what we're trying to do.
I guess it's also harder to kind of give human traits to insects as opposed to you know Panda Bear kind of sits up like a human or a gorilla looks very much like us. But it's hard to get that cockroach or that centipede to have that human Yeah.
No. Without a doubt vertebrates. You know I think one of the main things vertebrates have going for them vertebrates they have eyeballs and like that you can look into the eyes of particularly babies you know they got such big eyes relatively skull size and stuff like that. So baby panda baby whatever even like vertebrates that people might find gross like when they see them in baby form they're typically like oh so cute and invertebrates. They've got ice but they're compound eyes.
I mean it's so foreign to us like everything about invertebrates and arthropods in particular is just so foreign to us it's really hard to identify with them.
So do you have any plans for a future series in terms of doing anything different or are you going to keep with this approach.
We'd like to continue to do real science at least on an annual basis.
You know it's it's a month of programming but we are definitely always trying to figure out new approaches to engage with different audiences. My main goal is as a museum entomologist is to make people think who might not normally think of themselves as being interested in Natural History Museum interesting natural history museum.
And so if they if they already sort of self identify as well I'm not interested in Natural History Museum and that's a tough fight. That's a tough you know person to turn. And the best way that we can make them turn again is by finding things that are more relevant to their interests. And so pop culture is by its very name being popular is a really good gateway or entry point for trying to educate people about the natural world.
Well I have to confess also that after meeting you I looked at museums differently because as someone who is a parent and as a child whose parents took me to museums I always thought of it as a place where you go and you look at exhibits and I never realized fully that you guys are research places as well right.
We've got I think our research staff has. We've got about 30 plus different research staff technicians and all eight million specimens in our collections and we're constantly publishing research and also sort of working with other agencies within Southern California and Baja California to provide the best because we have all the specimens from all throughout history try to provide the best sort of historical data we can in order to inform like species management and monitoring conservation. So behind the scenes there's a lot going on.
And currently you have an exhibit which I believe the tagline for it is can look in our drawers which is you're bringing some stuff out from these kind of collections.
Yeah. It's a exhibit called unshelled and we have been using our advertisements say look what's in our drawers which is quasi sexual harassment possibly.
But yeah it's it's stuff that has been behind the scenes for an extended period of time or has never seen the light of day. It's a combination of research specimens and stuff that was used in exhibits a long time ago and people haven't seen. So for people who have been around San Diego for a long time they'll they'll see like kind of old friends they remember from previous days that the Natural History Museum. But then there's also going to see a bunch of stuff they've never seen before and what I really like about it is that the interpretation is actually very minimal it's not there's not a huge story we're telling you other than Wow this is amazing and we want you to understand that we have collection that's about the main message of it and so because of that just wanting to inspire people to think like wow this is amazing. It really is sort of the best of the best. It's like the colorful beautiful weird wild big small you know of all the extremes are represented. You know.
Well I believe I interviewed one of your colleagues Phil unit and I was talking to them about the specimens they have. He does small mammals and birds and like I had no real sense of how you can use these specimens for something and he pointed out that through the measurement of the egg shells of pelicans I think they were able to determine how DDT was making those eggs thinner and if they hadn't had that collection there would be no reference point.
Yeah exactly. I mean that's that's the strength of having what we call them vultures because a vouch for the existence of something in the past.
So having these historical vouchers as opposed to like maybe somebody field notes or somebody's photographs right. We actually have the real deal. And because of that we can look back into the past and we can reinterpret what other people have you know seen but we can also do things like I know I saw an article recently on some publication where they went and actually they sort of swab the feathers of birds to get an understanding of historical pollution levels over time because you know the pollution gathers on the feathers of these birds. So there's all sorts of ways in which you might not normally think of collections being used that they're being used to help us understand the past and sort of prognosticate about the future at some level.
So if you could pick one bug to be the next star of a science fiction film do you have a favorite that you would put out there.
So Jerusalem crickets are these really weird weird crickets that we have in Southern California in northwestern Mexico and they're big they can be about the size of them of a man's thumb. They don't have any wings. They look like giant termites and it's definitely one of the things that I get the most phone calls about the natural history museum because and I can generally sort of like I sort of play this game of name that tune when people call and I can name it pretty quick because people will say like well one the of say giant termite or this weird alien I'm like oh yeah you've got a Jerusalem cricket. And so not only do they look weird but they've got this really horrific story of parasitism associated with them where these horsehair worms get inside of them. Paris dies I mean it's just really insane story but then on top of that they communicate with one another through ultrasonic drumming so they do that unlike a lot of like crickets and grasshoppers they don't make a sound that we can hear. Instead they drum their abdomen against the ground and they send it like you know sound waves through the earth like tremors through the earth kind of thing. And so I think a giant Jerusalem cricket story would be pretty awesome.
What always comes to mind when I see them as they look naked. I mean for an insect that's an odd description but they look they're kind of flesh town and they look like they are missing some layer.
Yeah. And in Mexico at least in Baja California they call them Niños to the terrorists. The children of the earth because at some level when you do look at head on. They kind of have this. It feels like a humanoid alien. Right.
So it doesn't look like a you know it doesn't look like a human skull so much but it sort of looks like that stereotypical Big Four headed you know alien skull. And they do totally look next. That's a very good description.
All right when you mention that they communicate through rubbing their abdomens on the ground.
Part of me is thinking like how do you find these things out.
Yeah that's a good question.
I mean probably somebody you know observed them D-Link like. Why is it shaking in its abdomen up and down you know and then.
OK well let's start taking a look at that I did when I was working on a Ph.D. one of the professors were working with a different group of insects that is on plants that does the same thing where it will shake its abdomen and gets the branch and communicate through sonically through the through the branches and they are species specific calls so like the male will drum his way in a way that only the female of his species will react to kind of thing. And I remember going into his lab and he had a whole bunch of like little transparent party cuts that he had a very thin film like stretched over the bottom of it and the insect would be in the cup and he'd have a little tiny wire sensor on the bottom of the film so that when the insect drummed onto this thin film he could record the song you know the ultrasonics song of this insect. It was pretty wild.
All right. It is always fun talking to you about the films and about entomology. So thank you very much.
It's my pleasure thank you for stopping by.
That was Michael wall curator of entomology and vice president of Science and Conservation at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Next up is Bradley Vojtech assistant professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at UC San Diego. He's also author of the book zombies dream of undead sheep which I highly recommend. Vojtech will be presenting Christopher Nolan's memento. Here's the trailer for the film.
I guess I've already told you about my condition. Every time I see you you don't remember where you've been or what you've just done. I can't make memories.
Everything just fades. What's the last thing you do in my life. It's. Me.
You really want to get this guy don't you. My wife deserves Pancho's.
Somebody's gotta pay Lenny. Somebody always pays. You have to be very careful. You wander around playing detective.
Maybe you should start investigating yourself. It's so dangerous. Could kill me. Who is he. I. Want my life back. I think someone's trying to kill the wrong guy. You can question everything you can never know anything. So. There are things you know for sure you can't trust. It if you get revenge you're not going to remember.
You're not even going to know that it happened to this day. You don't know who you like.
BRADLEY This is going to be your second time doing a real science talk. Last time you chose altered states and now you're doing memento. What led you to choose momento.
