Through the Wormhole with Science Communication

As a scientist, I spend a lot of my time trying to communicate subtle ideas and complex results to other scientists who, to a first approximation, share my interests and vocabulary. When I’m not doing that, I also spend a fair bit of time teaching students who are learning about science and, in some cases, trying to become scientists.

But it can be fun and interesting to step outside the usual communication channels by trying to explain our scientific research to people who aren’t scientists or students.

Last fall, I was invited to explain our research on the show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The show’s director Tony Lund spoke with me at length by phone, asking questions about scientific concepts, our work, my personal interests, etc.

Based on our conversation, Tony came up with several ideas for scenes to film, both inside and outside the lab. The people in my lab group organized the props and materials that we would need to film the scenes, and several of them also had cameo roles in the various scenes.

Tony then came to MSU, along with veteran cameraman Max Miller. They spent over 12 hours with me, filming scenes in a studio and the lab, and asking countless questions on and off camera. I was impressed by the combination of creativity and attention to detail they brought to this work. For me, it was both exciting and exhausting.

Tony then had to take the hours of film and edit it all down to just a few minutes, while adding interesting visuals and preparing the script for the distinctive style and perspective of the show’s host and narrator, Morgan Freeman.

You can see the fruit of everyone’s labor here, in this four-minute segment: Evolution is Like Poker.

My lab’s portion of the show ran a bit longer than this clip, but this is the bulk of it. A lot of time and effort went into making those few minutes of the show, but I think it was well worth it. I understand the show has over a million viewers, and I hope some of them will have a better understanding of evolution, our place in nature, and the joy of science.

So thanks Tony Lund, Max Miller, Morgan Freeman, Kim Ward in MSU’s communication office, everyone who helped with logistics and production, and all the members of the team, past and present, who have kept the LTEE going … and going … and going.



Filed under Education, Science

10 responses to “Through the Wormhole with Science Communication

  1. Rich, this is wonderful! I really, really want my students this fall to “get” your experiments. Also, I may ask you about trying to use this approach to work more mathematics into the undergrad curriculum. I know you are super busy, but I am so happy to see this recognition. Best wishes to you and yours, Mark M

  2. I’ve used that example before as well. Except at the population level.

    Say your at the WSOP and everyone gets one card. The two best cards at each table stay and everyone else is eliminated. Then a whole new table appears, but everyone has one of those two best cards or rarely, something different. Then the next card is dealt. And everyone but the two best hands are eliminated. A whole new table of players comes up, but they all have those same two hands (or rarely, something different). Repeat infinitely.

    My only complaint is that it almost sounded like the bacteria are planning for the future. But then, I’m sensitive to such comments due to my dealings with creationists.

    • Thanks for this comment. I tried really hard to steer clear of goal-directed language. But the show was titled “Are we here for a reason?” and this “planning for the future” issue arose in Morgan Freeman’s narrative at the end of the story line.

  3. Tony Lund

    Hey everybody! Tony Lund here. I am very proud of the work we did with this episode. I imagine that publishing a paper in a respected journal is a similar experience — thousands of hours of work for a handful of pages (or minutes) released to the public, but those pages (minutes) represent something wholly new, original, and important!

    OgreMkv — I’m with you on the ‘goal-oriented’ and personification language. Unfortunately, it’s one of those concessions that we have to make so that a TV audience can follow concepts that many of them are learning for the first time.

    Unfortunately, the creationists will use this teleological way of approaching scientific concepts as “evidence” of a latent, broader, divine, and mysteriuosly christian-flavored, framework. I recommend we all find a way to turn this ever-present debate away from the external world — where there is absolutely zero measurable evidence of the divine — and towards the inner world of neurons, minds, and behavior, where concepts like God and “sensing there is a greater design to things” are scientifically measurable. If we can have a conversation about God and our brains, then maybe we can stop wasting so much time defending hard won knowledge about the Universe.

    You should check out this episode I did a few years back:
    [see Tony’s next reply: REL]

    (Here’s a really shitty, low-res version)

    • Hi Tony! Welcome to the blog, and thank you so much for the superb work you did on the show!! The distillation of all those hours into a few minutes was entirely worth it, from my perspective. I can’t even imagine how many hours you spent pouring over, choosing, and organizing the takes and retakes, as well as choosing the visual elements to add and scripting the narrative. Anyhow, you did an amazing job and everyone I’ve spoken to — colleagues, friends, and relatives — was impressed with the show.

  4. Tony Lund

    (search youtube for the high res version… it’s behind a $1.99 pay wall, but trust me, it’s worth it. The low res version is an illegal upload and has all kinds of crappy audio inserted so that Discovery’s net bots don’t find it.)

  5. Tony, thanks for the comments. I’m glad that someone in the media ‘gets it. If you need some ideas for future shows, let me know, I’ve done a ton of blogs posts making complex science papers easy to understand.

    • Tony Lund

      I’m always, always, always, looking for new exciting science work that can make for exciting science TV. Email me! Rich has my email address, or you can also find it with a little bit of googling. (I won’t post it here, because spam bots will find me!)

    • Sigh, can only DM if we follow each other. But I sent a message on facebook… hope that’s OK. It’ll be in your “other” folder.