Science on the screen: a biologist does Hollywood

A: We live in an age of rapidly intensifying communication — from blogging to Facebook, to now Twitter. Information is much more difficult to convey than emotion or humor, yet it is the core of the science world, meaning (scientists) face the greatest challenge to gaining and holding people's attention. Concision is no longer an option. It's now pretty much of an obligation to your audience.

Q: How can someone trained to just give the facts change?

A: Scientists don't understand that they are storytellers. But I've found the best scientists are often the best story-tellers too. It's not a coincidence.

You have to show (scientists) that a story is like a virus injected into a bacterium. It reproduces the message hidden inside the story and carries it along to spread everywhere.

Q: Why the angst in your book? Don't be this, don't do that? Haven't you won the battle? Al Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. The National Academy of Sciences has opened a Hollywood branch. Science documentaries are blossoming across cable television.

A: Show me the data. I don't see enough people concerned about climate in polls to do anything about global warming. Al Gore himself has said he fears he "failed badly" with his mission to build a strong mass movement behind global warming. His movie preached only to the converted.

One thing I was very happy about with my movie Flock of Dodos was that it aired on Showtime, a much broader audience than PBS. That is the biggest challenge with science communication — reaching outside the usual audience.

Q: Can't you go too far with story telling? The Day After Tomorrow reached a lot of people with a message about global warming, but some climate scientists thought it was ghastly.

A: Yeah, that's going way too far to the other extreme. It's style without substance. That's the challenge, to get style with substance.

Q: Is your book a self-help guide, or an autobiography disguised as a self-help guide? You take a lot of abuse in the book (an acting teacher throws him out of a class, as hopeless, to open it), what's going on there?

A: Well, maybe it's just an element of honesty. I have taken a lot of knocks in changing careers. It hasn't been easy. But I do live my life as an ongoing story. Even when a studio guy is just dismissing me, even when Stephen Jay Gould yelled at me for three hours straight (Olson was a teaching assistant of the famed paleontologist author), part of me was thinking, 'This is a beautiful scene, this guy is really ripping into me.' The low moments in life are all part of the story too.

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