Some Mobbing Behavior Of Birds With Your Popcorn? Rebranding Science At The Movies

Want to hear a Harvard professor hold forth on the neuropsychology of zombies? Then attend an event at the newly expanded “Science on Screen” series, where films are followed by scientific discourse.



Our country’s many scientific accomplishments notwithstanding (who got to the moon first, again?), when it comes to the general populace of the United States, scientific literacy is lacking. Only around 28% of Americans were estimated to be scientifically literate in one study, meaning over two thirds of us can’t read or understand the science section of the New York Times. But a newly expanded program from the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation called “Science on Screen” hopes to cast the light of scientific literacy a little bit wider, by pairing movie screenings with talks by scientists.

Science on Screen actually had its debut at Coolidge Corner Theatre back in 2005, when a member of the theater first suggested the idea of pairing movies with scientific speakers. The program evolved over the following years, growing to encompass eight art house theaters last year. With a new two-year Sloan Foundation grant of $463,426, the program is poised to grow to 20 theaters in both 2012 and 2013. Each cinema will receive $7,000 to develop its own Science on Screen program, which must consist of at least three screening/scientist pairings.

What are some examples of past pairings? At a Science on Screen showing of The Silence of the Lambs, a psychology professor who consulted on the Jeffrey Dahmer case talked about the science of criminal profiling. At a screening of Memento, Dr. David Glahn of the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center discussed anterograde amnesia as it is actually lived. An MIT theoretical physicist was called in to parse Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, while Harvard psychologist Steven Schlozman held forth on the neuropsychology of zombies following a screening of Night of the Living Dead. “We showed The Birds with a biologist who talked about mobbing behavior among birds,” Cheryl White of the Coolidge Corner Theatre tells Fast Company.

“I think we can make a case that science is all over popular
culture,” Professor Schlozman writes in an email, “and is also much more palatable in the
displacement of popular culture. If I come into a classroom and show
folks slides of the brain, which is by the way pretty damn cool, folks
will potentially roll their eyes, see the short balding shrink that I
am, and tune out.”

That’s not the case in a darkened theater, says Schlozman.


“If we have a
movie to anchor our inquiry–show the students clips of Night of the
Living Dead–
then we can get students more willing to A) be active
participants, and B) to have fun with the material.”

Dennis Hong, a roboticist at Virginia Tech, presented after a screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original one), which features a humanoid robot, Hong’s area of expertise. Hong calls the program “a fantastic idea to get the general public engaged in science and technology.”

The eight theaters included in the current iteration of the series already span the country (they were reached through Art House Convergence, a conference for independent cinemas); not just theaters in California and New York, but ones in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Connecticut, Washington, and Florida are represented. The hope is that the new crop will expand the realm of Science on Screen to even more cities and states.

Coolidge was smart to get Sloan on their side; the massive foundation has been on a mission to infuse science through culture for years. The foundation also gives grants to writers, producers, and filmmakers for creating works pertaining to science, and supports a wide range of other science-and-arts initiatives, by partnering with top film schools and sponsoring workshops at festivals like Sundance.

White says that Science on Screen is about attracting a new constituency to science: “People who wouldn’t label themselves a science enthusiast, but they’re curious about new ideas. The problem of science literacy is a big problem. We’re not going to solve that problem by ourselves, but this is one way to advance public understanding of science.”


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[Image: “The Day The Earth Stood Still” via YouTube]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal