Theranos Film Inches Along In Development; Gets Preliminary Title

Since last I wrote about a possible film about the medical device/testing company Theranos, a studio has successfully bid on the project.  Legendary Studios won an auction on the film rights, beating out 9 other offers on the project, which has Jennifer Lawrence attached to star as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.  Adam McKay would write the script and direct the project, duplicating his roles on the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short.  The film now has a preliminary title of Bad Blood.  It is certainly too early to tell if the Taylor Swift song of the same name will be used in the movie.

While getting a studio offer is important to the film getting produced, what is perhaps as interesting to our readers is that a book is connected to the film deal.  Two-time Pulitzer-prize winning writer John Carreyrou, who has written extensively on Theranos in The Wall Street Journal, will be writing a book that (presumably) serves as the basis for the script.  This follows the development arc for The Big Short, for which McKay shares an Adapted Screenplay Oscar (in addition to his nomination for directing the film).  The Big Short was adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, though that book was not written with a film adaptation in mind.

Again, this is very early in the process of making a film.  McKay seems very interested in trying to repeat his success with The Big Short, and I suspect the major unknown in whether this film gets made (and when) has to do with its inspiration.  The Theranos story has not yet been told.  Perhaps McKay will decide to have a more generic focus in his film on tech companies that fail to deliver on their promises, but at the moment I think the story is too linked with Theranos to move forward without some resolution in real life.

The Science Rap Academy Wants You To Read Those Cleaning Labels

The Science Rap Academy of the Nueva School, guided by West Coast science rap impresario Tom McFadden, released its latest single on Wednesday (as it has done each Wednesday in June).  Improving on a Justin Bieber ditty (“What Do You Mean?”), “What Do You Clean?” wants listeners to take a closer look at those labels.

The latest session of the Science Rap Academy ends next Wednesday, but any and all releases are available on the YouTube.

Screwworm Sex Study Snares Second Golden Goose Of 2016

June 23 Update – The Golden Goose Award organizers reached out and pointed me to this press noting criticism of the screwworm fly study.  There are likely contemporaneous references in the Congressional Record, which to my knowledge has not been digitized that far back.


Today the organizers of the Golden Goose Award recognized the work of Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland on the sex life of the screwworm fly.  This is the second group of researchers recognized this year, and their work will be formally recognized at the Golden Goose Award ceremony held this September in Washington.

The Golden Goose Award is meant to recognize federally funded research that may be considered silly or foolish but is later found to have profound impact.  The work by Knipling and Bushland was funded by the Department of Agriculture starting in the 1930s, and led to techniques that were critical in eliminating the screwworm fly from North and Central America. Knipling’s work developed and tested a theory of reducing the screwworm fly population by introducing sterilized males and Bushland developed a means for growing the numbers of sterilized males necessary to be effective in eradicating the flies.

Research on the sex lives of flies (or any insect, really) could easily be derided as a waste of effort.  Unless those casting aspersions knew of farmers and/or ranchers affected by the spread of such insects.  The screwworm fly feeds on living (as opposed to dead) animals, posing a serious risk to livestock and wild animals.  I would have expected that the economic impact of eradicating a parasitic fly would have pushed down concerns over the perceived frivolity of fly sex research.  But even in the time before Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards, the Golden Goose organizers claim that this research was a favorite target of elected officials and others seeking to shine a light on Washington waste.  Given what seems like the clear application of this work and its profound impact, I think the value of this particular award (but not the research) is blunted by the lack of direct evidence of the ridicule.

(In researching this post, I have found conflicting accounts as to whether or not Proxmire recognized this work.  My review of this Wisconsin history database of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece related press releases suggests he did not.)

Science Goes To The Movies Opts For Real Disasters Over The Movies

It was first broadcast about 10 days ago, but the latest episode of Science Goes to the Movies uses the new film Independence Day:Resurgence (which premieres this weekend in the United States) to talk about what could be a more realistic version of the climate change disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.  (Yes, I know that’s a low bar.)

The guest is Bill Nye, The Science Guy and as he describes during the course of the episode, he effectively done the background research for such a disaster film for a series he did (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) on the National Geographic Channel.  While the discussion over climate change covers ground that I’m familiar with, the conversation kept my interest when hosts Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin talked about how convincing people to act in a potentially apocalyptic scenario might required navigating the five stages of grief.

While I’ve been happy to travel with the show this season as it often broke away from covering the specific films its uses to frame the discussion, I was disappointed that the topic of disaster films didn’t get more attention.  Thankfully there’s at least this web extra on the appeal of disaster films (something which is lost on me).

The show is currently broadcasting repeats of its second season each weekend, though you can watch every episode of both seasons online.  Should there be a third season (and I think the chances are good), you can expect to read about it here.

