Stumbling across an entry from National Film Board of Canada for the Venice VR (virtual reality) Expanded section at the 77th Venice International Film Festival (September 2 to 12, 2020) and a recent Scientific American article on computer simulations provoked a memory from Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune. From an Oct. 3, 2007 posting on Equivocality; A journal of self-discovery, healing, growth, and growing pains,
Knowing where the trap is — that’s the first step in evading it. This is like single combat, Son, only on a larger scale — a feint within a feint within a feint [emphasis mine]…seemingly without end. The task is to unravel it.
—Duke Leto Atreides, Dune [Note: Dune is a 1965 science-fiction novel by US author Frank Herbert]
Two-time Emmy Award-winning storytelling pioneer Pietro Gagliano’s new work Agence (Transitional Forms/National Film Board of Canada) is an industry-first dynamic film that integrates cinematic storytelling, artificial intelligence, and user interactivity to create a different experience each time.
Agence is premiering in official competition in the Venice VR Expanded section at the 77th Venice International Film Festival (September 2 to 12), and accessible worldwide via the online Venice VR Expanded platform.
About the experience
Would you play god to intelligent life? Agence places the fate of artificially intelligent creatures in your hands. In their simulated universe, you have the power to observe, and to interfere. Maintain the balance of their peaceful existence or throw them into a state of chaos as you move from planet to planet. Watch closely and you’ll see them react to each other and their emerging world.
About the creators
Created by Pietro Gagliano, Agence is a co-production between his studio lab Transitional Forms and the NFB. Pietro is a pioneer of new forms of media that allow humans to understand what it means to be machine, and machines what it means to be human. Previously, Pietro co-founded digital studio Secret Location, and with his team, made history in 2015 by winning the first ever Emmy Award for a virtual reality project. His work has been recognized through hundreds of awards and nominations, including two Emmy Awards, 11 Canadian Screen Awards, 31 FWAs, two Webby Awards, a Peabody-Facebook Award, and a Cannes Lion.
Agence is produced by Casey Blustein (Transitional Forms) and David Oppenheim (NFB) and executive produced by Pietro Gagliano (Transitional Forms) and Anita Lee (NFB).
About Transitional Forms
Transitional Forms is a studio lab focused on evolving entertainment formats through the use of artificial intelligence. Through their innovative approach to content and tool creation, their interdisciplinary team transforms valuable research into dynamic, culturally relevant experiences across a myriad of emerging platforms. Dedicated to the intersection of technology and art, Transitional Forms strives to make humans more creative, and machines more human.
David Oppenheim and Anita Lee’s recent VR credits also include the acclaimed virtual reality/live performance piece Draw Me Close and The Book of Distance, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is in the “Best of VR” section at Venice this year. Canada’s public producer of award-winning creative documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences, the NFB has won over 7,000 awards, including 21 Webbys and 12 Academy Awards.
The line that caught my eye? “Would you play god to intelligent life?” For the curious, here’s the film’s trailer,
Now for the second computer simulation (the feint within the feint).
Are we living in a computer simulation?
According to some thinkers in the field, the chances are about 50/50 that we are computer simulations, which makes “Agence” a particularly piquant experience.
It is not often that a comedian gives an astrophysicist goose bumps when discussing the laws of physics. But comic Chuck Nice managed to do just that in a recent episode of the podcast StarTalk.The show’s host Neil deGrasse Tyson had just explained the simulation argument—the idea that we could be virtual beings living in a computer simulation. If so, the simulation would most likely create perceptions of reality on demand rather than simulate all of reality all the time—much like a video game optimized to render only the parts of a scene visible to a player. “Maybe that’s why we can’t travel faster than the speed of light, because if we could, we’d be able to get to another galaxy,” said Nice, the show’s co-host, prompting Tyson to gleefully interrupt. “Before they can program it,” the astrophysicist said,delighting at the thought. “So the programmer put in that limit.”
Such conversations may seem flippant. But ever since Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford wrote a seminal paper about the simulation argument in 2003, philosophers, physicists, technologists and, yes, comedians have been grappling with the idea of our reality being a simulacrum. Some have tried to identify ways in which we can discern if we are simulated beings. Others have attempted to calculate the chance of us being virtual entities. Now a new analysis shows that the odds that we are living in base reality—meaning an existence that is not simulated—are pretty much even. But the study also demonstrates that if humans were to ever develop the ability to simulate conscious beings, the chances would overwhelmingly tilt in favor of us, too, being virtual denizens inside someone else’s computer. (A caveat to that conclusion is that there is little agreement about what the term “consciousness” means, let alone how one might go about simulating it.)