You know it's funny momento is one of those movies that I have actually used in talks a number of times because the main character I don't have to be like a spoiler alert the main character will say has memory problems his memory span is I think only a couple of seconds long. And that's a real thing that has happened in the history of neuroscience. There's a very famous case somebody had a brain surgery that removed both parts left and right and both sides of the brain of his hippocampus which is the part of the brain that allows us to form new memories. And both of those had to be removed. And this is many decades ago that this happened the man has since passed away. But he lived for decades without this and he had a memory span of only 30 seconds to a minute and then it was like a reset happened and he would forget everything. Up until that reset he could remember everything in his life from before that brain surgery. But after that he only had a memory span of maybe a couple of minutes for the rest of his life. So it's a real actual neurological condition that has occurred in a real person. Henry Molaison we now know his name he just went by H.M. for decades in the neuroscience literature. And so it's a very good way of teaching people about a very real neuroscientific topic but using something that's kind of well Maometto I'm not going to say it's a fun movie. It's a very good movie and it's it's got its moments of course but it's you know it's pretty dramatic and intense but it's an enjoyable movie that people can relate to.
And what do you think of it in terms of how it used that in the narrative is it kind. Is it fairly accurate in kind of the way it depicts it or does it use it just as kind of a jumping off point for its narrative.
It's absolutely a jumping off point. But it's hard to know if it's accurate. It's hard to even imagine what that would be like to only have a memory span of a couple of minutes right so I can't tell if it's accurate or not. But from everything I've read and heard about the researchers who worked with Henry Molaison H.M. and then seeing Memento it seems like it gives a pretty accurate depiction of what that might be like. Brenda Milner is the scientists that worked with with patient H.M. for so many years and she would see him she saw him for decades multiple times a week and she worked with this guy. And every time she came into the room he would forget who she was and she had to reintroduce herself for decades. I know it's hard to imagine what that would be like. And so I think momento uses that as the fundamental conceit of the film to very good effect.
You don't know my own life. The fuck is wrong with.
Well I guess it can only make you remember the things you want to be true. I got Jimmy down there. He's not the right guy. He was due. Come on you got your revenge enjoy it why you still remember. What difference does it make whether he was your guy or not. It makes all the difference. Why you never going to know him. No you won't. I will somehow you will remember my done. I will not. It'll be difficult I thought so too. In fact I was sure of it but you did it.
That's right. The real. I hope you find them over a year ago.
He's already dead. Look Lenny.
I was the cop assigned to your wife's case. I believed you. I thought you deserved the chance for revenge. I'm the one that helped you find the other guy in your bathroom that night. The guy that cracked your skull and fucked your wife we found him. You killed him but you didn't remember.
So I helped you start look and again looking for the guy who already killed so who was just some guy.
I mean does it even matter who. No reason Lenny no conspiracy just bad fucking luck. A couple of junkies too strung out to realize your wife didn't live alone but when you killed them I was so convinced that you'd remember but it didn't stick. Like nothing ever sticks like this won't stick. Just when did. Look how happy you are. Wanted to see that face again. Ceefax fuck you I gave you a reason to live and you are more than happy to help. You don't want the truth. You make up your own truths like police fire. It was complete when I gave it to you. Who took out the two pages. You. Know it wasn't me see you do that to create a puzzle you can never solve. You Domini how many towns how many John jeez. James jeez I mean shit Lenny I'm fuckin John G. Your name is Teddy. My mother calls me Teddy. My name's John Edward Gamil. Cheer up this plenty. JOHN G's for us to find it.
Also in addition to having a character who can't remember the filmmaker chooses to break up his narrative structure in such a way that it's also being told in reverse order. So for the viewer. How is that kind of taxing their brain in a different way.
That's what's great about movies like this right. When a movie's well constructed like this it it not only forces you to try and take on the perspective of what must be like for the character but the structure of the movie being in reverse order which isn't immediately apparent. Actually you don't realize that for quite a long time that that is what's happening. That then sort of puts you in a weird headspace right it forces you to take on the perspective not just because you're trying to understand empathic Green an interesting character but the very structure of the movie forces you into their perspective a little bit. That's kind of confusing and it's off putting and you don't know what's happening. And so I think good filmmaking doesn't just you know it doesn't just tell you. It also makes you experience it too. And that's what I.
That's one of the things I love about this movie the character because he's cognizant of the fact that he is not able to remember things for long periods of time Tris multiple things to help him. So he tattooed himself with a lot of information and he's also written himself notes. So is that something that a person who suffers some sort of memory issue maybe it's Alzheimer's maybe it's something like this.
Is there a sense that people like try to recognize that and help their own brains to kind of make up for those deficits. You know yeah but it doesn't have to be.
Even somebody that has some kind of like overt neurological condition. Right I think we all do that. So it's kind of funny. This movie takes place. It was filmed and made before the smartphone era. Right. Think about it your smartphone now. I don't remember what I'm doing like a leader today. I don't remember what meetings I have. So I know that I'm not going remember these kinds of things and I'm not very good necessarily even keeping like an appointment book because I forget to check the appointment book. So if I put all of my appointments in my phone as reminders my phone will buzz and I'll look at my phone and be like Oh that's right I have a meeting. So even somebody who I mean maybe it's a little bit presumptuous of me to say that I'm neurologically intact. But let's pretend that I am actually neurologically intact. Even somebody who is will still offload some of their day to day you know memories and chores to other devices in order to compensate. Right. So you know there are certain people that I know who are really bad are remembering people's names or they have a hard time recognizing faces. And so everybody will use certain tricks like oh maybe they have our time recognizing somebody's names or they have like a little song that they associate with the person or you know that we all do these kinds of tricks almost right. So it's not just a neurological thing but yes in this movie he absolutely does. He tries to compensate right he tries that he tattoos himself with notes so that when he sort of blinks and comes back into awareness after his memory restarts he looks down and he sees what does that tattoo mean on my arm and he reads it and he tries to reacquaint himself. You can imagine that you know in a smartphone era maybe he'd just have like you know a little video that he filmed for himself to remind himself of what his situation is that he watches every time his memory comes back or something.
So tell people what kind of area of neuroscience is your specialty and what got you into that.
Oh that's a good question. OK. So our brains have 86 billion with a B neurons brain cells and these are little tiny cells that are interconnected through these wires that we call axons that are quite touching each other and they send little chemicals that cause little sparks of activity between them somehow in our brains 86 billion neurons are communicating with each other in this ridiculously noisy biological messy electrochemical environment. And it works. I mean it works enough that I can be having a conversation with you right like that. That's mind boggling to me. So my lab studies how do these 86 billion neurons manage to actually talk to each other. What does the signals what are the codes that they're using to communicate. Right. And the why do I study. It's fundamentally in my opinion just a difficult fascinating problem it's like it's like a caveman being given a computer and saying how does it work. And you know maybe after a couple of hundred years of poking up this one computer they say well there's little sparks that go off but we don't know what programming languages are we don't know anything about coding we have to try and reverse engineer all of it and that's what it feels like working with the brain. So if nothing else I feel like I have job security because we're not going to figure it out in my lifetime.
No there's real science series you were using a film. All the scientists in this are using films that are pop entertainment films that are easily accessible not necessarily scientific films. How did it kind of science fiction or pop entertainment play a role in you going into neuroscience with that. Were there films that kind of sparked your interest and said like that's that's an area that kind of I'm interested in exploring.
Yeah absolutely. Science fiction comic books have played a huge part in my early scientific growth I should say like as a teenager right.
