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Movies: Teaching scientists
to be screenwriters
Books: A deep-sea dream: A review of Descent: The Heroic Discovery of
Maps: Mapping the glacial history of Connecticut
scientists to be screenwriters
Writing a screenplay is no easy endeavor, and getting it turned into a movie is
even more difficult. According to the Writers Guild of America, some 50,000 screenplays
are written every year, yet only a few hundred are bought, and fewer are made
into films. But for several scientists and engineers across the country, the process
became a little easier recently. Last summer, the American Film Institute (AFI)
in Los Angeles, Calif., hosted its second workshop to teach scientists and engineers
about the scriptwriting process, hoping to introduce better science on the big
The idea of a mad scientist, à la Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future,
with wild hair or big glasses and a lab coat running around trying to solve some
disaster, was useful in creating a successful movie, but that type of characterization
took on a life of its own, says Martin Gundersen, a science and engineering professor
at the University of Southern California, who has been involved in the production
of several movies. Thats repeatedly how Hollywood has portrayed scientists
over the years, he says.
Furthermore, disaster movies such as the NBC miniseries 10.5, which aired
in May 2004, perpetuate myths about science, such as the idea that geologists
can control earthquakes (see Geotimes, September 2004).
And then, movies are made such as Mission to Mars, which got every
possible scientific and engineering aspect wrong, says Amy Hale, a scientist
at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who works on the Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter. The premise of a manned mission to Mars is a good movie
idea and could be an interesting story, she says, if told more realistically.
Despite these occasional lapses, some scientists and interested observers suggest
that over the past decade, science has been getting marginally better in films
and television shows. Hollywood is starting to understand that real stories
in science are so much cooler than anything we could make up, says Joe Petricca,
co-dean of the AFI Conservatory, and movies are beginning to get more realistic.
We call it the CSI Factor, Gundersen adds. Once
the bar is set, it can only go higher you cant go back.
More accurate and more appealing portrayals of scientists and science in movies
and TV shows are exactly the goals of the AFI Catalyst Workshop, Gundersen says.
Movies and television teach at many levels, and with creative portrayals
that exploit the depth and richness of science and engineering, perhaps more students
will be interested in pursuing careers in science, he says.
In the past, a series of workshops sponsored by the Sloan Foundation focused on
teaching science to scriptwriters and filmmakers. For the Catalyst Workshop, Petricca
and Gundersen decided instead to expose scientists to filmmaking and screenwriting,
Petricca says. Im sure there are geologists out there who have been
dismayed by earthquake movies, for example, Gundersen says, so lets
get them involved in making the movies in the first place.
In July 2004, 15 scientists and engineers traveled to Los Angeles for a weekend
to be taught by professional filmmakers and writers how to format scripts and
develop a screenplay. At the end of the weekend, the students were sent home with
a directive to write a 30-page script, which was critiqued a month or so later
by the industry pros. They realized then that teaching novices how to develop
scripts in a weekend might have been a bit ambitious, Petricca says
with a laugh.
We had some humorous examples, he says, of the scientists and engineers
learning how to tell the right story. For example, if youre
a scientist working on lava flows, as interesting as the science itself might
be, the story needs to involve characters and cant dwell too much
on the scientific background, he says, a concept that not everyone recognized
right away. Therefore, for the second workshop this year, which lasted a week,
the focus was more on storytelling developing a good plotline, good characters
and telling a good story. That approach seemed more beneficial to the scientists,
Scientists and engineers already have many of the requisite skills for scriptwriting,
Gundersen says, including extensive writing experience (writing journal articles
or research papers) and creativity, as well the ability to juggle several different
projects at once and manage time well. So the workshop was designed to teach scientists
how to use this existing skill set within the television and film industry.
The participants first learned how to format a screenplay, differences between
film, TV and other formats, and most importantly, the ABCs of getting a
good story together, Petricca says. The industry pros then taught the students
how to use outlines and storyboards to realize their ideas, stories and characters
in clear and simple terms on paper.
The last two days of the workshop were devoted to teaching the participants how
to get the now (ideally) well-written screenplay made into a movie. Learning how
to write a film treatment a concise, prose-style telling of
the screenplay storyline that gives the narrative tone and an introduction to
the look and feel of the movie and how to use it is an integral part of
selling the screenplay. The process can be a precursor to the pitch,
a several-minute synopsis of the script, starting with a witty and memorable one-liner
that will catch and keep the filmmakers attention. The pitch is what every
screenwriter must have down before meeting with studio executives or filmmakers.
However, a pitch is only as great as the story.
Each of the participants submitted a story idea with their application to the
workshop. Coming from backgrounds in everything from medicine and nanotechnology
to hydrogeology and rocket science, they offered ideas ranging from manned missions
to Mars to biographies of great innovators and medical-based educational films.
