Cinema Junkie Awards And Reel Science Revisited
Cinema Junkie / January 4, 2019
Cinema Junkie is technically on holiday break but here's something old and something new to start the year: an archive of my Reel Science episode plus my picks for the best films of 2018.
Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema Junkie podcast on Beth Accomando.
Technically cinema junkie is on holiday break right now but I want to run through the best and worst of 2013 before posting an archive about real scientists talking about movie science doing a 10 best list is always difficult for me. Sometimes there are too few films to pick from and sometimes to many but mostly it's painful because movies are so diverse and the reasons for loving them are so varied in some ways. I see a 10 best list as a means of not just highlighting the Top Films of the year but also the films that I felt were unjustly ignored or overlooked.
Picking just ten is like having a lifeboat and only being able to save 10 of your children. I mean how do you decide who is truly the most worthy. This year my honorable mentions go to a collection of brilliant films that all deserve to be on a year end list but I'm placing them as runners up because they're all from well-established filmmakers and the films are racking up awards from mainstream critics and don't need any more accolades to get audiences to see them. So Alfonso crones Roma Spike Lee's black Klansman Ryan Coogler.
Black Panther Yorgos lanthorn most is the favorite and the trio of foreign films burning shoplifters and Cold War are all well worth seeking out. I'd also give a special nod to the 8 hour plus documentary Dead Souls from China that bravely screened here at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and kudos to artistic director Brian Hu for programming it and to the other side of the wind which let Orson Welles deliver a film from beyond the grave.
But for the top ten I'm going with films that in some way felt more exciting in terms of the filmmaking films that announced new talent or me to see a genre with new eyes. So let's begin with the documentary three identical strangers that spins a genuinely thrilling narrative about three boys separated at birth who find each other as teenagers reach out to knock on the door opens.
Their eyes my eyes his eyes. It's true.
The story went from being amazing to incredible and to twins reunited.
I think I might be the third.
Then witchcraft in modern Zambia provides the starting point for an gone only Ani's feature debut. I am not a witch. Just saw.
So it's a brilliantly confident work that finds comic absurdity amidst tragedy and dares us to laugh and cry within the same breath and then marvel at new Juani spellbinding craft a surprisingly well crafted script made Spiderman into the Spider verse. Not just a top 10 pick but my favorite Marvel movie of all time. The animation style is fresh and innovative plus it captures the spirit of the Marvel comic dishes up clever fun and even develops genuine emotion.
You gotta say that are you serious. You want to. We this like Spiderman.
I love you. I also love the Molotov cocktail of snowflake in which a pair of hit men find themselves at the mercy of a cursed script that's controlling their lives. Snowflake delivers a pop culture mash up of Tarantino audacity Coen brothers cleverness and Charlie Kaufman meta textual self-awareness. It proves explosive and intoxicating.
But what's most surprising is how the story develops into a morality tale and how you come to care for the two main characters a distinct lack of morality as well as people we don't care for or at the core of Adam McKay's feis savagely dark comic portrait of Dick Cheney's rise to power. And we understand what it means is that neither branch has oversight of the EPA. We don't like. Sure. They have. Vice gives us politics for dummies as it connects the dots between events to help explain why America is currently where it's at.
The film is equal parts hilarious and disturbing and disturbing in a completely different way.
The feature film debut of Ari Astor Charlie if you're in this room with us I'm going to have a small touch the glass. Now if you're in here Charlie I want you to move the glass for us even if it's just a tiny bit even if it's just a tiny bit OK Charlie hereditary is like the horror equivalent of the Slow Food movement.
It asks you to take your time to savor every little ingredient and to just let things come at their own pace. This is an exceedingly well crafted and well modulated tale of dread. A very different kind of horror is served up by Japan's one cut of the dead made for practically nothing. This film is pure cinematic bliss. If Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made a horror film. This would be it. It's filled with endearing do it yourself inventiveness and an infectious love for the passion needed to make a movie.
Another film that fills me with joy is Armando Iannucci death of Stalin. The comic inventiveness and whip smart writing of this film are a delight as is seeing Steve Buscemi tackle the role of Khrushchev with gusto. I think he's saying Get me a doctor now.
No I don't. I don't agree. I think we should wait to record Quaritch.
The room is only 75 percent conscious wearing pajamas. Yes so why. Because I act Llorente decisively and with great speed.