In 2003 Bostrom imagined a technologically adept civilization that possesses immense computing power and needs a fraction of that power to simulate new realities with conscious beings in them. Given this scenario, his simulation argument showed that at least one proposition in the following trilemma must be true: First, humans almost always go extinct before reaching the simulation-savvy stage. Second, even if humans make it to that stage, they are unlikely to be interested in simulating their own ancestral past. And third, the probability that we are living in a simulation is close to one.
Before Bostrom, the movie The Matrix had already done its part to popularize the notion of simulated realities. And the idea has deep roots in Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, from Plato’s cave allegory to Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream. More recently, Elon Musk gave further fuel to the concept that our reality is a simulation: “The odds that we are in base reality is one in billions,” he said at a 2016 conference.
For him [astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University], there is a more obvious answer: Occam’s razor, which says that in the absence of other evidence, the simplest explanation is more likely to be correct. The simulation hypothesis is elaborate, presuming realities nested upon realities, as well as simulated entities that can never tell that they are inside a simulation. “Because it is such an overly complicated, elaborate model in the first place, by Occam’s razor, it really should be disfavored, compared to the simple natural explanation,” Kipping says.
Maybe we are living in base reality after all—The Matrix, Musk and weird quantum physics notwithstanding.
It’s all a little mind-boggling (a computer simulation creating and playing with a computer simulation?) and I’m not sure how far how I want to start thinking about the implications (the feint within the feint within the feint). Still, it seems that the idea could be useful as a kind of thought experiment designed to have us rethink our importance in the world. Or maybe, as a way to have a laugh at our own absurdity.
It’s been a while since I’ve received any notices about upcoming talks from the local Café Scientifique crowd but on May 22, 2019 there was this announcement in an email,
Dear Café Scientifiquers,
Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, MAY 28TH  at 7:30PM in the back room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be DR. CATHERINE JOHNSON from the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC [University of British Columbia] .
GETTING TO THE HEART OF MARS WITH INSIGHT
Catherine Johnson is a professor of geophysics in the Dept of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC Vancouver [campus], and a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson. She is a Co-Investigator on the InSight mission to Mars, the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu and was previously a Participating Scientist on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.
We hope to see you there!
I did some digging and found two articles about Johnson, the InSight mission, and Mars. The first one is an October 21, 2012 article by James Keller on the Huffington Post Canada website,
As NASA’s Curiosity rover beams back photos of the rocky surface of Mars, another group of scientists, including one from British Columbia, is preparing the next mission to uncover what’s underneath.
Prof. Catherine Johnson, of the University of British Columbia, is among the scientists whose project, named Insight, was selected by NASA this week as part of the U.S. space agency’s Discovery program, which invites proposals from within the scientific community.
Insight will send a stationary robotic lander to Mars in 2016, drilling down several metres into the surface as it uses a combination of temperature readings and seismic measurements to help scientists on this planet learn more about the Martian core.
The second one is a May 6, 2018 article (I gather it took them longer to get to Mars than they anticipated in 2012) by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail newspaper website,
Thanks to a thick bank of predawn fog, Catherine Johnson couldn’t see the rocket when it blasted off early Saturday morning at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – but she could hear the roar as NASA’s InSight mission set off on its 6½-month journey to Mars.
“It was really impressive,” said Dr. Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and a member of the mission’s science team. Describing the mood at the launch as a mixture of relief and joy, Dr. Johnson added that “the spacecraft is finally en route to do what we have worked toward for many years.”
But while InSight’s mission is just getting under way, it also marks the last stage in a particularly fruitful period for the U.S. space agency’s Mars program. In the past two decades, multiple, complementary spacecraft tackled different aspects of Mars science.
Unlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars nearly six years ago and is in the process of climbing a mountain in the middle of an ancient crater, InSight is designed to stay in one place after it touches down Nov. 26 . Its purpose is to open a new direction in Mars exploration – one that leads straight down as the spacecraft deploys a unique set of instruments to spy on the planet’s interior.
“What we will learn … will help us understand the earliest history of rocky planets, including Earth,” Dr. Johnson said.
It has been a prolonged voyage to the red planet. In 2015, technical problems forced program managers to postpone InSight’s launch for 2½ years. Now, scientists are hoping for smooth sailing to Mars and an uneventful landing a few hundred kilometres north of Curiosity, at a site that Dr. Johnson cheerfully describes as “boring.”
Does the timing of this talk mean you’ll be getting the latest news since InSight landed on Mars roughly six months ago? One can only hope. Finally, Johnson’s UBC bio webpage is here.
Baba Brinkman brings us up-to-date
Here’s most of a May 22, 2019 newsletter update (received via email) from former Vancouverite and current rapper, playwright, and science communicator, Baba Brinkman,
… Over the past five years I have been collaborating frequently with a company in California called SpectorDance, after the artistic director Fran Spector Atkins invited me to write and perform a rap soundtrack to one of her dance productions. Well, a few weeks ago we played our biggest venue yet with our latest collaborative show, Ocean Trilogy, which is all about the impact of human activities including climate change on marine ecosystems. The show was developed in collaboration with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and for the first time there’s now a full video of the production online. Have you ever seen scientifically-informed eco rap music combined in live performance with ballet and modern dance? Enjoy.