I read just growing up as a kid. Bunch of science fiction books and comic books and I think back to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and this whole idea that there is this group of we called them psycho historians that could quantify the trillions of people living in a galactic empire and predict the Empire's decline and then they know that's coming and then they try and figure out what they can do in order to shorten the duration that the galaxy is and it's like you know upcoming dark ages through anticipating that it's going to happen and then planting seeds to make it shortened. Right now we would call that data science I guess right. It's like the idea that that's even a thing right like some science fiction author brilliant I mean not just some it's Asimov right but this brilliant science fiction author came up with this entire idea and anticipated this idea of like large scale analysis of human interaction of behavior. Well before there is anything like a Facebook. Science fiction is great at that. All right it's pushing the boundaries of what could be possible. You look at the original Iron Man comics from the 1960s and the iron man who was literally an iron suit that had an air conditioning and a microphone in it. Right now Iron Man suits us like nanotechnology little man lights that live in his bloodstream that he thinks about it and they form a suit around him. Fifty years now or are we going to think that sounds really trivial and trite just like that air conditioned seat with the speaker sounds to us right now. Who knows. But it's the people that are not limited by science reality that are given the freedom to think about what could be possible. That's inspiring. And then the day to day drudgery of science the actual research aspect of being a scientist is slowly trying to push things forward to see if we can get to technologies that would make life a little bit easier and the quality of life better and you know people happier. Right. But you need that inspiration you the big picture and I feel like science fiction and film and comics are fantastic for providing that little spark of inspiration and hope.
Now I've spoken to you before because we have a common love for zombies and you've spoken about some of your research and talk about science fiction. One of the things that you talked about which I find fans fascinating and amazed that it can be done is you work with some people who for whatever reasons have their brain exposed due to surgery or operation and you get permission from them to do tests and research. So talk a little bit about that because that you know that feels like science fiction to me but it's something that's readily done yeah.
Be clear that is totally unrelated to zombies.
Sorry no that was just the starting point of our friendship with zombies no.
So a couple of percent of the world's population has epilepsy which is the disease a disease that causes seizures and it's only like 1 to 3 percent of people have it. And for the vast majority of those people those seizures are relatively well controlled by anti epileptic drugs. So they take medication every day. But for whatever reason in some fraction of that fraction of people those anti epileptic drugs just aren't doing it. And so in a fraction of those the seizures are so severe that they might lose consciousness multiple times a day. Obviously that's pretty debilitating for day to day living. And so for that fraction of a fraction of people they will often choose to undergo brain surgery to remove the part of the brain that is causing the seizures. And that's actually the UCSD overthrown hospital. This is done professor professor and neurosurgeon Sharon Ben-Haim is my colleague who actually does the surgeries in order to do that. None of the brain imaging methods we have are sufficient to identify where the seizures are coming from. That means that unfortunately the only way to figure out for sure where those seizures are coming from is to have a person undergo an operation where electrodes recording devices are implanted directly into the parts of the brain. The team the surgical team thinks the seizures are coming from and then they wait for a couple of days a week for the person to have enough seizures that they're confident they know where it's coming from and then they remove all the electrodes and remove the part of the brain. And the vast majority of those people are seizure free or at least significantly seizure reduced so they can get on to having a more normal life during that week or two while they're recording we go in and ask them if they'd be willing to do our memory tests or something like that because otherwise they're just hanging out in an epilepsy monitoring unit waiting to have seizures so they like reading books watch tv playing games talking with their friends and family just waiting. And so we we we bugged them for half an hour because their unfortunate situation provides an incredibly rare opportunity to study the human brain directly that we can't do. And what's amazing is the connection actually back to Memento is that person who I mentioned H.M. the person who in the 1960s had that surgery where they removed his left and right hippocampus the memory part of the brain that caused him to wake up no longer able to form new memories. This is precisely the reason he was undergoing that surgery is the surgical team in the 60s identified both his left and right hippocampus as causing his seizures. And so they removed both of those parts of the brain and also probably other parts just in front of that called the amygdala. And he woke up unable to form new memories and that was they don't do that kind of surgery anymore. They don't removable slides anymore. They try to be more precise. But that was that was why. And so it's actually for me personally this movie this idea of not forming new memories I mean I studied memory. That's one of the one of the systems that we study in how does a brain talk to itself. How do we form memories because our memories influence our perception in real time on a day to day basis right. We perceive what we expect to perceive is one way that we can sort of talk about it. And to me that's fascinating and so it's a it's a wonderful time not only to my own research but to the fundamentally strange history of neuroscience a large part about what we know about how the brain works is by these unfortunate cases like patient H.M. who had a surgery that hasn't really ever been done since but from his unfortunate experience the field has learned a tremendous amount about how the brain works well in your book.
Do zombies dream of undead she'd use zombies to help enlighten on neuroscience. You pointed out one thing that I thought was fascinating which is that it was a doctor working with Gladiator injuries that provided a foundation for some of neuroscience.
Yeah I mean this is 2000 years ago 50 100 years ago 2000 years ago. In ancient Rome there was a physician named Galen GA Leon. Several parts of the brain are named after him or I should say like the brain circulatory system. He discovered he was a physician to gladiator's and gladiator's our group of people who had a lot of blunt force trauma to the head and also penetrating head wounds and stuff like that. And he was trying to keep them alive and he began to notice that certain kinds of brain injury to certain parts of the brain would would cause specific problems that were reproducible. So like damage to the back of the brain might cause visual impairments for example. That's not exactly what he studied but you get the idea. And so the foundational history of neuroscience is paved with all of these interesting cases one of the reasons that we know about how the spinal cord carries sensory information into the body and commands from the brain to move our muscles is by examining people from 79000 hundreds who were injured in duels. So either the like a tiny little rapier like a little sharp pointy sword cut one part of their spinal cord or like a bullet incompletely penetrated part of the spinal cord physician noticed that there were systematic differences or impairments I should say from those kinds of spinal cord injuries.
And so yeah it's it's it's morbid but you know there's something I don't know something nice to know that should I ever have some kind of like you know traumatic brain injury or you know physical trauma that would be something maybe useful could come out of it. But this took a doctor. But I mean it's you know I don't want to I don't want to emphasize that part right like there is something really really amazing out of that right. It's like you know the world is messy and there are unfortunate things but it's nice to know that even out of unfortunate circumstances something amazing can happen. I guess that's my attempt at turning that dark message into something more inspiring.
I mean I think it's amazing because you know you don't necessarily think from something like that like from gladiators we might actually have a foundation of something really amazing for neuroscience.
Yeah you know the whole history of science not just neuroscience is filled with these little random accidents or events that you know lead to amazing discoveries. Right. Yeah I mean that's what makes science finance almost you know the fact that these random accidents can lead to something amazing is this one of the beauties of it. Right I think what is what is it. It's not the best parts of science aren't they. Eureka I found it moments it's the looking at something and going ha that's funny like those really are the amazing things it's like when you run an experiment and something defies your expectations and you go. Why is that. Those are the beautiful moments of science when Discovery can happen.
The idea of the brain not functioning properly is probably one of the most horrific things imagine happening to you. So that seems to be one of the attractions for science fiction or horror. And for me personally like the thing I find most terrifying of all would be the idea of Alzheimer's and that to me some kind of pops up in zombies. For me it's this notion of like you no longer are yourself and you no longer kind of have control over what you're doing but you study memories. So how do you see some of those real fears translated into kind of pop filled fiction or into science fiction.
I mean that's kind of like the other thing.
What is the heart of fiction and storytelling rant like what is it it's like human beings trying to grasp the idea of love and mortality. I think that's like the foundation for every tragedy and comedy and science fiction and horror is just about right. These certain kinds of like diseases are one of those that many people we just try not to think about right. It's like too scary for us to try and tackle on a day to day basis you like I've got to take my kids to a baseball game and swimming classes and I have to go shopping I don't need to be like contemplating you know existential issues right now. But storytelling provides us with an outlet where it's more approachable. And I think you know you can take many different tactics to it.
