Skip to main content

Reel Science 3.0

Cover image for podcast episode

Reel Science returns with the San Diego Natural History Museum and Digital Gym Cinema pairing sci-fi films with real scientists to put the movie science into a broader context. Whether you want preview of the film series or if you can't make the films but want to watch sci-fi films with some questions to ask you'll want to hear entomologist Michael Wall and cognitive scientist Eric Leonardis dissect "Damnation Alley" and David Cronenberg's "The Fly."

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:06 Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast on Beth like Armando.

Speaker 1: 00:25 It's time once again for the San Diego Natural History Museum in Digital, Jim Cinema to partner on the real science film series. This is when a Scifi film and a local scientist are paired so that audiences can get insight into how movie science and actual science compare. The next four Fridays you can see a film with a scientist on hand to answer questions. The screenings all take place in San Diego, but if you can't make the screenings, then listen to this podcast and you'll get some context for looking at slide five films at home. But real science also means that I get another opportunity to speak with the nats entomologist Michael Wall, who always has a new piece of Bug Trivia to share. This year it was about cockroaches.

Speaker 2: 01:06 There's not a lot of cockroach diversity in southern California. They tend to be more tropical, but there is one group of really cool cockroach is called the sandwiches that we have a good number of species here within our region. The cool thing about them is that they don't have to drink water. They've got like basically dehumidifiers associated with planes in their mouth and so they can dig deep down into the sand and like once they get kind of low enough that the humidity is high enough, they avert these little dehumidifiers and suck water out of the air that that should be the next Scifi movie. That's if we just hit it. Yeah,

Speaker 3: 01:42 that's why I love talking to Michael Wall. He'll close out the film series on May 24th with Damnation Alley at Digital Jim Cinema. Okay. Take a moment to check for any creepy crawlers by your feet. And I'll be right back with more of my interview with Michael Wall as well as a cognitive scientist talking about David Cronenberg's, the fly Michael the nat is once again doing a film series called real science. So remind people why they feel it's important to kind of pair scientists with science fiction films.

Speaker 2: 02:16 Sure. I mean, science fiction films, pop culture in general is a gateway for, it's a gateway for the general populace. And so to be able to bring science, real science into that context is a, is a way to uh, educate some more people about the various interesting things that researchers and scientists are doing around this area.

Speaker 3: 02:39 So each year that you've partaken in this, you have always come up with kind of the off the beaten path film you did phase four, which is about ants taking over the world. You've done Flash Gordon. So this year you're doing damnation alley down links from Ellie remembers is God

Speaker 4: 03:01 everything he has achieved just forgotten and replaced. He has liver has become a wasteland. Desolate at least five survivors may be the only humans left alive together. They will attempt to journey into the unknown.

Speaker 2: 03:18 Aliza post apocalyptic. It's actually a post nuclear war movie where the earth has been knocked off of its axis and has turned into this wasteland.

Speaker 3: 03:28 So as a scientist, what about this film appealed to you in the sense of what did you find in it that you thought you could talk about and reach out to an audience to get them to look at it in a different way?

Speaker 2: 03:40 I remember this seeing this movie when I was very, very young and I remember being horrified by one particular scene.

Speaker 5: 03:47 Oh shoot, lugs does armor plated cockroaches.

Speaker 2: 03:58 These cockroaches start chewing on a guy.

Speaker 5: 04:04 Ah,

Speaker 2: 04:05 and so as an entomologist I became that. That was my entry point into this movie in particular is thinking about insects and what they will they will be like and how they will survive and sort of a post human more,

Speaker 5: 04:22 no, this is dead. His whole town is infected with Kyla cockroaches. No Kid.

Speaker 2: 04:32 Lately there's been a lot of, there's, there's been at least a lot of research coming out about what they call the insect apocalypse and it's about the decline of insect diversity worldwide.

Speaker 3: 04:41 Now we've talked in the past about the insect world being a great source for science fiction. Do you still find that there's a lot more territory that Hollywood science fiction films can tackle in terms of the insect world? Yeah, I'm, I'm always right

Speaker 2: 04:57 pressed actually with the, with the weird little nugget. So you'll see like writers grab onto that dive in to some at least angle of the, uh, of the insect world. You and I have talked in the past about the last of us with which, uh, has to do with fun, fun guy, parasitizing humans, but you know, it's built off of this idea of of fungi parasitizing ants and sort of driving them mad, turning them into zombies of sorts. Lately I've been thinking about the way insects communicate and pheromonal communication, seeing if there's an interesting way that um, that Hollywood can bring like sort of insect communication [inaudible] pheromones into a, into a weird, creepy movie of some kind.

