No Fugitives from Science here

M.G. Lord’s Science Writing class has been cooking on all (bunsen) MC900438714-300x300burners. She started off the semester with a visit by screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) ,followed up with tv writer and inorganic chemist Bill Odenkirk (Futurama, The Simpsons), and will end the semester with TV writer and screenwriter Paul Attanasio (House).

Last week novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (The Player) was on hand to talk about his screenplay for Deep Impact, a disaster film about rogue asteroids. M.G. showed a clip from the film that included Morgan Freeman delivering the bad news to TV crews, and she confessed that she’d re-watched the film earlier and had spent the afternoon weeping…. How did a disaster film manage to unhinge M.G.? It’s the emotional content of the film–and the fact that it depicts the end of life as we know it. (Gerard Manley Hopkins: “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for….”)

M.G. asked Michael if it was depressing writing about the end of the world. “Oh, no, it’s fun destroying the world…on paper.” Dr. David C. Pieri from the Earth Surface Science Group at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at CalTech was also on hand, and the three talked about research, verisimilitude, science as inspiration, story as metaphor and meaning as inevitable. A video podcast of the event will be available shortly. Here are some highlights:

  • Planetary geologist Dave Pieri had one quibble with the Science Stuff in Deep Impact–the depiction of the cresting tidal wave vs. the reality of a wave of that magnitude which would have a flatter and more destructive shape. He asked Michael Tolkin about the problem of verisimilitude.
  • Tolkin said, “Everything serves the story. Nothing stands in the way. The research is there to give you ideas.” That being said–Tolkin praised the benefit of research for its own sake as well. He spoke of the pleasure of knowing things, the intellectual rewards, the fact that everything that he writes, not only the science stuff, entails research. Part of his research for Deep was going to the launch of the Space Shuttle. “I’ve seen Dylan, Hendrix…. A night launch of the Shuttle is all of rock and roll compressed.” He also made pilgrimages to the Chalk Caves and Kitt Peak to research the film. He interviewed geologists, NASA scientists, he did asteroid research. “You start with research to get the facts right and then you lie,” he said, giving MPW students a sort of permission slip. (Robert Frost: “Fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows….”)
  • M.G. asked Tolkin how he chooses a form since he writes both novels and screenplays. His advice to our students? “If you have a REALLY good idea, write it as a novel first. Writing a novel is–internally–a much richer experience than writing a screenplay.” It’s a much richer reading experience too. He went on to praise The Privileges, Jonathan Dee’s novel about a certain strata of society. Tolkin wrote his meta-Hollywood film The Player as a novel first–and then adapted it. This reminded me of Chekhov’s method (by default?) of writing short stories that are character sketches and tone poems for all of his plays.
  • Tolkin described all disaster films as metaphors that illustrate our fears of loss of control. “The gift is being given a good metaphor. The work is structuring the story.” And how does he do that? “You work backwards from what would be the most dramatic.”

MG_students2-300x225How does M.G. enlist such a line-up of amazing writers, thinkers, scientists? It’s no accident. Her memoir, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, is what started her ongoing conversation with Scientists and Science Writing. The book’s a memoir because her father was an engineer at JPL, where she also brought her students.

M.G.’s also a cultural historian. She’s written about Barbie (Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll), and next up is her book The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.

M.G.’s class has shown all of us that we need to use everything–science, etc!–to really understand the world through our writing. Dave Pieri described most people as being “fugitives from science.” Not at MPW!

N.B.: I just remembered that Davi Pieri, our geologist, had said that the role of films such as Deep Impact is that they can serve as warnings. They help to create the bigger picture of the real dangers that face all of us, and they should convince our governments to take heed…. And so these disaster films, and especially a film such as Deep Impact, also serve as cautionary tales, the kinds of fairy tales that mothers told their children to wake them up, to make them pay attention. (Anton Artaud: “We are not safe, the sky can still fall on our heads and it is the purpose of the theatre to remind us that this is so….”)

Timely, timely, timely: “Earth Needs Asteroid Shield, UN Told.”

And for more about M.G. Lord, read the article “From Barbies to Rockets.”

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