I said we just intensify shopping on wearing pajamas. Okay now for a little bit of a cheat some of that Oakland gangster.
Oaktown I found a way to sneak in an extra film by giving a shout out to Oakland for being the backdrop for two of the year's best films blindspot. And sorry to bother you both marking feature film debuts for their directors blind spotting looks to the last three days of a young African-American man's probation as he tries to navigate through a changing Oakland or just being black can get you killed.
Director Carlos Lopez Estrada and writer stars Rafael Casal and David Diggs deliver a funny tragic savvy and intense film that allows us to see the world through new eyes inspired because it's all about how you can look at something and there can be another thing there that you are seeings.
You got a blindspot.
Finding a new voice sets captious green on the road to success and Boots Riley sorry to bother you. What did you do you work with worked with get in the way you want but. You know.
Way voice in here. You can use it.
The film gives us an alternative universe Oakland and announces veteran rapper Boots Riley as a force to be reckoned with in film. Riley not only has something to say but he has the artistry to say it in an audaciously fresh way that demands attention and finally let me end with Barry Jenkins adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. Jenkins is a gorgeously visual storyteller and he finds a cinematic eloquence to match the poetry of Baldwins writing. And if you trusted his father to trusted the film gains its radiance from the romance at its center.
But it's also fueled by outrage at the injustices faced by a young black couple. If Beale Street Could Talk is transcendent filmmaking and it reminds me why going to a cinema is like going to church for me.
And if I could get one more cheatin then it would be to add the night comes for us an action film from Indonesia that exhausts you with its spectacular fights and gruelling narrative. I'm an action junkie and there's always a place in my heart for a film that knows how to deliver taking action and this film certainly does that.
And now for some acting awards. Hands down the best actress of the year was Toni Collette an hereditary runners up Nicole Kidman and destroyer Olivia Colman in the favorite and elites of Parr's in Roma in the supporting category. Tilda Swinton stole the show in an otherwise rather forgettable Suspiria remake. Also noteworthy were Amy Adams in vice and Cynthia Revo in both widows and bad times at the El Royale. No single actors to out as dramatically as collected among the actresses. But John David Washington and black clansman mashaAllah Eileen Green Book and Christian Bale and vice were all exceptional.
But in the supporting category there was a real standout in Michael B Jordan s kill Mongar in Black Panther. Other outstanding work was given by Richard Grant in can you ever forgive me. Daniel Kalua in widow's and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld in vice and I want to slip in a few more worthy of mention films. Rampage was far and away the most delightfully surprising film of 2018 delivering an American Chi's you are giant monster film with the rock as a human version of Kaiju. This was pure fun. From start to finish in the action realm upgrade was also an unexpected treat with a script that was far more clever than I was anticipating annihilation delivered smart sci fi with a strong female cast and an absolutely spectacular production design.
Lynne Ramsay shine darkly with you were never really here with Joaquin Phoenix as a traumatized veteran who tracks down missing girls for a living. It was hypnotic nightmarish and totally riveting and a shout out to the musical score and enchanting animation style of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs. Anderson displays a lot of cultural naivete that borders on insensitivity. But his dogs are endearing and the production design of their world is richly detailed. As for the worst of 2018 there were a lot films that were just disappointing. Although my expectations were not high for these films they all delivered even less than I thought they could.
While maximizing hype films like A Star Is Born. Mary Poppins returns an aqua man. Then there are the films that are just plain bad and mercifully not receiving as much hype. Films like mile 22 the 15 17 to Paris and Red Sparrow. There's also films like welcome to Marwin which was especially offensive because the documentary Marwin call was so great and the Megh which made me so angry because they missed the boat with a Jason Statham vs giant shark film that was really a low bar to hit and then I have to confess there were some films that I honestly just couldn't bring myself to watch films like Fifty Shades Freed hunter killer and Robin Hood.
The trailers alone were so painful to watch that I couldn't see wasting 2 hours of my life on the whole films. Yeah it's possible I missed something great but I doubt it. Part of the agony of putting this list together is that I'm sure I've missed a number of good documentaries and foreign films that didn't cross my path so I'll be agonizing over these choices for a few more days. But how wonderful to have a year with so many cinematic treasures and so many from new and diverse filmmakers. Now to the archive podcast of real science and that's RCL real science is a partnership between the San Diego Natural History Museum and digital Jim cinema.