Speaking of “Science is Everywhere”, about a year ago I got to perform my song “Can’t Stop” about the neurobiology of free will for a sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music alongside physicist Brian Greene, comedian Chuck Nice, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The song is half scripted and half freestyle (can you tell which part is which?) They just released the video.
Over the past few months I’ve been performing Rap Guide to Evolution, Consciousness, and Climate Chaos off-Broadway 2-3 times per week, which has been a roller coaster. Some nights I have 80 people and it’s rocking, other nights I step on stage and play to 15 people and it takes effort to keep it lively. But since this is New York, occasionally when there’s only 15 people one of them will turn out to be a former Obama Administration Energy Advisor or will publish a five star review, which keeps it exciting.
What’s Rap Guide to Culture about? Cultural evolution and the psychology of norms of course. I recently attended a conference at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, TN where I performed a sneak preview and did a “Rap Up” of the various conference talks, summarizing the scientific content at the end of the day, check out the video.
Okay, time to get back to packing and hit the road. More to come soon, and wish me luck continuing to dominate my lonely genre.
Brinkman has been featured here many times (just use his name as the term in the blog’s search engine). While he lives in New York City these days, he does retain a connection to Vancouver in that his mother Joyce Murray is the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Quadra and, currently, the president of the Treasury Board.
A US team of social scientists have studied science communication trainers (people who run workshops and programmes designed to help scientists reach out to the public). Two of the social scientists, John Beasley and Anthony Dudo, have written an essay about their work which can be found in a May 31, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),
For some scientists, communicating effectively with the public seems to come naturally. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson currently has more than five million Twitter followers. Astronomer Carl Sagan enraptured audiences for decades as a ubiquitous cosmic sage on American televisions. And Stephen Jay Gould’s public visibility was such that he voiced an animated version of himself on “The Simpsons.” But, for most scientists, outward-facing communication is not something they’ve typically thought about much… let alone sought to cultivate.
But times change. Leaders in the scientific community are increasingly calling on their scientist colleagues to meaningfully engage with their fellow citizens. The hope is that such interactions can improve the science-society relationship at a time when we are confronting a growing list of high-stakes, high-controversy issues including climate change, synthetic biology and epigenetics.
The gauntlet has been issued, but can scientists meet it?
Originally published as a May 30, 2016 essay on The Conversation, here’s more from the essay written by John Besley and Anthony Dudo,
This is quite a fascinating look at the unspoken assumptions that trainers and trainees (and people like me) make about science communication. Here’s a little bit about the research (Note: Links have been removed),
In late 2014, we conducted a set of 24 interviews with science communication trainers from across the United States. Ours is the first published study examining this important community. We found that much of the training they provided focused on helping scientists share their research in clear ways that would increase knowledge.
This is consistent with what scientists have told us in surveys: their main objective in communicating their work is to inform the public about science and correct misinformation.
The authors acknowledge the importance of these assumed reasons while noting others which are not assumed (Note: Links have been removed),
… there are other reasons scientists might want to communicate with the general public. We call these “nonknowledge objectives” – things like fostering excitement about science, building trust in the scientific community, or reframing how people think about certain issues. These objectives are different from a biologist wanting to share with a listener the details on her research on bird migration, for instance. They’re more about people, and forging relationships.
We’ve found that these sorts of nonknowledge goals have a relatively lower priority for scientists compared to the desire to get information across about their direct scientific work. Not surprisingly, only a few of the trainers we interviewed indicated that, at that time, they were explicitly trying to help scientists achieve these other kinds of nonknowledge objectives.
Our work suggests that scientists and the trainers they work with often focus primarily on the successful transmission of science information, leaving those other objectives to fall into place. But there’s a problem with that logic. Decades of science communication research – a research area now commonly referred to as the science of science communication – show that fostering positive views about science requires more than just trying to correct deficits in public knowledge.
The authors have some suggestions (Note: Links have been removed),
Extensive research shows that we tend to trust people we judge to be warm and caring because they seem less likely to want to do us harm. With that in mind, more training could explicitly help scientists avoid doing the types of things that might convey a cold demeanor. …
Related research on what people perceive to be fair or not when it comes to making important decisions could also inform communication training. Studies emphasize the potential strategic value of making sure people feel like they’re being listened to and treated with respect. …
Similarly, given what we know about the value of framing, perhaps more training should help scientists find ways to talk about issues that are consistent with the scientists’ work but that are also consistent with the priorities or worldviews of the people with whom they are speaking. For example, given the value that people put on their families’ health, it may make sense to frame climate change in terms of health issues.