Speaker 3: 05:40 No, I've had the privilege of going back into your vaults to see what kind of stuff there is here, but people may not be aware of that. In addition to just what you have on display and the exhibits that you run, you are a research facility here. So tell people what goes on.

Speaker 2: 05:56 Yeah, so we've got over 8 million

Speaker 6: 05:58 specimens on our end, our collections. And what we like to say is that we're were keepers of the ecological record, we've got specimens, well, we've got specimens going back millions of years if you count our fossil collections. So we can use those collections to kind of look into the past. And by looking into the past we can kind of look into the future as well. You can kind of project by by saying, oh well here's what it was like in the past and the conditions like I wonder what it's gonna look like in the future. And so we're, we're thinking about conservation oriented things quite a lot these days. Um, the impact of climate change on, on biodiversity in our region, really trying to use these collections to inform current conservation. That was Michael Wall curator of entomology and vice president of science and conservation at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which is also known as the nat. I'll be right back with my interview with Eric Lee and artists. He's a phd candidate and cognitive science at Uc San Diego. He'll be presenting David Cronenberg's the fly on May 3rd at Digital Jim Cinema. And we'll get a preview of what he's going to be talking about.

Speaker 6: 07:05 Eric, you're going to be part of this year's real science film series. So before we talk about the film you chose, and let's get a little background on who you are as a scientist. So you work as a cognitive scientist, tell people what that means. Cognitive Science is the interdisciplinary study of the mind. So it actually takes a bunch of different disciplines like psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology and AI. Uh, and we basically have to mix all of those different perspectives together to get an idea of how the mind is really operating in real life context. Now you're part of this film series. Did films play any part at all in your early years in terms of sparking an interest in science? Absolutely. Actually. So, uh, I took a few different sort of science fiction and history of science fiction classes in Undergrad at Hofstra University and basically we looked at like Lovecraft, Frankenstein Dracula, but from a historical perspective, providing, you know, context about the author, a context about the time.

Speaker 6: 08:06 And that really helped me to think about scientific ideas and think about like these future technologies that seem sort of fantastic but are actually quite tangible. And do you remember seeing any film like as a kid or something that just sparked your imagination and made you think like, that's really cool? Oh, she's definitely star Trek. I mean, Star Trek is a, is a huge influence on me. I watch it all the time still, especially because it not only deals with sort of like the consequences of science and technology, but also like a way broader political intergalactic politics sort of context. Now the film you've picked, you have David Cronenberg's the fly. So this is a remake of the old 1950s one what about this film appeal to you? My first intuition was like, oh, I pick a German expressionist film. And then I'm like, should I really choose a silent film?

Speaker 6: 08:58 I don't know about that. And then I was thinking about sort of the marketability of Jeff Gold blooms body. And that film just came to mind because I really, I just love Cronenberg. And it was either going to be a Cronenberg or a lynch or something like that. Um, for me, um, so I've actually have been studying in graduate school is something called embodied cognition, right? And previously in cognitive science, the idea was that humans are logical computers and your body doesn't really matter. You're just a set of information patterns, right? And that information pattern could be recognized or realized in a human body or it could be realized in silicon and it doesn't really matter as long as it's doing the same thing, then it doesn't matter. That's kind of a central tenant of early cognitive science from the 60s and Seventies. And it allowed for some great developments in AI and machine learning.

Speaker 6: 09:49 But what we've learned in the past sort of 20 years ish is that the body matters a lot and the mind can't really exist without a body. That's kind of why I think I chose the fly and Cronenberg because body horror is the sorta it throws it in your face. It makes you deal with these issues of core pour reality and materiality, which are important to me. So what kind of things are you discovering? Are you focusing on in terms of this notion of you know, your body and your physical being actually impacts your mental state or your mind when you actually look at what people do when they're perseverating, when they're reflecting, when they're thinking. So even like in mathematical cognition, I'm really bad at doing math, so I always count on my fingers, right? And for me, like doing math without a pencil and paper in an embodied in situated way, it's not going to work for me.

Speaker 6: 10:43 There are some people that might be able to do that in these extreme situations, but most people are counting on their fingers and writing stuff down on paper. And these types of embodiment, sort of focused analyses is where we're really starting to expand the unit of analysis from just the human mind or the brain and kind of looking at humans and things and their body's interacting to give rise to these sort of more complex mental functions. So now in the fly what you have is you have a scientist who experiments and gets his DNA mixed up with a fly. And this ultimately leads to his body changing, but also kind of his perception of the world once those changes occur. So what kinds of things might you talk about or look at in that? Like my first thing is, and my disclaimer is that I'm not a physicist, especially not a quantum physicist, but the question is, is teleportation possible?