The series pairs real scientists with films of their choosing and then lets audiences ask questions about the science or ideas in the films. The series will return in May but in the meantime enjoy the insights from the scientists and seek out the films they discuss. 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 would be astronomers argued over theory.
While engineers got 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 at the University Hubbs was already on something.
Ordinary. It's a different species we're doing things ants don't do. Meeting.
Communicating apparently making decisions by summer.
The rest of the world had moved on to other things. Hubs 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-L scientist real scientist talking about R 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 answer 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 your curiosity is aroused you are ready for baseball. Please. Move ready quickly and a deserter is. Taking over the country said first. And laying siege to towns cities. Plan's. Strengths and weaknesses. Of.
Do they want. How do you fight a force that knows what your next move will be before you think of it. So what is your approach that you're going to take to it in terms of how you're going to dissect the science of this.
Frank. Well it's interesting because 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. 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. They're individual cells. Tiny. Functioning parts of the. Think of the society Jane 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 execute perfectly. Their ability to evolve. And adapt. And ways that are.
So beautiful. Still so I'm not and all could take. One simple for. So defenseless individual. So powerful now.
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 that 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 and 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 or in 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 one and 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.
Now 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 and 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 anti 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 it 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 stay in your homes.
Personal safety the safety of the entire city depend on your full cooperation with the military authorities. Yes cities nation. Even civilization itself. Threatened with annihilation. Because in one moment of history making violence. Makes you. Mad rampant.
In its most awesome creation. Born in that swirling inferno of radioactive dust where things are. So terrifying. So hideous. There is no way. To describe.
When 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 Asadi with insects but I would say like I do quite like this film.
It's weird. 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 movie you drop a little laugh and think about something in detail what's that.
I mean this is you can totally see plenty of people smoking to smoke and 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 answers 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. The consensus is that it is sort of a commentary on the Vietnam War at some level that they represent. The mindless horde of the of the Viet Mooneys the Vietcong and that and the sciences trying to provide an answer for defeating the mindless horr. 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 film gives Anse 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 yeah personified them is evil 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 and communication I can sort of nudge that over the top. Then I think all to 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 seemed to be used like you see giant Ansun in a number of films like something like a tarantula. Always seems to be popular not necessarily in science fiction only but it's like beeg 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 like generally 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 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 that they're associated with disease and vermin and some sort of way or there are venomous and they're going to kill us.
Giant wasps or attack of the Killer Bees type stuff or this idea of this sort of mindless horde. Well I guess you can go to Japan for Mothra.
Yet totally monitor states that it seems like you mentioned wasps and bees but it seems like these the ability of these tiny tiny things to hold 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 agent is certainly not dangerous to most people unless are allergic to them.
But if you get mobbed by honeybees or you know in some I'm not sure that 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 a 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 and there's something about them that's creepy to me. But yeah it's without a doubt you know and the bigger they are the more 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 kinda behind the glass you know then it's wow awesome. You know I just feel like that all the time. Like every time I see you.
Well I have to say one of 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 gonna like don't worry about it. And my camera person was like it like it can't kill you or anything and you know.
It's lethal and it would hurt you.
Yeah I remember that I think I remember like right cause I had it in a container and I had some long forceps and I was pulling it out with like as I was pulling in 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 catch them. 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 not just automatically leads you down the road to getting more interested in insects and about that same time my wife was an undergraduate and entomology and she was taken to 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 these 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 that night it really was.
It was just so fascinating to see these things that looked like little Gritz of dirt and then to realise 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 peristalsis the larvae of the beetle and another pair of studs 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.
I mean the you know it's often a rant that you hear amongst biodiversity scientists people who study the living world that grew good mood. 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.
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 it's 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've 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 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 as a place where you go and you look at exhibits and I never realized fully that you guys are a research place as well.
Right. Yeah definitely.
We've got I think our research staff is 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 come 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 causing 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 that they remember from previous days that the Natural History Museum. But then they're 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 the 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. 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 when the leaders 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 mentioned 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 cups 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 these Kelly who is. I'd want my life back. I think someone's trying to kill the wrong guy. You can question everything you can never know anything. Short. Of things you know. If you get intervention I'm going to remember. You're not even going to know that it happened and to this day. You don't know who you will 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 says 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. 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 and 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 Mammadov not going to say is 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 on 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 scientist 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 Memento uses that as the fundamental conceit of the film to very good effect.
I don't know my own wife. The fuck is wrong.