Besley and Dudo have made some good points and I largely agree with the point about framing but it seems to me there are some limits to it. For example, how do you relate the Higgs Boson to someone’s life? I suspect they wanted to focus on only a few issues.
But then, they included this image directly below “… sense to frame climate change in terms of health issues.”
Communication is about more than just transferring information. Chip Griffin, CC BY
Most people will read that image as the scientist (young man) communicating with the public (two old ladies). Unfortunately, one of the tropes in science communication is to communicate ‘as if you’re explaining it to your grandmother’. It’s a lot politer than the phrase ‘dumbing down’.
I like to think the two older women are scientists explaining something to an interested party but without a supporting caption it remains a less likely fantasy than the reverse with the young man being the scientist. (One of my favourite websites addresses that trope directly with it’s title, Grandma Got STEM, [STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and supporting content.)
(a) It’s very easy to walk into the trap or reinforcing stereotypes, (b) everyone does, and (c) it’s hard to find images that challenge tropes unless you’re willing to stage them which can be time-consuming and might even cost money.
Getting back to the essay,
There are at least two challenges associated with suggesting a more strategic approach to science communication.
First, it is easier to communicate in ways that come naturally and simply hope for the best.
Second, there is a danger that some people will misconstrue being strategic as being dishonest. On the contrary, effective strategic communication rests on authenticity, just like science. Science communicators should never do things like pretend to be warm, fake listening or frame things in ways they don’t think are appropriate.
The point is that by thinking strategically, we can begin to recognize that our communication choices – whether it’s leaving time after a talk for real discussion, calling those with whom we disagree ugly names or framing every disagreement as a war – have consequences.
I encourage you to read the whole piece as Dudo and Besley have a lot of interesting things to say. There’s also an April 5, 2016 interview of Besley and Dudo by Brooke Smith for Compass Blogs. The Q&A format highlights their open access Feb. 25, 2016 paper titled ‘Scientists’ Prioritization of Communication Objectives for Public Engagement’ published on PLOS ONE.
And, here’s a link to and a citation for their most recent paper on the subject of science communication and its trainers,
As of May 11, 2015, Canadians will be getting an addition to their science media environment (from the May 4, 2015 news release),
Research2Reality to celebrate Canadian research stars
Social media initiative to popularize scientific innovation
May 4, 2015, TORONTO – On Monday, May 11, Research2Reality.com goes live and launches a social media initiative that will make the scientist a star. Following in the footsteps of popular sites like IFLScience and How Stuff Works, Research2Reality uses a video series and website to engage the community in the forefront of scientific discoveries made here in Canada.
The interviews feature some of Canada’s leading researchers such as Dick Peltier – director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, Sally Aitken – director of the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics at the University of British Columbia and Raymond Laflamme – executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.
“Right now many Canadians don’t understand the scope of cutting-edge work being done in our backyards,” says Research2Reality co-founder and award-winning professor Molly Shoichet. “This initiative will bridge that gap between researchers and the public.”
Also launching Monday, May 11, courtesy of Research2Reality’s official media partner, Discovery Science, is a complementary website www.sciencechannel.ca/Shows/Research2Reality. The new website will feature the exclusive premieres of a collection of interview sessions. In addition, Discovery Science and Discovery will broadcast an imaginative series of public service announcements through the end of the year, while social media accounts will promote Research2Reality, including Discovery’s flagship science and technology program DAILY PLANET.
Research2Reality is a social media initiative designed to popularize the latest Canadian research. It was founded by Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto, and Mike MacMillan, founder and producer of Lithium Studios Productions. Research2Reality’s founding partners are leading research-intensive universities – the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Western University – along with the Ontario Government and Discovery Networks. Discovery Science is the official media partner. Research2Reality is also supported by The Globe and Mail.
A Valentine of sorts to Canadian science researchers from Molly Shoichet (pronounced shoy [and] quette as in David Arquette) and her producing partner Mike MacMillan of Lithium Studios, Research2Reality gives Canadians an opportunity to discover online some of the extraordinary work done by scientists of all stripes, including (unusually) social scientists, in this country. The top tier in this effort is the interview video series ‘The Orange Chair Sessions‘ which can be found and shared across
Shoichet and MacMillan are convinced there’s an appetite for more comprehensive science information. Supporting The Orange Chair Sessions is a complementary website operated by Discovery Channel where there are
links to other resources
Discovery Channel is also going to be airing special one minute public service announcements (PSA) on topics like water, quantum computing, and cancer. Here’s one of the first of those PSAs,
“I’m very excited about this and really hope that other people will be too,” says Shoichet. The audience for the Research2Reality endeavour is for people who like to know more and have questions when they see news items about science discoveries that can’t be answered by investigating mainstream media programmes or trying to read complex research papers.