Upcoming Science And Technology Films Of Note: Human Computers, Franklin, And Snowden

After posting last week about a potential film on the medical testing company Theranos and its CEO, I was reminded via Twitter (H/T @trekonomics) of a just-wrapped film that readers will find of interest.  In what might pass for an abundance of riches, it’s not the only film coming soon that fits the bill.

Hidden Figures is a fictionalized treatment of the book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly (and underwritten by the Sloan Foundation).  Neither the book nor the film are released yet.  The book is scheduled for a September release, and the film currently has a January release date in the U.S.

Both the film and the book focus on the story of African American women who worked as computers for the government at the Langley National Aeronautic Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.  The women served as human computers, making the calculations NASA needed during the Space Race.  While the book features four women, the film is focused on three: Katherine Johnson (recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  They are played by, respectively, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.  Other actors in the film include Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Aldis Hodge, and Jim Parsons.  The film is directed by Theodore Melfi, and the script is by Allison Schroeder.

Rosalind Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer considered by many as instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA.  Her life was recently portrayed by Nicole Kidman on the stage in Photograph 51, and The Tracking Board is reporting (H/T The Mary Sue) that playwright Anna Ziegler will adapt her play for the screen, with Kidman reprising the role and Michael Grandage will direct (as he did for the play).  Both Kidman and Grandage have other projects pending, so shooting on Photograph 51 will wait until both are available and the script is ready.  The Tracking Board does note that another Franklin film (currently called Exposure) is in development, so there might be a race to get this story to screen first.

But before any of these films come out, Snowden, the Oliver Stone-directed film about the former NSA analyst turned fugitive whistleblower, will bow in September.  Continue reading

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of June 20

This week I’ll start with an international entry.  On tonight’s (Monday’s) episode of Top Gear (which premiered Sunday night in the UK), one of the stars driving a rallycross car is noted scientist on television Brian Cox.  The current series of the show has two celebrities race each other, and the two have a group interview with host Chris Evans.  Cox appears with survivalist Bear Grylls, so arguably both guests have a background in some aspect of science.

While the HBO series about tech startups, Silicon Valley, has its season finale this Sunday, only one member of the cast is out promoting it this week.  Tonight Kumail Nanjiani returns to visit with Conan O’Brien.

And the rest of the week looks empty.  The movies coming out this week aren’t focused on science or technology, at least any that has a strong connection to reality.  I will then point out content from last week that is worth catching again.  On June 14th, Stephen Colbert tackled the issue of net neutrality by talking with one of the people that helped define it, Columbia Professor Tim Wu.  They had their conversation on a roller coaster, for reasons Colbert explains in the segment.

On the 16th, The Daily Show took a segment to discuss several animal stories specific to Australia.

Private Space Companies Had A Busy Week

Earlier today Blue Origin launched and landed one of its rockets for the fourth time.  That is, it has used the same hardware on four separate launches.  While this is a better record than SpaceX (which had a crash following its latest launch), SpaceX did have three consecutive launches and landings, and its rockets are also delivering payloads into orbit.  The mission this rocket supported was the deployment of two satellites into geostationary transfer orbit.  This requires more fuel, meaning the margin of error for a landing is much smaller due to less fuel being available for maneuvering.  The specific problem was identified as a lack of sufficient thrust in one of the Falcon 9’s three engines, and the company has been working on this problem since before this crash.  While this breaks SpaceX’s streak of consecutive landings, both it and Blue Origin can now claim four successful landings each.

Blue Origin remains a suborbital operation at the present time, and used this latest launch to test the parachutes on its crew capsule.  The near-term goal for Blue Origin is to deliver tourists into space (though not orbit, at least not at first).  To that end, future tests will include versions of the crew capsule that more closely resemble the tourist vehicle they want to start using with humans in 2018.

That same year, SpaceX intends to start a more aggressive program – getting to Mars.  At the recent Code Conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined how he sees the company eventually getting people to Mars.  It starts with a cargo route.  By establishing a regular series of flights to the Red Planet, costs can be spread across the flights and the regularity can encourage clients (researchers, scientists, etc.) to pay for space on those flights.  Musk wants to start these flights in 2018, with an eye toward launching a crewed vehicle (a bigger version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule called Red Dragon) to Mars in 2024, with a landing in 2025.  Now, should there be problems in any of the previous flights, the first human mission would likely be pushed further out.  But I expect that SpaceX will try and leverage any and all of its paid flights for testing aspects of their technology that would be used on this so-called cargo route.

Where is NASA in all of this?  They will provide ‘technical support’ for SpaceX in its 2018 mission, in exchange for access to the mission data.  It would inform NASA’s own Mars plans, which currently have humans landing on Mars in the 2030s.  (It should be noted that the typical competing Congressional and Presidential visions for the agency will flare up again after the election, and NASA’s plans may change.)