1 One right because it can be horrifying to think about it but you know like even comedy is another perspective you look at certain. I'm trying to think of like medical comedies right where you like. You do have this kind of perspective like Robin Williams The Patch Adams movie right. Or scrubs even right. It's like you have this existential issues they are trying to deal with life and death and some of it might be like memory loss and things like that. But you can instead of using it as a horror perspective you can also take the comedy perspective or the love perspective the romance perspective right 50 First Dates.
You're one of the characters the romantic interest doesn't have a memory just like in momento right. They don't have a memory span anymore. But that's a romantic comedy movie of that topic. Right. So you can take the same ideas and look at them from different perspectives. I think it's just everybody trying to deal with issues that are too complicated and storytelling and putting in a narrative around it is one of the ways that we deal with that.
And in choosing momenta what are you hoping that after people see the film and hear you talk about it what are you hoping that might take away from this.
When I chose the movie one of the reasons I picked it was to try and get people to engage with the idea of memory. Like what. What role does memory and past experience play and who we are. Right. You think about a movie like this where the guy guy Pearce is constantly reinventing himself by necessity. Every time he snaps back into reality I don't know how to put it right. His memory comes back. I find myself to be happy. In your case teddy. Yes. Well.
What's constant there and what's what's malleable right. And I think to me that's just an interesting question about like who we are. We put so much weight on what we have done shaping who we are and so inherently what that means is like our memories in some ways I think a lot of people think like our memories of our past are who we are without really considering that at any given moment you can change some of that. Right. It's like every moment is a new and fresh. And this in this movie that's taken to the extreme like every moment he is like reborn every couple of minutes. In that sense and to me that's just a fascinating idea.
Well and to me like one of the things that always scares me the most is the sense of loss of identity and even in a comic form it's always bothered me there's a Heaven Can Wait or Warren Beatty is this football star who dies and they take his body way too quickly and they put him in another body which is fine like I don't mind the he's in a different body but he's himself inside. But then at the end they go like oh OK we got this great new body for him we're putting you into it and now you no longer have the memory of anything of who you were and like to me even though there was this light comedy this notion of like now you don't have that set of memories anymore.
Yeah I mean again that's just like that's that's our struggle right. And thankfully most of us don't have to think about that a day to day basis right.
But it's it's it's nice to engage that aspect of who we are. Sometimes I mean altered carbon which is you know what Netflix's new hit shows. I mean it's it's great science fiction series actually. I mean I think there's a reason also that certain things like that where people are familiar decarbonised idea that our consciousness is can be transferred between bodies and that allows some people to live forever because it can constantly move their consciousness from one body to you know a longer younger clone of their own body like these are these are intriguing and you know amazing and scary and all of those things that make us who we are. And I think that's why they're so popular is for this reason it like engages that part of our humanity. You know it's fundamental we all have to deal with that at some point maybe like science fiction is practiced in that sense of getting comfortable with these like really heady ideas.
And it seems like the idea of memory is something that would be hard to research. Is that the case.
Yeah. Memory is really hard to research. So what we scientists will do is we try and strip everything down to just like the barest core. So like if I'm studying memory I'm not asking you about your childhood experiences or anything I have you know I might have you sitting in a room and you know a flash a couple of images that you'd like squares of different colors for example is one of the tests that we use and you might see like a flash of six different colored squares on the screen for a tenth of a second and then we make you wait a second or two seconds and then we show the same number of squares that we just showed you before and you have to tell me you did one of the squares change color. Yes or no. Right that would be a way that we study memory is over that couple of seconds. What is happening in your brain that allows you to compare that first set of squares that you remember seeing to the next set of squares. Right so we take some really complicated memory and we try and just like the very basic core of what might memory be and is that really memory. It's a kind of memory is really what we're getting when you talk about like our sense of you know constructed the idea of who we are. Over several decades of life. Probably not. But it is a type of memory that we can study more cleanly and we have experimental control over them. So you know baby steps will get there.
And if you had any other films to recommend regarding memory or the area of neuroscience that you specialize in are there any other films you would recommend to people to watch.
Wow that's a really good question. I haven't actually considered though and you know coming up in conversation just now we talk about 50 first dates was another one of those like memory loss sort of things. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind about like selectively removing memories that we don't want anymore is another very interesting one. You mean even more broadly like Altered Carbon. Right. Which is the idea of like transferring consciousness or memory from one body to the other. They treat that well and the book fantastically and I think the show did a very good job you know taking liberties with certain ideas. Also another very good one should you give me homework.
I would have but I would expect you have to know what I would recommend those movies.
I think those are all pretty good in that sense of understanding or engaging with the idea of memory as being part of who we are although zombies don't come up in the film that you're doing.
I feel like it's not fair to talk to you and not at least bring up zombies ones but I've noticed recently that the slight change in the zombie film is that we get more of these self-aware zombies with this sense of they're dead and they know it and it's a slightly different take because we're now getting the perspective of inside the zombie head instead of the people terrified outside dealing with them and I'm just wondering if you feel that reflects anything that may be changing in neuroscience or just maybe the way that we're perceiving the world.
I think I think it's maybe just art pushing right zombies as zombies are a pop culture thing that are going to go away apparently there's only so much that can be done with them. Right. And traditionally the zombie stories that have been told have been all told from the perspective of the survivors. And so the idea that maybe there's an interesting story to be told about zombies from the zombies perspective. I think that's just like changing the art a little bit right. Trying to do something new with a genre that can maybe get kind of stale. What was what was the what was the one about the what was the one that came out a couple a couple of years ago now as the romantic rom zom com right. The guy yeah warm bodies right that was it that was the one that really started that new perspective. I think there weren't very many that took that perspective I think before the warm bodies one where the main character one of the protagonists was a zombie right who started fall in love. Yeah I think. I don't know if it's reflecting anything like more Rob the culture at large but I definitely think it's artists trying to do something novel and interesting with a existing medium that's getting a maybe a little bit stale.
All right so I expect some more perspective from the zombie brain from you and you do another book.
We should we should probably update that. Right. Like what would that mean anyway. Yeah thanks.
All right it's always a pleasure talking to you and I look forward to you introducing momenta.
It should be a lot of fun. I always enjoy this kind of thing. So yeah look for you.
That was Bradley Vojtech assistant professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at UC San Diego. Next up is Daniel Shien physics professor at University of San Diego. As with Wallon Vojtech he's returning for a second year at real science. His film of choice is the matrix. Here's the original trailer for the film.
Have you ever had a dream Neal that you were so sure it was real.
What if you were able to wake from that dream. How would you know the difference between the dream world.
And the real life. What is happening to me. The answer is out there. It's the question that drives us what is.
The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. What. They're watching you me I'm. Human beings are cancerous this planet. Q.
Daniel this is going to be the second time you partake in the real science film program and to start with I just wanted to ask you what was it about science that initially sparked your interest and got you wanting to be a scientist.
Well I started thinking about it actually I thought about it and it kind of happened in a flash in third grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Kenzi and we were talking about the planets at the time and we got to Pluto and Mrs. Kinzie just said rather matter of fact Ali scientists know there is no life on Pluto. And I was sitting there quietly I've been quite up to that point in my whole student career and suddenly it's just kind of struck me as odd that she'd say that unless I raise my hand and said how do they know they haven't been there. And she said well scientists know and then something snapped in me and I realized you know no they don't know they haven't been there. And so I decided I was going to be a scientist to that point figured out myself and believe anybody.
Now last year you presented Donnie Darko and one of the things I thought was really fascinating was you talked a little bit about things that interested you and you mentioned something about how you used to like see faces of people and then they would either show up at your doorstep or die.
So how did it impact your science.