This is a big undertaking. ” Mike and I thought about this for about two years.” Building on the support they received from the University of Toronto, “We reached out to the vice-presidents of research at the top fifteen universities in the country.” In the end, six universities accepted the invitation to invest in this project,
the University of British Columbia,
the University of Alberta,
Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario),
Waterloo University, and, of course,
the University of Toronto
(Unfortunately, Shoichet was not able to answer a question about the cost for an individual episode but perhaps when there’s time that detail and more about the financing will be made available. [ETA May 11, 2015 1625 PDT: Ivan Semeniuk notes this is a $400,000 project in his Globe and Mail May 11, 2015 article.]) As part of their involvement, the universities decide which of their researchers/projects should be profiled then Research2Reality swings into action. “We shoot our own video, that is, we (Mike and I) come out and conduct interviews that take approximately fifteen minutes. We also shoot a b-roll, that is, footage of the laboratories and other relevant sites so it’s not all ‘talking heads’.” Shoichet and MacMillan are interested in the answer to two questions, “What are you doing? and Why do we care?” Neither interviewer/producer is seen or heard on camera as they wanted to keep the focus on the researcher.
Three videos are being released initially with another 67 in the pipeline for a total of 70. The focus is on research of an international calibre and one of the first interviews to be released (Shoichet’s will be release later) is Raymond Laflamme’s (he’s also featured in the ‘quantum PSA’.
Who convinces a genius that he’s gotten an important cosmological concept wrong or ignored it? Alongside Don Page, Laflamme accomplished that feat as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Today (May 11, 2015), Laflamme is (from his Wikipedia entry)
… co-founder and current director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Laflamme is currently a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information.
Laflamme changed his focus from quantum cosmology to quantum information while at Los Alamos, “To me, it seemed natural. Not much of a change.” It is the difference between being a theoretician and an experimentalist and anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory (US television programme) knows that Laflamme made a big leap.
One of his major research interests is quantum cryptography, a means of passing messages you can ensure are private. Laflamme’s team and a team in Vienna (Austria) have enabled two quantum communication systems, one purely terrestrial version, which can exchange messages with another such system up to 100 km. away. There are some problems yet to be solved with terrestrial quantum communication. First, buildings, trees, and other structures provide interference as does the curvature of the earth. Second, fibre optic cables absorb some of the photons en route.
Satellite quantum communication seems more promising as these problems are avoided altogether. The joint Waterloo/Vienna team of researchers has conducted successful satellite experiments in quantum communication in the Canary Islands.
While there don’t seem to be any practical, commercial quantum applications, Laflamme says that isn’t strictly speaking the truth, “In the last 10 to 15 years many ideas have been realized.” The talk turns to quantum sensing and Laflamme mentions two startups and notes he can’t talk about them yet. But there is Universal Quantum Devices (UQD), a company that produces parts for quantum sensors. It is Laflamme’s startup, one he co-founded with two partners. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian academic scene, Laflamme’s home institution, the University of Waterloo, is one of the most actively ‘innovative’ and business-oriented universities in Canada.)
LaFlamme’s interests extend beyond laboratory work and business. He’s an active science communicator as can be seen in this 2010 TEDxWaterloo presentation where he takes his audience from the discovery of fire to quantum physics concepts such as a ‘quantum superposition’ and the ‘observer effect’ to the question, ‘What is reality?’ in approximately 18 mins.
For anyone who needs a little more information, a quantum superposition is a term referring the ability of a quantum object to inhabit two states simultaneously, e.g., on/off. yes/no, alive/dead, as in Schrödinger’s cat. (You can find out more about quantum superpositions in this Wikipedia essay and about Schrodinger’s cat in this Wikipedia essay.) The observer effect is a phenomenon whereby the observer of a quantum experiment affects that experiment by the act of observing it. (You can find out more about the observer effect in this Wikipedia essay.)
The topic of reality is much trickier to explain. No one has yet been able to offer a viable theory for why the world at the macro scale behaves one way (classical physics) and the world at the quantum scale behaves another way (quantum physics). As Laflamme notes, “There is no such thing as a superposition in classical physics but we can prove in the laboratory that it exists in quantum physics.” He goes on to suggest that children, raised in an environment where quantum physics and its applications are commonplace, will have an utterly different notion as to what constitutes reality.
Laflamme is also interested in music and consulted on a ‘quantum symphony’. He has this to say about it in an Sept. 20, 2012 piece on the University of Waterlo website,
Science and art share a common goal — to help us understand our universe and ourselves. Research at IQC [Institute for Quantum Computing] aims to provide important new understanding of nature’s building blocks, and devise methods to turn that understanding into technologies beneficial for society.Since founding IQC a decade ago, I have sought ways to bridge science and the arts, with the belief that scientific discovery itself is a source of beauty and inspiration. Our collaboration with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was an example — one of many yet to come — of how science and the arts provide different but complementary insights into our universe and ourselves.