Speaker 7: 11:38 Hey, you're all right. I can tell you're okay. How are we waiting for? Let's do it.

Speaker 6: 11:53 I have sort of dug into the current state of quantum teleportation and as it turns out, teleportation seems to be possible, although there are a few caveats that I'd like to share with you. Sure. Basically in order to do something like teleportation, you would need to have like a perfect copy of you, right? And the w what you'd have to do is you'd have to have a thing that needs to be copied, materials to make that copy out of, and then a procedure to transform those materials into that exact copy. There are some serious limits that physics actually puts on this. And that's what I often look to physics four it was like what are the things you can't do? And it turns out that there's a theme, a mathematical Theorem, a mathematical proof called the no cloning theorem. And it suggests that you actually cannot have a copy, a perfect copy of you in this universe.

Speaker 6: 12:45 Right? And the reason why is because of the nature of quantum measurement. So when you measure a quantum system, you often you change it by nature of measuring it. So the act of scanning your, all of the protons and electrons and things in your body actually change the system. Okay? So then when you do the scan, you've changed the system so you're not the same you anymore. Okay. Then you could potentially take that information, send it somewhere else via some kind of signal. The only limitation on how fast you can teleport is the speed of light. So as long as it's less than the speed of light, apparently this is feasible. So you transport that plane to another side and then you rematerialize well they can't exist at the same time. And the no cloning theorem is actually a really sort of kitchy way of showing this.

Speaker 6: 13:33 Basically there's two things that I'm trying to simplify this as much as possible, but basically particles, quantum particles find themselves in super positions, which means they're in multiple positions at the same time, so those super positions are additive, so you actually just sort of add those super positions together of however many particles you're interested in. Then when those particles interact with other ones and they create like atoms and molecules and cells and all of these things, they're called composites and those things are multiplied together in these quantum equations. Okay, so you have addition and you have multiplication between these sorts of particles and their positions. So the no cloning theory and basically says it's, it's a proof by contradiction, which is a really interesting way of doing it says assume that cloning is possible and you have to have the exact same quantum systems when you actually go through the equations.

Speaker 6: 14:23 What it shows is is that if cloning is possible, then something called polynomial expansion is false. The idea is that either Algebra is wrong or cloning is wrong. Okay, and that's why you can't have an exact copy. If you're really ambitious, you know an exact copy should be required because you would need all of the particles in your brain and the ions in all of your neurons and all of those things to be in the exact same place to make sure that it's really the you that's coming out. Now, what's interesting is when I looked into this, they're like, oh yeah, but teleportation is totally fine if you're comfortable with a slightly different, you coming out the other end, and I found that to be really disturbing, but it reminded me of Star Trek actually the teleportation problem where they were like protesters in the Star Trek universe saying that they won't tell a fort because they don't think it's the same damn coming out the other side. As it turns out, their concerns are legitimate.

Speaker 7: 15:15 Something went wrong, says when you went through something went wrong. No, not you. You're too chicken shit to be a member of the dynamic Joel Club. Okay? Then grade, I'll find somebody else. Somebody who can keep up with me says, you have to listen to me. You're afraid to dive into the plasma for larger, you're afraid to be destroyed and recreated. I bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don't you? But you only know societies, straight line about the flesh. You can't penetrate beyond societies sick. Great fear of the flesh

Speaker 6: 15:52 in the original fly from the 1950s they actually got it more right than the Cronenberg version to some extent, just by calling it a disintegrator integrator rather than a teleportation device. Just the idea that because you can't create, because um, you can't create perfect copies. It's not only measurement. The thing is that you have to be destroyed and then recreated. So and, and he says, actually there's a quote or you're afraid to be destroyed and recreated orange. Yeah. And like, yeah, you actually have to scan it. You get the information pattern, destroy all of the atoms and particles, then materialize it somewhere else. And that seems like really kind of scary,

Speaker 8: 16:36 Eh, in, in the fly to kind of simplify that all down. When Gina Davis has fed this teleported steak, she eats it. It looks exactly like the state that was sent through. But as soon as she puts it in her mouth, she goes, Ooh, there's something wrong with it.

Speaker 7: 16:53 Eat this hundred the objective.

Speaker 9: 17:02 Yes. Well

Speaker 7: 17:05 I could use some finesse but it tastes like a steak. Okay, now try this. Teleported oh, are you serious? A monkey just came apart in there.