Well I guess it can only make you remember the things you want to be true. Like all Jimmy down there is not the right guy. He was to you. Come on you got your revenge and Joy why you still remember. What difference does it make whether he was your guy or not. It makes all the difference. Why you never got to know who you are. Well somehow you will remain stuck. I will not. It'll be different. I thought so too. In fact I was sure of it but you did it.
That's right. Real Jangi. I help you find them over a year ago. He's already dead.
Don't lie to me.
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 looking again looking for the guy who already killed 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.
I took that picture. 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 saying you do that to create a puzzle you can never solve.
You Domini how many towns how many John jeez. James geez. I mean shit Lenny I'm fuckin John G. Names Teddy. My mother calls me Teddy. My name's John Edward Gamil. Cheer up. There's plenty of 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 now. When a movie is well constructed like this 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 like it forces you to take on the perspective not just because you're trying to understand empathic and 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 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 tattoos 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 is 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 at 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 ōba is 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. So everybody will use certain tricks like oh maybe they have our time recognizing somebody's names that 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 you right he tries to. 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 and between them somehow in our brains these 86 billion neurons are communicating with each other in this ridiculous the 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 like What does the signals what are the codes that they're using to communicate. Right. And that the Whiteway study is 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 is 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 real science series. You are using a film. All of 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'd 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 and 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 this like nanotechnology little knights that live in his bloodstream that he thinks about it and they form a suit around him. Fifty years now are we going to think that sounds really trivial and trite just like the air conditioned suit 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 into 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 Fance fascinating and amazed that it can be done is you work with some people who for whatever reasons have their brain exposed do do 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. Do be clear that is totally unrelated is obvious.
Sorry. No that was just the starting point of our friendship with zombies.
So a couple of percent of the world's population has epilepsy which is the disease that 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 some 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 in. 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 the epilepsy monitoring unit waiting to have seizures.
So they like reading books like 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 then 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 sheep 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 li. 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 Dools. 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 their 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 ha.
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 right. 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. Is 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 I'd say that's a romantic comedy movie of that topic. 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. Like his memory comes back. To myself to be happy. In your case Teddy. He has. What's constant there and what's what's malleable.
And I think to me that's just an interesting question about like who you are like 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 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 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. Warren Beatty is this football star who dies and they take his body away too quickly and they put him in another body which is fine like I don't mind me 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 is 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 er great science fiction series actually. I mean I think there's a reason also that certain things like that where people are familiar all carbon and the idea that our consciousness is can be transferred between bodies and that allows some people to just live forever because they 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 that you know it's fundamental we all have to deal with it at some point maybe like science fiction is practiced in that sense of like getting comfortable with these like really heady ideas well 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 those 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 something really complicated like 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 at when we 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 ever that we couldn't 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 of things Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind about like selectively removing memories that we don't want anymore is another very interesting one. I 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 also another very good one.
Should you should give me homework. I would have I I'm expect you know what I would recommend those movies.
I think those are all pretty good then 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. 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 warm bodies right. 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 to fall in love. Yeah I think. I don't know if it's reflecting anything like more broadly in 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.
That was Bradley Vojtech assistant professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at UC San Diego. Next up is Daniel Sheon physics professor at University of San Diego. As with walland 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 Neo 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. The question that Dr. matrix. The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the true. What.
They're watching you.
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. Kinsey just said rather matter of fact the 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 and I raise my hand and said how do they know they haven't been there.
And she said well scientists no. 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'm 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 essential 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 you 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 an 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.
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 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 what 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 in our video games 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 in particular 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 this 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 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'd. Go into 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 prophesying something is going to happen or do you make it happen by signing it that comes up 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 cypher says I am 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 fundis 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 movies 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 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 remember nothing nothing to unstained 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 knife's 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 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 in 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 is going to take it's going to take pi times longer than that at least. It's just the way things are. Everything is hard them. 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 pretty fair in the sense that he's stuck he's marooned he asked 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 porthole he makes out of that out of duct tape around plastic that won't hold. That won't work. Those kinds of things are 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 if 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 had really kind of a limited amount of TV when I was growing up that 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 the 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. 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'll 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. 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 of neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch.
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.
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 hole remember.
All I'm offering is the truth.
Nothing. Knowing myself and that means knowing the world too I think is what it means to be human. And I think the way that the world has gone now that we we can be insulated from 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're 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. That was Daniel Sheon physics professor at University of San Diego.
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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place