From deep inside the sewers of Vienna, site of groundbreaking quantum teleportation experiments, to cutting-edge quantum computing labs, to voyages into the minds of the world’s brightest thinkers, including renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking, this documentary explores the coming quantum technological revolution.
All of this suggests an interest in science not seen since the 19th century when scientists could fill theatres for their lectures. Even Hollywood is capitalizing on this interest. Laflamme, who saw ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Imitation Game’ (Alan Turing), and ‘The Theory of Everything’ (Stephen Hawking) in fall 2014 comments, “I was surprised by how much science there was in The Imitation Game and Interstellar.” As for the Theory of Everything, “I was apprehensive since I know Stephen well. But, the actor, Eddie Redmayne, and the movie surprised me. There were times when he moved his head or did something in a particular way—he was Stephen. Also, most people don’t realize what an incredible sense of humour Stephen has and the movie captured that well.” Laflamme also observed that it was a movie about a relationship and not really concerned with science and its impacts (good and ill) or scientific accomplishments. Although he allows, “It could have had more science.”
Co-producer Shoichet has sterling scientific credentials of her own. In addition to this science communication project, she runs the Shoichet Lab at the University of Toronto (from the Dr. Molly Shoichet bio page),
Dr. Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is University Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is an expert in the study of Polymers for Drug Delivery & Regeneration which are materials that promote healing in the body.
Dr. Shoichet has published over to 480 papers, patents and abstracts and has given over 310 lectures worldwide. She currently leads a laboratory of 25 researchers and has graduated 134 researchers over the past 20 years. She founded two spin-off companies from research in her laboratory.
Dr. Shoichet is the recipient of many prestigious distinctions and the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Dr. Shoichet holds the Order of Ontario, Ontario’s highest honour and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013, her contributions to Canada’s innovation agenda and the advancement of knowledge were recognized with the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. In 2014, she was given the University of Toronto’s highest distinction, University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty.
MacMIllan’s biography (from the Lithium Studios website About section hints this is his first science-oriented series (Note: Links have been removed),
Founder of Lithium Studios Productions
University of Toronto (‘02)
UCLA’s Professional Producing Program (‘11)
His first feature, the dark comedy / thriller I Put a Hit on You (2014, Telefilm Canada supported), premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City. Guidance (2014, Telefilm Canada supported, with super producer Alyson Richards over at Edyson), a dark comedy/coming of age story is currently in post-production, expected to join the festival circuit in September 2014.
Mike has produced a dozen short films with Toronto talents Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart (CAN – Long Branch, Margo Lily), Samuel Fluckiger (SWISS – Terminal, Nightlight) and Darragh McDonald (CAN – Love. Marriage. Miscarriage.). They’ve played at the top film fests around the world and won a bunch of awards.
Special skills include kickass hat collection and whiskey. Bam.
It’s nice to see the Canadian scene expanding; I’m particularly pleased to learn social scientists will be included.Too often researchers from the physical sciences or natural sciences and researchers from the social sciences remain aloof from each other. In April 2013, I attended a talk by Evelyn Fox Keller, physicist, feminist, and philosopher, who read from a paper she’d written based on a then relatively recent experience in South Africa where researchers had aligned themselves in two different groups and refused to speak to each other. They were all anthropologists but the sticking point was the type of science they practiced. One group were physical anthropologists and the other were cultural anthropologists. That’s an extreme example unfortunately symptomatic of a great divide. Bravo to Research2Reality for bringing the two groups together.
As for the science appetite Shoichet and MacMillan see in Canada, this is not the only country experiencing a resurgence of interest; they’ve been experiencing a science media expansion in the US. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk television talk show, which also exists as a radio podcast, debuted on April 19, 2015 (Yahoo article by Calla Cofield); Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) Transistor; a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) audio project debuted in Feb. 2015; and video podcast Science Goes to the Movies also debuted in Feb. 2015 (more about the last two initiatives in my March 6, 2015 posting [scroll down about 40% of the way]). Finally (for the burgeoning US science media scene) and neither least nor new, David Bruggeman has a series of posts titled, Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of …, on his Pasco Phronesis blog which has been running for many years. Bruggeman’s series is being included here because most people don’t realize that US late night talk shows have jumped into the science scene. You can check David’s site here as he posts this series on Mondays and this is Monday, May 11, 2015.
It’s early days for Research2Reality and it doesn’t yet have the depth one might wish. The videos are short (the one featured on the Discovery Channel’s complementary website is less than 2 mins. and prepare yourself for ads). They may not be satisfying from an information perspective but what makes The Orange Chair Series fascinating is the peek into the Canadian research scene. Welcome to Research2Reality and I hope to hear more about you in the coming months.