Well that came later that came when I was in my career here. I mean certainly I've had those experiences earlier but it became really more urgent for me at that point because I had had this kind of feeling of mortal dread a couple days before my youngest brother died in a motorcycle accident and at that point it became really more important to me to try understanding what you know the physical basis of this phenomenon was which some people call pre cognition but I think as a form of retro causation. So I'm interested in the whole issue of Time why it travels why it goes forward rather than backward and under what circumstances Canada appear to go backwards.
Now for some people the idea of physics and what a physicist does is a bit of a mystery. So is something about time travel and the way time flows is that part of what physicists study some do most don't most.
Most of what we do is a little more prosaic than that but on the other hand you know things like space and time and order these are the fundamental kinds of things that undergird everything else. So if you understand time you understand and the social essential feature of almost everything in the world.
So this year you are picking the film The Matrix the first film and that trilogy and what was it about this film that appealed to you.
I want to talk about the Matrix is one of my favorite movies. I mean in terms of science fiction I would put it right up there with Blade Runner certainly and 2001 in terms of in terms of what it represents and what makes it I think a great movie is that you can interpret it in many different ways. You can look at it from the know the you know the pure action aspect of it. You look at it in terms of the romantic interests between Neo and Trinity. You can look at it in terms of basic physics. You know you can look at it very philosophically in terms of what is the nature of reality. There are all sorts of threads that are interwoven here. And I think because of that it's interesting movie every time you see it it's you see something new in it and out of all those threads is there one that appeal to you in particular well and seeing it most recently I realized that the entire premise of the movie is about a basic misunderstanding about energy. Had it not had the robots who were trying to run the run the world actually understood what conservation of energy was there wouldn't be a movie. I mean it's all based on their flawed understanding of that. Well the premise of the movie comes up first right at the beginning so it's not a big mystery. So the the movie is about humanity being enslaved within a matrix which is a computer simulation run by artificial intelligent robots. I guess in the future and it's based on the idea that human beings need to be controlled by the. But they're also being basically harvested for energy. And they're compared to like a dry cell battery. And the whole discussion of energy there is is pretty poor to begin with. But the idea that you'd want to somehow extract energy from human beings from their bioenergy or electricity is completely dumb or flawed because you can get more energy out of simply using the food that you're giving them to keep them alive to get the primary energy out rather than having to use humans to do it. And so. So in order to subjugate human beings they have invented and the entire harvesting farm system for human beings and keep them subdued inside this computer program but that's completely unnecessary if you actually understand how energy works and how you harvest it and use it. So once you throw that away the whole premise of the movie crumbles and there's nothing left. And so this is actually a parable or a cautionary tale about energy which is understand your basic physics and you won't have problems with pesky human beings anymore.
So you're saying that the aliens who came were not those super intelligent beings that we always worry about. Playground's what they needed to do.
Well you could say that but on the other hand this AI program is presumably developed by human beings in the first place in which case they probably mis programmed the computer in the first place which is why we have the problem. So it's our own doing.
Now the way the matrix kind of depicts this computer created reality what do you think of that part of the film.
In most movies I mean one of the primary flaws with most science fiction movies is that they don't adhere well to real science in the sense and if you look out at the Matrix it's really no different. The best movie in history in terms of evolution my opinion in terms of basic science and getting the science right was 2001 Space Odyssey and Arthur C. Clarke was one of the guys behind that was Stanley Kubrick and so in that entire movie 2001 I think I only spotted maybe one or two physical flaws and those were inadvertent and unavoidable. But aside from that it's first first class. This one breaks physical law both in the matrix we're breaking physical law as part of the goal in order to get around constraints that are placed on you. But even in the real world part of the matrix you have basic violations of things like conservation of momentum or angular or linear and these kinds of things. For anyone who pays attention to it really undercuts the movie. It could be done better. I mean in the matrix itself you want to break the laws of physics that's fine because it's just a simulation but on the other hand in the real world if you do that if you actually started breaking physical laws of the basic nature like energy momentum and so on you you're undercutting the nature of reality and you're going to pay for dearly somewhere down the line.
Now you've got these two kind of extremes. You talked about 2001 and The Matrix in terms of kind of films that respect real science and films that just kind of use it as a jumping off point. That's right. But do both of them work in a certain way to kind of ignite imaginations of people who go to see them.
Yeah absolutely. I mean the weakness is that the Matrix has in terms of its basic science I think are compensated for by it's by it's mind bending psychological aspects. I mean when I mean with physicist physicists are really after. And scientists are really after's understand the nature of reality or or nature in general. What this actually cuts into which 2001 doesn't necessarily do maybe as well is to question what the nature of reality is are we living in a computer simulated world. For instance there are respectable physicists who make the claim that the world as we see it is a simulation and even people like the great John Wheeler who one of the relative general relativists experts on gravity and so on. Mentor to Richard Feynman and so on. He had that he used to have lots of nice aphorisms like it's from Bitz which is to say it. The A.F. things the existence of things come from their business or from information. So in a sense information undergirds reality. And if you take that as a premise then something like the Matrix makes more sense and you might say that everything we experience in this world might be a simulation. I don't believe that nor do I believe a lot of what information theorists tell us about it is from bits. I think that's just a catchy phrase but it's it's built on sound. Nonetheless I think the fact that our world is so immersed in a kind of computer technology and computer culture lends people to the to the idea pretty easily that maybe even what we're doing outside our game boy and our videogames is just another game being played by someone else.
Now we have a lot of technology around us today which is why a film like The Matrix comes about. But this notion of what is real and what is the real world existed in literature and dating way back. So how does that kind of play into this notion of science and reality knowing that people were questioning this all from the beginning before we had all this technology.
Well I think scientists need to recognize that particularly physicists that what we're doing is basically revisiting ideas and concerns that go back to the ancient philosophers and ancient religions even in my view there I have certain definitions of physics and what physicists are in my definition of physics is a couple of them as it's mathematics with meaning it's a philosophy with mathematics and my own personal one is a physicist is a second rate philosopher doing third rate mathematics and I'm told by my friends over and mathematics that that's kind of a generous assessment in terms of the math.
Well that description really does kind of sum up the matrix in a lot of ways. Why so. Well because the matrix is the science fiction film.
But there is like this sense of philosophy behind because you also get at some point the Hugo Weaving character who is one of the agents of the Matrix kind of obsessed with very human ideas like he doesn't understand why humans can't be happy in the Matrix when it gave them like a good view of the world. But he's confused by why do humans seem to need like pain and problems and so it's an interesting thing because it's within the science construct but they're dealing with very kind of human emotions and vulnerabilities and frailties which is not necessarily what you think of.
Well this is Agent Smith as you're talking about I think he is developing philosophical instincts but he's supposed to be artificially intelligent. And if that's true and he's sentient then I think that's inevitable to question your own existence and the meaning of it. Human beings are further along and I think we realize that you need to have opposites for for pleasure you need pain for joy you need despair and sorrow and so on and these things are these these opposites give meaning to each other.
And I think the Matrix's is a reflection of that and saying that even if you're even in the computer world and the pure pure realm of logic maybe you eventually arrive at emotion or arrive and you're always trying to arrive at meaning. I found it seeing the movie again that there seems to be a lot of emphasis between or tension between fate and free will.
I mean you have you have neo who likes to believe in his free will and at the same time he seems fated to be the one and the oracle kind of leaves him hanging in the sense that you know she tells him one thing but actually leads him to his destiny so that the Latin phrase over the door of the Oracle which says Know thyself is I think really key and Neo is his point. His journey was to find himself in this digital realm. Yeah. I'm. Going to any and don't worry about.
I'm sorry I said don't worry about it. I'll get my kids to fix it. How did you know what's really going to bake your noodle later. Would you still have broken it if I had to send it.
