The Martian Is Trying Hard To Make You Wonder If It’s A Documentary

The Martian is a film scheduled to premiere in the United States on October 2.  Based on the book by Andy Weir, the film stars Matt Damon as an astronaut involved in a Mars mission who has to stay on the Red Planet much longer than expected.  NASA has been a big booster of the project, moreso (to my recollection) than other recent space-oriented films.

This video about the mission in the film further blurs the distinction between fictional story and current space enthusiasm.

How many of you thought, if only for a few seconds, that this was a real episode of Star Talk or COSMOS?  I did.

It’s a beautiful piece of work (much like the clips of the movies shown so far), and I can certainly see some people considering it an excellent advertisement for a future mission.  Unfortunately, for all the wonder it may inspire, that’s not going to be enough to get people there.  Even with a ‘decades-long space race’ like the one described in the video.

I think those that would expect The Martian to be the NASA equivalent of what Top Gun did for the Navy are going to be disappointed.  Making movies is hard work, but it’s not the same kind of hard work that it will take to generate the political will to make the necessary investments.

On The Lack Of Imagination In Science Advocacy Rhetoric

Perhaps I’ve just been in this field too long.

Earlier this month several leading science policy administrators put their names to this article on The Huffington Post.  In the piece the authors use the 70th anniversary of Science: The Endless Frontier to argue for using a vision from 1945 to continue America’s status as a prime innovating nation.

The report in question was written by Vannevar Bush to argue for a dedicated source of federal funding for scientific research.  This National Research Foundation was not the same thing as the National Science Foundation that emerged.  So while the report was not entirely successful in crafting the agency Bush envisioned, it has managed to be successful in crowding out any other major rationale for federal investment in science and technology research.  The shorthand it represents is reified by these senior administrators in their article.  Both in citing Science: The Endless Frontier and by calling for the same things – more scientists, more investments and more policy champions – the authors do little more than say what could have been said by their predecessors 5, 10, 15 or more years ago.

I’d love to hear a new theme, something that’s younger than me.

Kidman To Topline West End Production Of Photograph 51

Photograph 51 is a stage play about the role Rosalind Franklin played in the discovery of the shape of DNA, and how her contributions were downplayed.  Written by Anna Ziegler and first produced in 2008, the play has been produced several times since.  A notable production was during the 2011 World Science Festival, where James Watson joined Ziegler and other biologists to discuss the film.  Ziegler’s work has received attention from the Sloan Foundation, which supports science and technology themed plays and other stories.  This includes a grant to develop a screenplay of the film.

Photograph 51 will be at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End of London starting on September 5, with Nicole Kidman playing Franklin.  It marks the first London stage performance by Kidman since 1998, and is scheduled to run through November 21.  Here’s a glimpse of Kidman as Franklin in this promotional video:

Informed Consent Teases Out Research Ethics On The Stage

Informed Consent is currently in its New York premiere run at the Duke at 42nd Street through September 13.  The play was written by Deborah Zoe Laufer and is a fictionalized drama about the case of the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona and its lawsuit against researchers at Arizona State University.  The case concerns the use of blood samples taken from tribe members by the researchers.  While the samples were taken voluntarily for the purposes of a diabetes study, the use of these samples in subsequent research prompted the lawsuit.  (The lawsuit eventually ended in an out-of-court settlement, not the most dramatically satisfying of conclusions.)

Laufner was featured on a recent segment of Science Friday, where she talked with Ira Flatow about the play, the case, and the ethics involved in genetic research, informed consent, properly managing genetic data, and issues of identity.  While the court case started over 25 years ago, the challenges of determining how to practically ensure ethically-informed consent for the drawing of samples and use of genetic information.  The ultimate resolution of the case prevented the establishment of relevant case law to inform subsequent court cases.

The court case also raised an issue about genetic migration studies.  Determining the genetic ancestry of individuals can conflict with family and/or cultural understanding of where people came from.  And while individuals being tested might accept such a conflict, there are others who would be exposed to the conflict that were not consulted about the testing.  Figuring out how to set boundaries in such matters is something worthy of consideration by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues.

But none of that necessarily makes for a good play.  Readers in the New York area (or visiting) still have a few days to check out Informed Consent.

Princeton Plasma Physicist Won’t Let Election Defeat Dissuade Him

Andrew Zwicker is the Head of Science Education at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories.  He ran in 2014 to take the Congressional seat vacated by Representative Rush Holt.  Holt stepped down following an unsuccessful Senate campaign and is now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Like Zwicker, Holt worked for years at the Princeton lab, and served as Assistant Director.

Zwicker did not win the Democratic Primary that year for the 12th Congressional district, but that has not quenched his political aspirations.  He did receive the Democratic nomination for one of the two General Assembly spots in this year’s election for New Jersey’s 16th Assembly district.  The general election is this fall.  While the 314 PAC did not endorse Zwicker in this race (it is focused on federal elections), they are spreading the word about his campaign.  Should he be successful in the fall, he may eventually follow in former Representative Holt’s footsteps and represent New Jersey in the House.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of August 24

The next two weeks will have a high percentage of late night talk repeats as the shows get in their last summer vacations.  Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert and his staff are making sure everything is as ready as possible for the first episode of his Late Show which arrives the day after Labor Day (September 8) – when everyone else is back.  And while this is a sample size of four shows, Colbert will welcome SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Wednesday, September 9.

As a result, there is little to report.  Even tThe MythBusters have a repeat new episode this weekend to coincide with Discovery returning to the shark well.  One of this week’s repeats may qualify, as it involve Sasha Alexander.  She plays a medical examiner on the TNT drama Rizzoli and Isles, but this appearance from earlier in the month on The Talk may or may not focus on that part  I missed it the first time around, but you can see it on Thursday.

Carl Sagan May Get Major Studio Treatment

I recently noted the successful Kickstarter campaign to support a documentary on Bill Nye, the Planetary Society CEO and Science Guy.  Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan was an influence on Nye, and it makes sense that a film on Sagan has attracted interest.  (No word yet on a Tyson documentary, and I don’t know one way or the other if Tyson would be so inclined.)

Variety reported last week that the Warner Bros. studio has expressed interest in a film on Sagan’s life (the studio also produced the movie based on Sagan’s novel Contact).  Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan will produce, along with Lynda Obst.  Obst was a producer on the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar as well as Contact.  Druyan was heavily involved with the 2014 edition of Cosmos.  Zach Dean has been attached to the project as writer (though it’s not unheard of for a film to change writers between the beginning of a project and the start of principal filming).  His major screenwriting credit to date is the crime drama Deadfall.

This arrangement also means that the film would be along the lines of The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game.  In other words, a film focused on the life of a scientist that will serve the story first.  How it treats the history will be uncertain, and could undercut whatever interest comes from the scientific community when its heroes are chronicled.