[ETA May 11, 2015 at 1625 PDT: Semeniuk’s May 11, 2015 article mentions a few other efforts to publicize Canadian research (Note: Links have been removed),
For example, Research Matters, a promotional effort by the Council of Ontario Universities, has built up a large bank of short articles on its website that highlight researchers across the province. Similarly, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which channels federal dollars toward research infrastructure and projects, produces features stories with embedded videos about the scientists who are enabled by their investments.
What makes Research2Reality different, said Dr. Shoichet, is an approach that doesn’t speak for one region, field of research of [sic] funding stream.
One other aspect which distinguishes Research2Reality from the other science promotion efforts is the attempt to reach out to the audience. The Canada Foundation for Innovation and Council for Ontario Universities are not known for reaching out directly to the general public.]
Tom McFadden has debuted the first video of this year’s Science Rap Academy. Seventh and eighth grade students at the Nueva School prepare a music video based on a science concept, usually reworking a rap or hip-hop song.
There are many posts on this blog about Tom McFadden and his various science rap projects (many of them courtesy of David Bruggeman/Pasco Phronesis). Here’s one of the more recent ones, a May 30, 2014 posting.
Getting back to David’s April 17, 2015 news, he also mentions the latest installment of “Science goes to the movies” which features three movies (Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Lazarus Effect, and Them!) and has Neil deGrasse Tyson as a guest. David has embedded the episode on his blog. One brief comment, it’s hard to tell how familiar Tyson or the hosts, Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin are with the history of the novel or science. But the first few minutes of the conversation suggest that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first novel to demonize scientists. (I had the advantage of not getting caught up in their moment and access to search engines.) Well, novels were still pretty new in Europe and I don’t believe that there were any other novels featuring scientists prior to Mary Shelley’s work.
A brief history of novels: Japan can lay claim to the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century CE, (The plot concerned itself with aristocratic life and romance.) Europe and its experience with the novel is a little more confusing. From the City University of New York, Brooklyn site, The Novel webpage,
The term for the novel in most European languages is roman, which suggests its closeness to the medieval romance. The English name is derived from the Italian novella, meaning “a little new thing.” Romances and novelle, short tales in prose, were predecessors of the novel, as were picaresque narratives. Picaro is Spanish for “rogue,” and the typical picaresque story is of the escapades of a rascal who lives by his wits. The development of the realistic novel owes much to such works, which were written to deflate romantic or idealized fictional forms. Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-15), the story of an engaging madman who tries to live by the ideals of chivalric romance, explores the role of illusion and reality in life and was the single most important progenitor of the modern novel.
The novel broke from those narrative predecessors that used timeless stories to mirror unchanging moral truths. It was a product of an intellectual milieu shaped by the great seventeenth-century philosophers, Descartes and Locke, who insisted upon the importance of individual experience. They believed that reality could be discovered by the individual through the senses. Thus, the novel emphasized specific, observed details. It individualized its characters by locating them precisely in time and space. And its subjects reflected the popular eighteenth-century concern with the social structures of everyday life.
The novel is often said to have emerged with the appearance of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Both are picaresque stories, in that each is a sequence of episodes held together largely because they happen to one person. But the central character in both novels is so convincing and set in so solid and specific a world that Defoe is often credited with being the first writer of “realistic” fiction. The first “novel of character” or psychological novel is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-41), an epistolary novel (or novel in which the narrative is conveyed entirely by an exchange of letters). It is a work characterized by the careful plotting of emotional states. Even more significant in this vein is Richardson’s masterpiece Clarissa (1747-48). Defoe and Richardson were the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots from mythology, history, legend, or previous literature. They established the novel’s claim as an authentic account of the actual experience of individuals.
As far as I’m aware none of these novels are concerned with science or scientists for that matter. After all, science was still emerging from a period where alchemy reined supreme. One of the great European scientists, Isaac Newton (1642-1726/7), practiced alchemy along with his science. And that practice did not die with Newton.
With those provisos in mind, or not, do enjoy the movie reviews embedded in David’s April 17, 2015 news. One final note,David in his weekly roundup of science on late night tv noted that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s late night tv talk show, Star Talks, debuted April 20, 2015, the episode can be seen again later this week while deGrasse Tyson continues to make the rounds of other talk shows to publicize his own.
Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Jan. 7, 2015 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog for this tidbit about a new science addition to the late night television in the US, Star Talk (Note: Links have been removed),
Neil DeGrasse Tyson appeared today [Jan. 7, 2015] at the Television Critics Association presentations in California. He announced that National Geographic will air a late night science-themed talk show hosted by Tyson, first airing sometime in April (H/T The Mary Sue). Shooting begins January 8. It will air weekly, and I intend to include it in the regular late night postings once it starts.
On the heels of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey’s global success, National Geographic Channel today announced at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, CA the premiere of the network’s first-ever late-night series, Star Talk, hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson). Based on Tyson’s incredibly popular podcast of the same name, the new series will bridge the intersection between pop culture and science as it brings together celebrities, comedians and scientists to discuss the latest developments in our vast universe.