The range of backgrounds was part of the fun of it, Hale says. She notes that
another participant, who is a geneticist, identified Mission to Mars as
the worst science movie ever, but for a completely different reason: Apparently
all the genetics information was wrong. I dont even remember genetics in
the movie, as I was so focused on everything else that was wrong all the
stuff I knew. When you get a number of scientists from varied backgrounds
together in a room, you get really interesting perspectives.
Those scientific perspectives can be invaluable to helping Hollywood and filmmakers
create accurate portrayals of science, says Maureen OLeary, director of
public information for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which supports
the workshop (alongside the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which sponsors
the project). As the efforts continue in Hollywood to incorporate better science
in movies, the need for science-literate writers will likewise grow, Petricca
says. OLeary says that NAS is interested in the workshops not only to promote
a more accurate portrayal of science in the movies, but also to encourage members
of the science and engineering communities to engage the public and to
get younger generations excited about such scientific fields.
Hale, like other participants in the workshop, applied to the program mainly
because I always liked movies and always liked to write. The entertainment
industry is very tough beyond the writing process, and not for the faint
of heart, Gundersen cautions, but having said that, I would encourage
anyone with an interest in science and an interest in writing to get involved.
The AFI Catalyst Workshop will be held again
next summer, with applications accepted this spring.
Film Institute Catalyst Workshop information
climate change and reel disasters," Geotimes, September 2004
A deep-sea dream
The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss
by Brad Matsen.
ISBN 0 3754 2258 7
Brad Matsen begins his new book Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss
with his pilgrimage to Bathysphere, the 4.5-foot-long cast-steel sphere
used for the first deep-sea dives in the early 1930s. The sphere was put on
display in the New York Aquarium on Coney Island in 1957, and as far as Matsen
knew, the vessel was still there. When he arrived, he found the worlds
first deep submergence vehicle sitting in a scrap storage yard beneath the Cyclone
roller coaster, a sight Matsen likens to finding the Mercury space capsule in
a flea market.
In the presence of Bathysphere, Matsen could imagine its creators William Beebe
and Otis Barton crouching together in the dark during their 16 dives together,
and marveled at the courage of these two men to be the first to descend into
the abyss, connected to a ship at the surface by a 0.875-inch-thick cable. What
started as a dream for both of these men became the beginning of modern deep-ocean
exploration. Their pioneering discoveries have inspired oceanographers ever
A variety of deep submergence vehicles, both manned and remotely operated, now
are used every day in oceanographic research and by industry. Alvin, the self-propelled
manned deep submersible operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution,
has made more than 4,100 dives and taken more than 8,000 people to the ocean
floor since being commissioned in 1965. In 1977, researchers aboard Alvin found
strange animal life that they postulated was chemosynthetic, living on the seafloor
near warm water vents on the Galapagos Rift. This discovery was the beginning
of systematic multidisciplinary studies of mid-ocean spreading ridges by geologists,
biologists, chemists and physicists. Exotic new species of tubeworms, crabs,
shrimp, clams, mussels and microbes have since been observed at hydrothermal
vent sites on mid-ocean ridges in the Pacific, the Atlantic and, most recently,
the Arctic oceans.
It is now hard to imagine that until Beebe and Bartons dives into the
Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda from 1930 to 1934, no human had ventured more than
a few hundred feet beneath the waves. Bathysphere took the pair down 2,200 feet
during a live radio broadcast, to 2,510 feet for their famous half-mile
down dive, and later to 3,028 feet, the end of their 3,500-foot-long cable.
Barton and Beebe reached record-breaking depths, and Beebes careful observations
of new species of marine life, along with Bartons attempts at photographing
the world outside their sphere, piqued scientific interest and controversy for
Matsen brings their story to life in his thorough book and captures the innovation,
excitement and danger of exploring the unknown deep sea. He creates a compelling
story compiled from the many records of the time. Both Beebe and Barton wrote
autobiographies, and Beebe was a particularly prolific writer. He kept detailed
journals throughout his life, and published 21 books and hundreds of scientific
and popular articles. The dives coincided with the beginning of the age of mass
media and celebrity, when people living through the early years of the depression
could not get enough of heroes and celebrities. Beebe and Barton became internationally
famous and numerous newspaper and magazine articles, radio broadcasts and lecture
transcripts chronicled their adventures.
Theirs was an unlikely and complex partnership that never grew into a friendship.
Yet, the discoveries made by Beebe and Barton probably would not have been possible
for many years had they not joined forces. Oceanography was a rapidly growing
science after the systematic observations of the Challenger oceangoing
research vessel in 1872. The atmosphere of fame and fortune, and the excitement
of a new science, set both mens imaginations into high gear.