Speaker 9: 17:26 Oh, okay. Funny, funny how it tastes. Some synthetic,

Speaker 6: 17:38 but there's this one part of the film where basically like he can't generate and like you're saying, he can't generate the steak because it's this organic thing and there's something he doesn't about. Organic creatures are organisms that he hasn't programmed in the computer yet. And then so basically Brundle and Ronnie have sex and then he like figures out what was missing. There was something from this like sexual experience that he learns about the flesh enough to have the computer transport the flesh. Now,

Speaker 7: 18:19 sorry, I just want to eat, you know? That's why old ladies pinch babies too. It's the flesh. Spacey Crazy.

Speaker 6: 18:31 They call that also cute aggression. And so maybe there's something that he found out about the mechanisms of cute aggression through these types of explorations of the flesh. But anyway, that seems like a very sort of, that's a very magical moment of the film where I'm not so sure what, what happened

Speaker 7: 18:47 didn't there? So what have we proved? The computer is giving us it's interpretation of a steak. It's translating it. Forest three thinking it rather than reproducing it and all something is getting lost in the translation. Me, I'm lost the flesh. It should make the computer a crazy. I like those old ladies pinching babies, but it's nice and not yet. I haven't taught the computer to me, made crazy by the flesh. A poetry of the steak. So I'm going to start teaching him now.

Speaker 6: 19:31 No. As a scientist, what do you think of his character in terms of the way he approaches kind of the issues that come up for him? I think that, I mean it's extremely ambitious character, very isolated character. What one thing that comes to mind is just lab safety and general as, as an, as a neuroscientist, you know, you have to be very careful when you're doing cell staining, all these other things like you're not, you, you shouldn't just like sort of run into the lab and midnight when you're really drunk and then try to teleport yourself. You know, it's, it's usually you have sort of like a standards and practices, but he had the liberty of just kind of having his own space. So, you know, you know, some of Cronenberg's other films you're talking about this notion of body horror. Um, do any of his other films kind of offer up something for you as a cognitive scientist that you find intriguing?

Speaker 6: 20:22 Well, I think the thing about Cronenberg, which is really fun is I kind of, I get this, I mean, especially based on his film, uh, most dangerous method that he is very much a Floridian. He's a psychoanalytic thinker to, in cognitive science, we actually, we don't usually do psycho analysis because it's often deemed started like nonscientific. There are these intangible that you know, and assumptions that need to be made about what the structure of the mind is. But when you're, what's cool is, and I think in, in film theory, film criticism, like, uh, you know, especially like earlier, you know, from 30 or 40 years ago, everyone's going to do Friday and analysis of some film, even if it's not necessarily like appropriate. Now, some might say Friday and analysis is always appropriate. Um, but you know, I'm, I'm kind of also like, well, what are the mechanisms?

Speaker 6: 21:13 What are the cognitive effects? But with Cronenberg it's like no Freud's on the table, you know what I mean? Um, this is a psychosexual nightmare. And as a cognitive scientist of someone who is sort of disciplinarily supposed to ignore desire, they're supposed to ignore experience in consciousness. We're supposed to just make sort of computational devices that do human like things. Uh, we have to then face like, oh yeah, okay, sexuality, what do we do about that? That's one of the most complex identity. Gender and sexual identity are some of the most complex things that cognitive scientists don't really have a good handle on. So I think it's actually a really good ground to ask these types of questions because there's extra dimensions that are usually left out of the story if people can't make the film. Are there any ideas or thoughts or questions you kind of want to throw out so that if somebody can't get to the screening but wants to maybe take a look at that film with a different perspective than just sitting there for entertainment purposes, is there something that you would tell them to, hey, watch this film and think about this?

Speaker 6: 22:15 Yeah, definitely. Um, I have, I have like, so there was the teleportation piece and then there's the possibility of a human fly hybrid, which I've kind of like really explored in depth. This is the kind of question that excites me a little bit. Interestingly enough, humans share something like 61% of their genetic code with just Sophala melanogaster the fruit fly. Now, something people might give me trouble about is I'm talking about fruit flies. The housefly Musco Domestica or muscular Domestica is probably what he was spliced with. But there's so much genetic data on the fruit fly. I just went with fruit flies. I think there's a really interesting argument to be made here. And the argument is that, okay, so then we're looking at 39% of the genome that is dissimilar between the flying and the human. So if they've been spliced right, then maybe we'll take half of that.