Premiering April 2015, the series will be produced by National Geographic Studios and will be taped in front of a studio audience at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, where Tyson serves as director. Each week, Tyson and his fellow guests will explore a variety of cosmic topics, including space travel, extraterrestrial life, the Big Bang, the future of Earth and the environment and breaking news from the universe.
“After the global success of COSMOS as one of the most watched series in our history, we are thrilled to be partnering with Neil again on Star Talk — his wildly popular podcast that transcends science and crosses over into pop culture — once again satisfying the audience’s passion for adventure and exploration,” said Courteney Monroe, CEO, National Geographic Channels. “We continue to bolster our programming with series and event specials that are brand definitional, and Star Talk is the perfect opportunity to offer our audience an edgy, late-night alternative with the credibility and authenticity that are the hallmarks of our network.”
The premiere of Star Talk will be accompanied by the one-hour special Hubble’s Cosmic Journey, a celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25 years orbiting our planet. Narrated by Tyson, Hubble’s Cosmic Journey is the story of one of the most remarkable advances in modern technology, as told by the people who designed, built, launched, operated and repaired the legendary observatory. Hubble’s Cosmic Journey is produced by Bigger Bang and along with Star Talk will air globally on National Geographic Channel in 171 countries and 45 languages this spring.
The tv show is based on Tyson’s radio show/podcast, Star Talk. A Hollywood Reporter Jan. 7, 2015 article by Michael O’Connell describes the relationship between Tyson’s radio show and his new tv talk show,
“This is kind of low-risk, I think, for National Geographic,” Tyson told the crowd at the Television Critics Association press tour. “Star Talk exists as a thriving podcast right now.”
Star Talk will indeed follow a similar format to Tyson’s podcast, which marries science and popular culture and feature interviews with celebrities, comedians and scientists. He’s still sorting through all of the elements that he’ll add to the television iteration, but he does intend to give Bill Nye a platform for a minute-long rant in each show, much as Andy Rooney had for many years on CBS’ 60 Minutes.
I wish them good luck and look forward to reading about the show on the Pasco Phronesis blog.
Thanks to Michael Slezak and his Jan. 29, 2014 posting on tvline.com for this heads up about a new science-oriented, limited television series to be broadcast on US network television (Note: A link has been removed0.
Fox blinding you with science(-related) goodness?
That appears to be the goal of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, a new 13-part series premiering Sunday, March 9 (9/8c) …
More than three decades after the debut of “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” Carl Sagan’s stunning and iconic exploration of the universe as revealed by science, COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY sets off on a new voyage for the stars. Seth MacFarlane (FAMILY GUY, AMERICAN DAD) and Sagan’s original creative collaborators – writer/executive producer Ann Druyan and astronomer Steven Soter – have teamed to conceive a 13-part docu-series that will serve as a successor to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning original series.
Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series will explore how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. It will bring to life never-before-told stories of the heroic quest for knowledge and transport viewers to new worlds and across the universe for a vision of the cosmos on the grandest scale. COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY will invent new modes of scientific storytelling [emphasis mine] to reveal the grandeur of the universe and re-invent celebrated elements of the legendary original series, including the Cosmic Calendar and the Ship of the Imagination. The most profound scientific concepts will be presented with stunning clarity, uniting skepticism and wonder, and weaving rigorous science with the emotional and spiritual into a transcendent experience.
Carl Sagan’s original series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” was first broadcast in 1980, and has been enjoyed by more than 750 million people worldwide.
So, they’re going to “invent new modes of scientific storytelling,” eh? That’s quite a goal and I wish them good luck with it even though they may well succeed without my good wishes. The producing team has certainly managed some major challenges to get this series produced and broadcast according to the Wikipedia Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey essay (Note: Links have been removed),
Following Sagan’s death in 1996, his widow Ann Druyan, the co-creator of the original Cosmos series along with Steven Soter, a producer from the series, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, sought to create a new version of the series, aimed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and not just to those interested in the sciences. They had struggled for years with reluctant television networks that failed to see the broad appeal of the show.
Seth MacFarlane had met Druyan through Tyson at the 2008 kickoff event for the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a new LA office of the National Academy of Sciences, designed to connect Hollywood writers and directors with scientists. A year later, at a 2009 lunch in NYC with Tyson, MacFarlane learned of their interest to re-create Cosmos. He was influenced by Cosmos as a child, believing that Cosmos served to “[bridge] the gap between the academic community and the general public.” …
In August 2011, the show was officially announced for primetime broadcast, and is scheduled for the spring of 2014. …
So, Tyson, Druyan, and Soter had worked for about nine years with no luck when Druyan met Seth MacFarlane with whose help the team managed to interest a network and where their work will be telecast some 15 years after they started. Bravo!