Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In praise of science

It was a fantastic weekend. New York City hosted the World Science Festival, and though I wasn't able to attend most of the events I did go to a play and a reading at Columbia University, my alma mater.

Saturday night's offering was QED by Peter Parnell (who wrote Sorrows of Stephen) about Richard Feynman, a famous physicist who worked on the atom bomb and figured out why the Challenger exploded. It was almost a one-man show (one other character showed up a couple of times, with a fairly limited interaction) starring the legendary Alan Alda. I'll tell you, when someone as distinctive as Alan Alda is onstage almost alone for an hour and a half and you don't think even once of his iconic Hawkeye Pierce character, you know that's good acting. (I saw him in a wonderful play called Art many years ago, and it was the same experience.)

I went to see this play because of the new screenplay I'm working on. I don't want to give a lot of details, but it is based on a famous scientist and a certain time period in that scientist's life. (There will be no "creation of the person" story, even though the childhood merits its own movie!) So while this screenplay focuses mostly on the interpersonal trials of the scientist, it absolutely has to integrate a lot of science in it; we can't have them talk purely about 'their issues,' because science is such a basic part of their everyday lives. The question we're facing, then, is how to go about it? How often, and how much detail? Scientists talking to each other aren't going to dumb it down for the audience; they'll be speaking in terrific, deep scientific jargon that the average person doesn't understand. How long can we do that before we turn the audience off? How much is needed to give it a feel of veracity?

Watching QED Saturday night answered quite a few of these questions. The scientist character, Richard Feynman, talked about many angles of his life: how he learned Russian to be able to travel to a tiny area called Tuva; his bongo playing; his work on the Challenger explosion and how he refused to append a "nice job, NASA" at the end of their report; his work on the atom bomb; the death of his wife; his own battle against cancer. I've only touched the tip here, because this was an incredible man with diverse and fascinating interests and talents. The office set was interesting. He had a messy desk, a couple of chairs, a radio, shelves, and two blackboards, which were covered with equations. I stared at them blankly. In the Q&A period after the play was over, Alan Alda said, "I'm sure most of you recognize this as a Feynman diagram," and the audience (made up mostly of scientists) murmured their assent. I thought, "Holy cow. This is a case in point right here." I understood literally nothing of these equations, but I trusted them. They're over my head, and that's a good thing. The equations need to be correct for the scientists, but they just need to be *there* for the rest of us.

Earlier in my scriptwriting process, I wrote a scene where one of the scientists is teaching calculus to children. As I wrote it by myself, I wrote "Math math math" as a placeholder. "Math question?" "Math answer." Then I went home for a break, and one day grabbed my brother, who's been through several semesters of calculus. He brought in his elementary calculus book (the kind that would be taught to children...very smart children, that is) and we found an equation that could go on the board and figured out the exact questions and answers for the scene. I admit, even after Christopher had explained it all to me, I didn't really get it. (I felt my brain forming a hard, protective shell as he talked.) But reading through the scene after I realized how great it is to have those facts and figures. Ground it in reality!

Okay, so back to the Science Festival. The second night I went to a reading called "Dear Albert," put together by Alan Alda, which was a collection of Einstein's letters to and from his wives and a couple of their friends. He'd had to edit and select sections and tie them together to form the story of Einstein's life. Small factoids: In 1905, Einstein wrote *three* groundbreaking papers, so revolutionary that each spawned its own branch of physics. Max Planck, another legendary physicist, read one of them and said, "The world as we know it has changed." (That may not be an exact quote, but it's close.) Einstein plays only a peripheral role in my screenplay, but again I wanted to see what was done to make him accessible to today's audiences.

It was a terrific piece. He had an unhappy first marriage and an unhappy first wife; both came through loud and clear. And then some of his letters mentioned, in the most offhand way, his earth-shattering work that would change the scientific world. Wow.

After the play was over, people were milling about and Mr. Alda was talking with the audience members who approached him. I generally don't talk to celebrities, figuring they want to be left alone more than they want to talk to me, but he was being kind and talking with anyone who wanted to, so I got brave. I mentioned my screenplay to him, and who it was about, and he got really excited, saying he'd been looking into this same scientist and working on a project of his own. Wow! He asked me what my research plans were, and what sources I've been using, and I told him and he got more excited. At this point, the house managers were getting antsy and asked us all to leave, so Mr. Alda asked for my card. I only had my book card on me (which leads him to my km website, which could lead him to this blog! Hi, Mr. Alda!), and I gave it to him, and then walked out of there thinking, "Alan Alda asked for my card!"

I work at The Rockefeller Foundation, which helped sponsor the Sunday night reading of Dear Albert. Monday I approached Joan, the woman in charge of that department, and told her how thrilled I was that RF was part of that great evening. I told her about my meeting Alan Alda, and she said something I had already figured out: "He's such a wonderful man. So kind and gracious." Yay for good people.

A quick personal note only peripherally about Alan Alda: I am very close to my dad, and this is in a small way due to our nightly viewings of MASH after the ten o'clock news. He and I watched it together almost every night on channel 5. My mom and my siblings never joined us; it was just the two of us together. We watched the entire syndicated schedule, from the earliest Henry Blake episodes to the latest Colonel Potter-and-Charles (and BJ in a pink shirt) ones. It got to the point where we could look at each other within two minutes and say, "Oh, this is the one where Colonel Flagg calls himself 'the wind,'" and then turn back to the TV and keep watching. So I know I'm close to my dad for other reasons than MASH, but the two are very closely linked in my mind.

I am figuring out a few more book promotions, but nothing concrete yet. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, vive la science!

1 comment:

GermPharm said...

Yes, science is cool! Way to score an in with Alan Alda. I'm dying to know which scientist your project is about. I'm the sort of "nerd who likes science but was never great at it" that would like to see the play you've described.