And so it is a question of when you make a prophecy or you prophesying something is going to happen or do you make it happen by prophesies that comes up and comes up again really strongly in the sense that I think at the point where the news is about to have his plug polled by Seifer base are going to be executed by being pulled pulled out of them being pulled out of the Matrix cipher says I'm going to be so I'm going to kill you. But if the prophecy were true that would be impossible. And then he turns up and sees that one of the other guys on the ship suddenly zaps him with this energy beam and violates the laws of physics doing so. But that's okay. And what happens then is that you have them. You have the Oracle which is in the Matrix Making a prophecy about something in the real world which I think it kind of turns everything around here. You know is it possible for a computer program or a computer generated creature to make some prophecies that way.
So I think it was interesting to see that extension and I think that's one of the reasons why the films Funda see repeatedly because once you've seen it and hear everything that goes on and then you go back and you see it knowing those things are happening like it makes you have a different view of it.
Well that's who I am in most movies anyway. When I when I first started movie I don't pay much attention to what's going on and then and then later you start you know you start saying oh maybe this one said something about that. So if you don't pay attention right from the very start of this movie you because of the movie's laid out very quickly then then you have to see a second time and you can see all the clues were in front of you you didn't recognize them. That's a very pretty standard.
And last year when you did Donnie Darko a number of notions come up because there is the notion of what's real but also in that when there is a sense of potential time travel as well that's altering the sense of reality.
Yeah the I mean in terms of Donnie Darko it's much stronger in terms of that and this this movie you have kind of lost time in so far as the matrix is set up and the world in 1999 and now they're lost in time some more in the future maybe 200 years in the future and they don't know even what year it is really. Well and this one the word the confusion arises is this parallel universe where you have two universes you have what's called the real world.
And then you have the digital world where most people live and and then you have the people in the real world trying to free the people in the digital world. And yet there are people in the digital world who probably really don't want to be in the real world. I mean the character Cypher is a good example. He basically was a traitor and he did that because he would prefer to in reality over reality which is which is interesting choice I know this take doesn't exist.
I know that when I put it in my mouth the matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years you know what I realize.
Ignorance is bliss.
Then we have a deagle I don't want to remember. Nothing nothing.
So Stan and I want to be rich.
Someone important like an actor whatever you want Mr. Reagan.
But I am I'm not convinced that most people wouldn't prefer that as well. Whether they would prefer to live in a gilded cage versus an impoverished open space. And I think it kind of leaves you on the on a on a. On a knife edge of morality there too if you are going to free all of these people many many or maybe even most of which do not want to be free. Are you actually doing them a service is immoral to do that.
More philosophy science. Yeah well the matrix isn't a science fiction film that doesn't really present us with scientists at the core. Are there films where you feel scientists are well represented or ones where the depiction of scientists is just infuriating to you most of the time it's infuriating.
One of the things that bothers me about a lot of science movies is how easily they get their experiments done.
You know they happen to have a you know a ballpoint pen or a piece of gum and a piece of lead pipe and then by the next morning they have a cyclotron built or something like that. It doesn't work that way. Everything takes longer than you expect. And even when even if you have your best estimate of how long something's going to take it's going to take pi times longer than that at least. It's just the way things are. Everything is harder. You don't know how hard a problem is until you solve it. And usually it's a lot harder than you thought. But in terms of of having good scientific method I don't know something like. It's nice to see when people try reasoning through their problems. So when you have let's say scientists who are let's say stranded somewhere like like the Martian with Matt Damon for instance that's that's pretty fair in the sense that he's stuck he's marooned. He has to use science to somehow survive and you can see him thinking his way through the problems. There are major scientific gaps there. For instance you know the that the portable he makes out of that out of duct tape around plastic that won't hold. That won't work. Those kinds of things you just are crazy just don't work. And you know some things are unavoidable like the like the gravity on Mars is you know maybe a third of that of Earth. And so things would fall differently you don't see that that sort of thing either. But on the whole I mean seeing someone who's in a fix and has to use his wits in a scientific way is nice to see.
And you remember as a kid watching films that were about science that helped spur on your interest in science.
I wouldn't say it is as much the films although we were had really kind of a limited amount of TV when I was growing up and our house was rather strict one hour a week. But on the other hand the Apollo program to me was was very inspirational. The the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin came out on the moon on my birthday or the day before my birthday my 10th birthday. And and so I kind of framed my childhood in terms of that I think a lot of people my age do.
And what is it about science that keeps you interested and what is it about it that makes you passionate about it.
Well it's everywhere. For one thing it's beautiful. It's logical it's challenging it's hardest thing I can do and be half decent at I guess. So I enjoy the challenge of it. I like the idea of being able to to explore and do things that no one else has done and contribute to a repository a body of knowledge that hopefully will last a long time. I don't have any illusions about the fact that most of what we know now will probably be superseded by something else in the future. But what we're doing now is necessary to get there. So it's a it's a journey. I enjoy my teaching and I really am thrilled with the colleagues I have here at the university. So it's a whole way of life you know the fact that you get paid for thinking you get paid for teaching I would do all those for free. The only thing I wouldn't do for free is go to committees meetings which my Dean knows about already anyway. So that's what is so I enjoy just the whole the whole experience.
I enjoy reading about new things. When I when I teach I get to learn more than the students like today like tomorrow I'm teaching I'm teaching about nuclear reactors in upper division honors class and I get to read a little bit more about the natural nuclear reactor that happened in Gabon about one and a half two billion years ago. I mean you learn about things that you know spur your interest and you have a lot of intellectual freedom. That's that's that's nice. At least in the academic setting but in terms of science you know I'm a son of a university professor so I kind of grew up in that kind of culture. So it's not new but I'm only one of seven kids and the only one who went into science is this way. So it came fairly natural but at the same time I've taken my own path. But I think you know being able to go out and understand why the sunsets are red and why the sky is blue and why soap bubbles have nice colors in them. And being able to understand you know pretty much everything you read in the paper about science and have an informed idea about how things are going. Being able to contribute to the knowledge that might be helpful to undo climate change all of these things I mean it's part of it's just one way of being human. But it's one that has a certain amount of structure to it and you have a community of scientists that share your ethos so you have kind of instant group of people that you can interact with. That's nice too.
And do you have a particular field of study within physics travelled around in physics a bit.
I've worked and got my Ph.D. in plasma physics the physics of high temperature ionized gases and was working in basic plasma physics for the most part. I've moved into various other areas like planetary formation nanotechnology the physics of time as you know and also the foundations of thermodynamics which is my main interest what is it.
What are the basic thermodynamic laws and are there exceptions particularly to the second law of thermodynamics which which is interesting in the sense that it undergirds the direction of time itself and by participating in programs like this where you're taking something it's pop entertainment and kind of putting in context for an audience what do you hope to gain by that or what do you hope the audience will come away from with.
I didn't hope to gain anything by it. I mean I just did because someone asked me and someone asked me to do something if I have time I'll usually do it if I don't have something really pressing to do in terms of the turns of the audience. I mean things like the Matrix the physics is not particularly good but the fact that it's raising awareness about and questions about the nature of reality I think is so fundamental that you can't help but have probably some good come out of it. Do you want to know what it is.
The Matrix is everywhere it is all around us even now in this very room. You can see it. When you look out your window or when you turn on your television you can feel it. When you go to work. When you go to church. When you pay your taxes. It is the world. That has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the. That you are a slave Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison. Unfortunately no one can be. Told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back.
You take the blue pill the story and you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill. You stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit remember.
All I'm offering is the truth. Nothing.
