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Movies: Teaching scientists to be screenwriters

A deep-sea dream: A review of Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss

Mapping the glacial history of Connecticut

Teaching 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 screen.

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. That’s 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 can’t 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. “I’m sure there are geologists out there who have been dismayed by earthquake movies, for example,” Gundersen says, “so let’s 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 you’re a scientist working on lava flows, as interesting as the science itself might be, the story needs to involve characters” and can’t 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, Petricca says.

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 filmmaker’s 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 don’t 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 O’Leary, 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. O’Leary 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.”

Megan Sever

The AFI Catalyst Workshop will be held again next summer, with applications accepted this spring.


American Film Institute Catalyst Workshop information
"Earthquakes, climate change and reel disasters," Geotimes, September 2004

Book review
Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss

by Brad Matsen.
Pantheon, 2005.
ISBN 0 3754 2258 7
Hardcover, $25.00.

A deep-sea dream
Deborah Hassler

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 world’s 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 since.

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 Barton’s 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 Beebe’s careful observations of new species of marine life, along with Barton’s attempts at photographing the world outside their sphere, piqued scientific interest and controversy for many years.

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 men’s 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 and adventure.

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, Beebe’s 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. Hollister’s 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. Matsen’s 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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Mapping 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

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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