Barton, a young engineer with an Ivy League education and Boston Brahmin roots,
was obsessed with his dream of becoming a famous ocean explorer after devising
a way to make a helmeted dive at the age of 16. Beebe was already an established
naturalist with the New York Zoological Society and was attempting a mid-career
shift to oceanography after his own helmeted dive in the Galapagos. Although
a controversial figure for his lack of formal education and his personal exploits
during the Roaring 20s, Beebe was equally famous for his serious tropical
ecological work and his popular books that spiced up the science with romance
Beebe and Barton lived when the era of the gentleman scientist was beginning
to pass, but before the days of government-funded science began. Their fame
and reputation, Beebes in particular, gave them access to a society of
wealthy patrons whose funding was crucial for their expeditions. They also lived
during a time when women were enjoying a new freedom after the constraints
of Victorian society and after gaining the right to vote. It is notable that
several women also participated in the expeditions because modern women oceanographers
were generally not allowed on research vessels until the late 1960s. Two of
these women, Gloria Hollister and Jocelyn Crane, dove to more than 1,000 feet
in Bathysphere. Hollisters dive set a female record, at 1,208 feet,
that lasted for 30 years.
Beebe and Barton dreamed of the ocean and had the courage to dive into its depths
in their newly designed and untested Bathysphere, which now is on display at
the New York Aquarium. These two men were pioneers whose efforts resulted in
the new scientific field of deep-ocean exploration, which 70 years later, continues
to yield new and exciting discoveries with every new dive. Matsens book
will put any reader in the midst of the dream and how it became reality.
Hassler has a Ph.D. in marine geology
and geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography. She is currently a senior
exploration geologist in the formation evaluation group at ExxonMobil. E-mail:
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the glacial history of Connecticut
A new map portrays the geologic deposits and features formed by the last two
continental ice sheets that swept across Connecticut and Long Island Sound in
the Middle and Late Pleistocene, some 180,000 to 15,000 years ago. The map,
produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Connecticut Geological
and Natural History Survey, updates four decades of detailed mapping on land,
and incorporates analysis of deep seismic profiles in Long Island Sound Basin,
where it extends offshore as a 3-D map of the deposits beneath the sound.
Glacial till deposits of the last (Late Wisconsinan) ice sheet from 25,000 years
ago blanket the state. The map also marks retreat positions of the edge of the
ice sheet across today’s shoreline.
Glacial meltwater deposits provide detailed information on the disappearance
of the last ice sheet and the depositional processes operating around its margin.
A total of 204 local units show the distribution of glacial rivers and lakes,
large and small, that flooded valleys in front of the retreating ice.
In particular, the map shows all delta and varved-clay deposits of the famous
large glacial lakes Hitchcock and Middletown in the Connecticut River valley,
and Lake Connecticut in Long Island Sound Basin. Ice-margin retreat positions
show the melting back of the ice edge from 19,000 radiocarbon years before present
at the recessional moraine on Long Island, N.Y., to 15,000 years before present
in the northern Connecticut River valley.
The offshore map units reveal the history of Long Island Sound: deep glacial
scour by the last two ice sheets; ice-front, deltaic and lake-clay sedimentation
in Lake Connecticut; drainage of the lake and stream erosion; and the latest
marine transgression into the basin. Sandy delta sediments deposited in this
marine embayment date from the draining of Lake Hitchcock to the north. This
event ties the onland geologic history to the offshore record, and to the tilting
of the Earth’s crust in response to unloading of the melting ice sheet.
Along with its companion “Surficial Materials Map of Connecticut,” the Quaternary-map
database already has been used by state and federal agencies to derive statewide
maps and analyses of sand and gravel construction aggregate, indoor radon potential
hazard, flood-flows of Connecticut rivers and geohydrologic factors effecting
source-water areas for bedrock water wells.
Janet R. Stone contributed to the Maps section this
month and is a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
To order: The entire set of maps and pamphlet in a color jacket is available
for $14.00 + $5.00 shipping and handling from USGS Information Services, Box 25286,
Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225. For more information or ordering assistance,
call 1-888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747, Fax: 303-202-4693). An online pdf version
is available at pubs.usgs.gov/sim/2005/2784/.
The complete map title is:
Stone, J. R., Schafer, J. P., London, E. H., DiGiacomo-Cohen, M.L., Lewis,
R.S., and Thompson, W. B., 2005, Quaternary geologic map of Connecticut and
Long Island Sound Basin, with a section on sedimentary facies and morphosequences
of glacial meltwater deposits, by B. D. Stone and J. R. Stone: U.S. Geological
Survey Scientific Investigations Map 2784, 2 plates and accompanying pamphlet,
72 p, scale 1:125,000.
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