You know knowing myself here and that means knowing the world too I think is what it means to be human. And I think the way the world has gone now that we we can be insulated from it pretty much as much as we want. We can live in a cocoon where we don't have to feel the coldness of the winters or the heat of the summer because we are in an air conditioned house. We don't have to deal with people directly we can deal with them on Skype or by telephone.
We can avoid contact with people and simply play video games all day. We are constructing our own matrix in a sense. So the question that I think is important we we are going in a place where human beings are never gone before as a society. And it's not clear to me where it's going whether that's going to be beneficial in the end any more than being seduced by the matrix may seem good but in the end you're a slave to it. So I think it's important.
So if you could choose like any film or a couple of films to share with people and say like these are films that really either get science right or that give you a window into science that you think is good or there are a couple of films you might mention.
Well I don't know right off the top of my head I mean I think I mentioned the ones so the ones I liked best like Blade Runner in 2001 and they are iconic. I don't think you guys had money for the Interstellar but on the other hand I think that's too recent to look at that that has some interesting physics in it as well which actually came up in class today when we were talking about time dilation of gravitational fields.
So I think you can teach a lot of physics through film if it's done fairly well and Interstellar was done well in many ways not always but many ways in terms of one particular film. Hard to say I think ones that are the ones that are important and certain times aren't important you know there's I think something like a day after tomorrow the physics is not all that great. But it also has an interesting message that we need to pay attention before as before you have some sort of you know some sort of flip in in in the climate which in principle I suppose is possible where you could flip into another mode of ocean circulation or atmospheric circulation which could really curious a long way away from the something we're used to. The world's always been different. I mean it's I think it's it's difficult. I think it's unfair in a sense for people to say where we're going to go back to the good old days there were no good old days that were just old days when people say you know you can never step into the same stream twice. You can never step into the same stream once. I mean it's because it's always different. And so you know science has a way of should put this science gives us tools to make our lives better. But in the end it won't save us it's the humanities that are going to save us. It's the ability to understand the human heart to understand motivations to be compassionate to other people the things that are humanistic are the things that ultimately matter. Science is just a means to an end it's not an end of itself. And I think it's been it's been deified glorified in a way which I think is unhealthy in that respect there needs to be a better balance. And I think the movies have a way of doing that in the sense they bring the human element to bear. And so that's one of the reasons I do like science fiction movies. I mean after all if you take something like Blade Runner physics is not particularly good. You know even the biology is second rate maybe but again it goes to the very question of what it means to be human and in the end I think scientists yearn for that as much as anyone. Like I said physics is just philosophy with mathematics. You can dress up philosophical ideas with math but in the end there's still philosophical ideas. And the most important of those are what's the nature of the universe what's the nature of reality. Who are who are we. What is consciousness. All these basic philosophical questions and those interest me.
And as a scientist I'd like to put numbers on them all and I think the best science fiction is always the ones in which is the humanity that's focused on less more so than the science aspect of the story. It's like how does science affect humans and the way they live as opposed to just the science itself.
No you're absolutely right. I mean most science I mean the science like science fiction that you see like in Star Wars is 1950s variety it's just gosh wild kind of stuff. There's a little bit of human element in it but it's about lots of explosions and sound in space which of course is impossible and rumbling Deathstar going to impossible in space and all these violations all that all sorts of physical laws. But what people remember about it is you know as you know Princess Leia and Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in the human aspects of that certainly. But I think the really good science science fiction like Ursula Gwynne and so on those those blend science and humanity very well and have and have more of a literary touch. That's that's the best kind of science fiction.
And do you ever tackle science or lack of science in comic book movies I just saw. Indiewire so there's the whole reality stone which can change everything.
And so that's a very kind of comic book take on it.
Yeah I'm not a big fan of super superhero movies just because they're so outrageous. The laws of physics are infinitely violated not terribly violated there. And if you have an alternate universe where you simply make a bunch of rules of your own making about what people can do and can't do. I don't find that very interesting because it doesn't have possibility I think the best of the best science has and has a measure of possibility to it because. But I think so when you go to that realm it's more fantasy which is okay but I think science is rich enough that you can stay close to it and still have wondrous things happen. But among the super super hero movies Wonder Woman was my favorite. I think that that one had a nice human element to it.
All right well I want to thank you very much for taking some time and I look forward to hearing how you're going to present the matrix.
I'm interested in seeing how you edit this.
That was Daniel Sheon physics professor at University of San Diego. Our last scientist is new to the film series. Brian Shotwell who teaches physics at UC San Diego. Shotwell gets to present what is probably the best known and most popular of the films back to the future.
Here's the trailer thank you.
All right. Thank you Mr. Chairman.
Wow. Safe and sound now back in good old 1955 1955. You tell me. Time inside. Of. Victoria.
From future time. You wouldn't bet it.
Now we need your help to get back to the year nineteen eighty five. Five.
Five. You must not see anybody or talk to anybody. To draw against understand. Yeah I might have some.
Talking you try to tell me that my mother has got to watch for me.
Brian you are new to this real science film series that the NADIs sponsoring. So give us a little introduction to yourself what kind of a scientist are you.
I got into science probably because of movies in high school one movie that stands out is the matrix and that certainly has the sort of cult like following that a lot of the movies and the real science does. I was just fascinated by science fiction. The physics involved later I got into Star Wars I wasn't into it you know as a kid. Like most people. But later on yeah I really got into it you know that was the fun side of physics. Now I was also very much interested in the math part of it. So I did theoretical particle physics when I was a grad student. The research was a little tedious. I like teaching more and so now I'm going back to the movies the fun aspects of the science.
So this podcast is for people who loved movies not necessarily for people who love science. So explain to people what what does a physicist do. What do you study or what is it about you know people probably have in their heads you know what maybe a biologist does or a chemist a physicist is a little more like uncleared some people.
The physicists or similar to biologists and chemists and we want to construct models of how the world works and we want to be able to explain phenomenon already seen and be able to explain new phenomenon whereas they're concerned with coming up with new drugs that will help the human body. Physicists want to eventually the goal is to create new technology but we need to make progress in fundamental research in order to get to that point. A lot of the quantum mechanics studied in the early 1990s led to transistors which led to computers. There was no way of knowing what the study of quantum mechanics was going to lead to is just fundamental research and interest. You know we do it because it's fun not because they're getting practical applications but there tend to be practical applications.
Dozens of years hundreds of years after the the film you have chosen is back to the future which probably in the film series is the most widely known and most easily accessible of the films and it brings up some notions of time travel and you've got the crazy character played by Christopher Lloyd of the Doc Brown. What attracted you to picking this particular film.
I was choosing a lot of movies that you had to think a lot about. It was just a lot of work. And this one was unique in that it was just a fun movie. But the more I thought about it the more physics I realised was involved in the movie. I saw it at a very young age I wasn't really thinking a lot of the physics in the film but really you know they got a lot of it right. Or at least they have some words thrown around in the movie. It's a fun way of introducing a lot of physics topics like time travel. But you know also one of the most memorable parts in the film is Doc Brown Christopher Lloyd saying one point twenty one gigawatts. I need to generate the one point twenty one. Point twenty one. Which I've never pronounced without being you know an ironic tribute to the film in that way. But I get to talk about energy and power. In addition to time travel I get to talk about the Mr. Fusion. At the end of the film there are a couple things that I would have liked to see done better in the film when it comes to physics. Some things when it comes to the clocktower scene comes to mind. I don't know if you remember the car stalling when Marty McFly is supposed to get it up to 80 miles an hour to go back to the future. In the climactic scene the car wouldn't start. So you know there were there was about a 10 to 15 second delay and that would have had much worse consequences in real life. So it's the it's the mundane part of the film that the physics part kind of drive me crazy.
