Storytelling Our Way Into Science

Big movies can reach large audiences and if you're trying to get the science word out there, that's clearly all to the good, but much can also be accomplished on a smaller scale.
10/13/2015 12:52 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2016

This past weekend, my family, like perhaps many others around the U.S. went to the movie theatre to watch Matt Damon living on and (spoiler alert!) figuring out how to get home from Mars. We all liked the movie, my eight year-old daughter most of all, full of questions during (sorry people behind us!) and after the movie. "I want to be just like her!" she said, gesturing at Jessica Chastain (Captain Melissa Lewis) as she floated through the spaceship. "The Martian" is perhaps an extreme example, but as an extreme it may best illustrate the power of great entertainment and a great story as an on-ramp for creating STEM interest.

The Martian is many things as a novel (by Andy Weir) and a movie. In particular, the latter comes off as much a science love story as it is a story of the indomitable human spirit (which is often the story of science!). We see Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor lead an un-self-consciously diverse group of scientists (with the stray, but important conflicted administrator or two) through an integrated collage of brief lessons in botany, agriculture, psychology, math, computer science, astronomy, astrobiology, physics, chemistry, and of course, engineering, all rigorously and artfully directed by Ridley Scott so as to be aligned with the mission of the story rather than as obvious didactic call-outs. It's essentially a story of problem posing and problem solving, which on a more universal level is a story of cycles of despair and hope, and as such, one that captures the audience in the gut. That kind of connection, sustained throughout the movie, enables the science to also grab hold of the viewer, as answers to a curiosity (or as salve to anxiety) raised by the suspenseful narrative. That is, the science helps to propel the narrative forward rather than act as compulsory sidebar. Moreover, our caring about what happens to the character helps us to listen closely in a way that a more formal setting would have difficulty engendering in many of us.

The Martian is hardly an isolated (or alien) example of movie "edutainment". The Academy award winning Alan Turing biopic, "The Imitation Game" got people talking about code-breaking mathematics and computer science, even if it also felt obligated to reinvigorate the tired trope of math genius-as-social misfit. Less obvious, but with a broader appeal, the animated Inside-Out also seems poised for Oscar glory and did so with a spot-on rendering of the push-pulls of adolescence and parenting, while drawing on a good deal of neuroscience and psychology research. I was entranced with the joyful and clever dramatization of neural and memory architecture. My kids and their friends chattered away in a hilarious and loud debate around why "humor" ("jokiness") was not among the characters and if it was necessary. Little did they know that they were skating on the surface of long and ongoing scientific argument about the completeness of the "Big Five" theory of personality.

Big movies can reach large audiences and if you're trying to get the science word out there, that's clearly all to the good, but much can also be accomplished on a smaller scale. For the past several years I have been leading a National Science Foundation project to help enable libraries (and their librarians) in small and rural communities to function as something like community centers for informal science learning. A centerpiece of this initiative is a video series of human interest stories, where science plays a part, but the main story is the human story. These videos, along with a recommended popular book and short video interview with its author (all around a universal and human theme) were a part of library community events for adults intended to generate conversations around science for folks who (by their own admission) were not "science people". The events were not pitched as science events per se. The combination of non-threatening venue, the prospect of an evening spent with friends (often including some food) engaged in conversation around a popular book and elaborated upon by an interesting short video story, succeeded in raising the interest and comfort level of many participants in 100 communities (and counting) in science generally. Libraries, movie theaters, popular books, movies, all provide novel contexts for precipitating "science thoughts" among large and diverse swaths of the public.

Books in particular have a long history of exciting young minds to science and once again, it is the engagement with narrative as opposed to explicit didacticism that brings about success. To cite just one example close to my own heart, I am one of many mathematicians who was at least in part lured to the subject by E.T. Bell's "Men of Mathematics". Part fact, part legend it is an almost swashbuckling historiography of mathematics through biographical sketch and anecdote. Even though the book and Bell have been taken to task (rightfully) by some, for its inaccuracies and omissions, its stories (and legends) have also filled many a youngster with a hunger to learn more about the people and ideas that it touches upon.

The partnering of talented storytellers with science and science education could be a boon for all of us. Wouldn't it have been great if when The Martian opened there had been something like a readily available teaching guide to the science of the movie? It would be a win-win: schools would go to the movies (maybe a reduced ticket price?) generating revenue and buzz for the studio, and students would see the science, talk about the science -- not just among themselves, but also with their parents and their teachers. Similar synergies could be found in other kinds of entertainments. We love movies, we love a good play, and we love a good book. We can use that love to make us love science too.