Science on the screen: a biologist does Hollywood

Once upon a time, a brave knight set out on a quest. He wasn't just any knight. Oh no, Sir Randy was a scholarly fellow who lived in an ivory tower, where he wrote treatises night and day.

Sir Randy loved barnacles and lobsters and all sorts of creepy-crawly things that slither around in the muck under the waves. He loved them so much he wanted to tell the world, not just his nodding footmen, about his ardor for invertebrates.

So he left his ivory tower, his servants, his footmen and associate research dean, and headed for fairytale land, a place called Hollywood. There, he would face battles with dragons and snakes and studio hacks, all on his quest to learn the magical secrets that would allow him to blaze his beloved beasts' beauty across the land.

Thinks it's fairy tale? Nope, it's the story of Randy Olson, PhD, who was an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Hampshire until 1994, when he resigned his position at the age of 37 to enroll in the University of Southern California's film school. He gave up tenure, the holy grail of academic life, to start a filmmaking career, one best known for his popular 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos, which skewered scientists for their inability to speak plainly in countering creationism.

Now, like a knight-errant, Olson travels the land giving talks in combination with double feature showings of Dodos and last year's Sizzle, a global warming comedy that mocked independent filmmaking, environmentalists and scientists unable to speak plainly in countering climate craziness. He also heads the Shifting Baselines media project, which uses humor to get message out about the decimation of marine life in the world's oceans.

Notice a pattern? To slam his point home, Olson's book, Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (Island Press, $19.95), scheduled for release in August, suggests that storytelling matters as much as accuracy in getting messages, whether on evolution, climate or lobsters, out to the public. In his perpetual wanderings, he stopped in at USA TODAY for a few questions and answers about the book, his films and his career:

Q: Who is Don't Be Such a Scientist for? There can't be that many scientists out there looking to speak better, can there?

A: It's for everybody. I could have called it Don't Be So Literal-Minded, or Don't be Such a Lawyer, because we have a lot of trained professionals out there everywhere who have a lot to say that matters, but they tell their stories in a way that's boring, or myopic, and just turns off the people they need to reach.

Q: Some scientists on blogs have asked whether the book is an attack of sorts on scientists. Is it?

A: No, it's a talk I've been giving for 10 years at research universities. There's always a third of the audience, usually the youngest ones, who say, 'Yeah, I get it, be spontaneous, arouse some interest, tell stories, have fun.' There's always another third, who say, 'You're telling us to all to go Hollywood' instead of being accurate.

I'm not, I'm telling people that you can't just cram the science down people's throats and expect them to listen.

Q: The book talks about the need for concise explanations of science. Why can it be hard for scientists?

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