Here you have kind of your classic mad scientist in Christopher Lloyd. What does a character like that do in terms of does a character like that have the ability to inspire people to real science.
Watching the films as a kid is very different from watching it nowadays. You know I see humor in that character now whereas as a kid it was just the stereotypical scientist character. You know he's a very lovable character. And so I think it does and it doesn't make science intimidating. You know he's a very serious character. But at the end of the day he has Marty McFly interests hand in addition to being interested in the the time travel aspect of it all. Yeah I think the characters make it fun and approachable.
Well what I've always found appealing about the kind of the mad scientist characters in science fiction is they generally have a real passion for something and even though the results may not necessarily be the best. I feel like there's a spark in there that can inspire people to at least think that hey maybe anything is possible.
Oh yeah I definitely got that sense from Doc Brown. And yeah I agree that other mad scientists and other movies inspire that sort of passion and interest. You know this is something to be interested about.
What do you think it is about the notion of time travel that so fascinates humans you know because it's not just contemporary science fiction that deals with it but you can go back to H.G. Wells and literature where this notion of can we go back in time and change something I think about it pretty often actually and as a kid I did.
I often wish I could go back in time and change some aspects of something that happened to me. I definitely think about that a lot more than going into the future.
Only to the future. You want to be able to modify some things in the past or replay relive relive some aspect of life. I think that's that's definitely focused on in a lot of time travel films. It's interesting from a scientific viewpoint because that's that leads to all sorts of problems with causality. You know all these paradoxes that can arise you can actually what's interesting in physics is that you can go forward in time in some sense. One example of this is that I could have a twin brother leave the Earth come back and have age not as much as my twin brother who remained on the earth. So in that sense the world would be in the future but it wouldn't violate any sort of causality. You can't go back in time and kill your grandfather was one of the comical examples but I think it's fun to imagine the possibilities in a world where you could go back in time. I think that's the widespread appeal.
Are there any other time travel films that have appeal to you or that you think tackle the subject in a good way.
One that I saw that did it in a pretty difficult to use the word rigorous because it's not obvious it's not real time travel but when there's one movie called primer That's a confusing film. I mean I've seen it multiple times I still understand it but I love the way that won the movie. I can't even call it a movie it's a film. It's very surreal really. It's a movie where you sit down and think about time travel one. I love how the process of scientific discovery was undergone in that film are displayed in that film. I mean it was very much some guys working in their garage and accidentally discovered time travel and it was done in a way that probably would be discovered in real life soon enough. They want to go back in time and use stock market returns to make a lot of money. Another thing that the movie did really well is unintended consequences of time travel. One thing about back to the future is it plays out very nicely in that you know they can go back in time and perfectly correct some thing that went wrong and everything goes back to normal. And that would not happen. All sorts of chaotic unintended consequences would probably happen if you were able to modify time and that's explored and primer in a very interesting way.
I think watching films science fiction films or films about scientists is there something in particular that ever bugs you. What they consistently get wrong are something that you really feel like why did do that again things in space movies have gotten better about this actually.
But movies in space used to always have explosions in space and that sort of thing whereas there would be no sound in space. Some movies get it right and use it to their advantage and sometimes it can be haunting the lack of sound when all this chaos is going on in space. I feel like I don't watch science fiction films as much as a physicist should or most most physicists do. And I'm trying to I'm trying to think about whether that's because they irk me so much that I don't watch them or are for some other reason.
Is that a more recent trend because you said movies kind of inspired you into science did you watch science fiction a lot more as a child.
I got into it. You know I was late in the game. Things like Star Wars I didn't watch until later. Really it was things like watching my dad watch Star Trek.
You know it was a lot of the themes were just too sophisticated I think for a 6 year old 8 year old and by presenting back to the future to an audience who may not be made up of scientists. What do you hope an audience might come away from after you kind of put that film in context.
I plan on talking about energy. You know the one point twenty one gigawatts is power but it related to energy. So I want to talk about that and Mr. Fusion to get a sense of how big these numbers are and just a general appreciation for the fact that the numbers mean something and correspond to some amount of energy which is useful in everyday life. Of course time yet that and time travel are the main points I want to hit. And you know what's what could be done with time travel and what can't be done with time travel as we understand it. I think it's just fun to think about. So practical and fun aspects of the science involved.
You mentioned that you do tend to contemplate the notion of time travel if you had the ability to get the financing or whatever you needed to do whatever kind of research you do. What kind of time travel most interests you in terms of some sort of practical application of it.
Oh so we have to we're restricted to the real world.
We can't go back in time only known. I take that back if you could do anything I could do anything.
OK let's open the doors. There used to be a TV show actually that I loved called sliders where they had the they had the ability to go through it wasn't exactly through time it was two different worlds but it seemed similar because a lot of times it was a world that was similar to ours. And I really loved the exploration aspect of the show. I mean they just wanted to see what different worlds were like. And so for me it would be going back in time and just seeing what different periods were like not really from a historical interest. But just curiosity you know what they understand about the world. Love to go back and you know give them some information about the way we understand the world now and see how they react. You know I'd probably get killed pretty quickly to avoid that going forward in time would be interesting as well assuming you don't go far enough that mankind has ceased to exist. But I imagine the technology is going to progress pretty pretty quickly and seeing what's going on would be very interesting as well.
Well you mentioned the causal effects of things and you know one notion that comes up in any kind of science fiction scenarios are you know what people think of is like oh if you could travel back in time would you change some major historic thing in the hopes of creating a better future. Would you take Hitler out.
I used to play a video game which was based on that premise called Command and Conquer Red Alert where Einstein went back and killed Hitler I believe preventing World War II. But what happened was that Stalin became the sort of the Axis Power leader. And so there was inevitably another world war. So I think things like that might happen you know. Again this comes back to you know the causality but the chaotic nature of causality. You know you're going to prevent a tragedy of course. Yeah you should be preventing the Holocaust would be a wonderful thing to do. I would imagine other things would take its place you know to try to avoid World War Two you might have to keep going back and fixing more and more like. Or you no. Yeah fixing one thing after another.
I feel like that would be an endless thing.
Maybe I'm too selfish to do that. Maybe I should be devoting my life to doing the.
He said You are now teaching and that you enjoyed that aspect of science. What is it about teaching science that you enjoy and that interaction with students.
I tutored in college I suppose that was the first time I taught and at first it was just nice for me to understand the material. But I think if you asked most instructors I think some of the best experiences are those aha moments where students get it and just seeing students not be as intimidated because most of my students come in and they're terrified of the course. You know what they've heard from other people but to get them to relax and actually go through the thought process of solving a problem and being okay with that and having their thought process gel and having the physics problem solving approach gel with their common sense of the world because really that's what we're trying to get students to do is to have what we're teaching from the textbook be common sense and for a lot of students they're just totally disparate areas of their mind.
So anytime you see students say Oh this makes a lot of sense.
You know how could I have thought differently. That's always a special thing to see. And we want to have those moments with more and more.
All right well I look forward to what your presentation is going to be like and we'll see you back to the future.
That was Brian Shotwell who teaches physics at UC San Diego. He kicks off the real science film series on May 4th with back to the future at the digital gym cinema. The series then alternates between digital jam and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Every Friday in May. Thanks for listening to another episode of listener supported PBS cinema Junkie podcast. Thanks to everyone who's left to review on iTunes that's a huge help in getting the podcast in front of more people. Coming up will be a focus on LGBT cinema as film out San Diego celebrates its 20th anniversary and a discussion of witches and witchcraft in film. So till our next film fix Mbatha Komando your resident cinema junkie.