Speaker 6: 23:03 So he's 80% human right, and only about 19.5%, uh, fly by the time that the human genome splice with the fly genome. In this way, there are some really interesting questions about whether something can produce offspring with something else if they're only 80% genetically similar, right? We have something like 98 95% similarity with chimps and it doesn't seem like humans can meet with chimps. So if 80% similarities, what we're looking at are those sort of human fly larva babies, uh, a possibility. Can she really be pregnant and such that, you know, that part of the film happens. What's another interesting thing is the tacky Keinan pathway in the fly. Um, and I, a fun way to do it would be, okay, I'm not going to, I know that the biology is a little bit shaky, but let's look at the behavior and see what types of changes the biology might have gone through.

Speaker 6: 23:58 Right? And what we see is I think we see Brundlefly becoming much more aggressive. Uh, he's becoming much more compulsive, territorial, these types of things. And actually when you look into the research of fly aggression, it's, it's quite fascinating because in order to get flies to fight, oftentimes what they find is if you're a male fly, there has to be another male fly present. And you have to be competing for something that is either a food, usually sugar or a female. Okay. Because courts ship and aggression actually do share some of the same mechanisms, but also have sort of dissociable pathways. So the ways that they increase the probability of getting these flies to fight in the lab is by presenting a male fly with another male fly and a female fly. Okay. And then the two males just start fighting. So that's really interesting because that's exactly what we see in the film right there.

Speaker 6: 24:54 There's a love triangle between these two characters. You have staff, this borns, and then you have Seth Brundle. And then you have Ronnie sue had sort of, um, her journalistic mentor was her ex boyfriend, but it's still her boss, right? So you see this type of like, this is the type of situation where we should expect Brundlefly to become heavily aggressive breaking windows, screaming at waiters, these types of things. Now what's cool about the tacky Keinan pathways that, and I learned this actually at the Society for neuroscience conference in San Diego from a graduate student in neuroscience that UC SD named Margo Wall, um, who works at the Sulk Institute. And basically what they had done is they had found that when you stimulate these a particular set of neurons that release Techie Keinan, this neuropeptide, um, you can induce aggression. So if you have the context set right, uh, you basically just stimulate these neurons and then they'll sort of fight like a sort of kill switch.

Speaker 6: 25:55 Now I'm oversimplifying significantly here, but what's interesting is that humans have a homologous system to this tacky kind pathway and it's called the substance p system. And substance P is associated with a variety of things. And just from the list alone, it should give you an idea of maybe this might have been a biological system that's been affected by this transformation. And that is substance p. The homolog of tacky kind of plays a key role in aggression, vomiting and digestion. Uh, I found that to be particularly interesting. So it affects not only behavioral aggression, but like, you know, your ability to vomit is in some way supported by this chemical. And I, that was one of the things that became harder. So now that we have this nice behavioral story of sort of why he might becoming more aggressive, mainly that the cancer's turning his human substance P system into a fly Taki Keinan system.

Speaker 6: 26:53 So we can expect those behavioral changes. But digestion, I mean that seems like a tall order for some kind of cancerous thing. It's changed your DNA. It's a cancer and now it's going to restructure your digestive system. That seems like a tall order. Developmental Biologists would say something like, well, it didn't go through, you know, the Brundlefly didn't go through a larval stage. He didn't have the embryological development of a fly, so he can't have wings and have a three segmented body in six legs. This is just not how that works. So things like him developing this ability to create new [inaudible] enzymes, corrosive enzymes that he calls vomit drop. It seems like a tall order. But if you have, I don't know, this change in Taki kinhin that's changing the digestive system. Maybe it's, you know, there's something interesting going on there. Um, like last sort of thoughts is that the problem that Cronenberg I think is, is getting at was put really well by a feminist literary scholar.

Speaker 6: 27:54 Um, and Catherine Hale's in her book how we became post-human a virtual bodies and cybernetics literature and informatics and she says that, you know, throughout the 20th century information lost its body. The body has d materialized into an information pattern and it's our job as humanitarians to re materialize it to, to bring the body back into the discussion of how the mind works and um, you know, how people behave. Well then Cronenberg seems to be the perfect vehicle to do that with. Indeed. Well, I want to thank you very much for coming out and talking about science on the fly. Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1: 28:45 That was Eric Lee and artists, a phd candidate and cognitive science at Uc San Diego. Thanks for listening to another episode of Cinema Junkie podcast. If you like what you hear, please tell a friend the podcast comes out every other Friday, but I snuck this extra one in to catch a real science as it begins this Friday. The films screen at digital, Jim's micro cinema as well as at the nats big screen theater where the Martian and World War z will be playing till our next film fix on Beth. Like Armando, your residents cinema junkie.

Cinema Junkie podcast branding

Cinema Junkie

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