Inventing Tomorrow/Laura Nix

What’s it like to be fifteen years old and live in a world that’s so environmentally out of whack that it threatens human life? Against the backdrop of the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, filmmaker Laura Nix follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Mexico who are finding solutions to the problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen, Director Talk’s sister blog, speaks with Nix and Sahithi Pingali, a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, India, who epitomizes the dedicated pragmatism that will be necessary to restoring balance to our earth. Click here  to find out more about the film and screenings. Availability: Opens New York City, August 31, IFC Center.  Thanks to Layla Hancock-Piper, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.


EOS: At one time Bangalore was described as the land of ten thousand lakes. Now it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. What environmental impact did this change have on Bangalore?

SP: There’s no river near Bangalore, so they built man-made lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake overflowed and filled all the others.

Bangalore used to be a retirement community, but suddenly all these IT companies moved there. The city grew really quickly, without an accompanying infrastructure. There were no sewage treatment plants, for instance. The trees and the gardens were razed to build homes and offices. The channels connecting the lakes were filled with debris to make them land again, cutting off the lakes from each other. There were a lot of people generating raw sewage, which went right into the lakes. With no channels to distribute freshwater, the lakes became cesspools.

EOS: Laura, you got some heartbreaking footage in Bangalore.

LN: Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking it seriously. Bangalore was the opposite.  It was visually extraordinary. Before we went we looked at stock footage and news reports, but they couldn’t prepare me for what it was like. The thing you don’t get from the footage is the smell. When you get out of the car you’re confronted with this stench as the sewage blows over the roadway and hits the cars. We got covered in it while we were filming. There’s one shot in particular where you can see the foam hitting the camera. [The foam is created by phosphates in the untreated sewage.]


EOS: The film gave me the impression that kids in developing countries are more connected to environmental issues than kids in the U.S. are.

SP: In India the awareness is high because when you step out of your house there’s no way to avoid it. Yet some people do manage to avoid it. They drive by the lakes every day with their windows up and AC on. They don’t get the smell, they don’t see the foam. The thing is, I was one of those people for a very long time. I only started asking questions when I was fifteen. It’s one thing to know the problem is there and another to be concerned about it and then quite another to take action on that concern. It’s the difference between avoiding it and approaching it. I think that in developing countries you do get more people who are concerned simply because they’re aware, but I don’t know if the ratio of people who know and the people who act is actually any better.


EOS: Laura, you worked with kids from Hawaii and Mexico and Indonesia. What did you find there?

LN: When we were casting the film, I interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world. We did a data dive, looking at how many environmental projects were coming from each country. In many places, 50 to 70 percent of the projects had an environmental focus. In the States it was maybe 10 to 15 percent.

It makes sense to me that students living in the developing world are coming up with solutions to environmental problems, because the problems are right in front of their faces. But in fact there are many communities in the U.S. facing ecological crises, environmental justice issues related to pollution or industrial contamination. Corporations are getting away with polluting these communities because the communities are underrepresented politically and financially, but they’re very much aware, and they’re taking action. We can look at front-line communities as a model of how we must respond.



EOS: Sahithi, your science fair project had two aspects. First you collected and tested water samples from the lakes, then you crowd-sourced the data through an app and website. What do you want to achieve with this project?

SP: At school I led a group of students to study the foaming lake right behind our school.  We interviewed the people who live there and found that they grow vegetables with that polluted lake water. Others had to close down their shops, others lost their livelihoods. How could I have been able to drive past this for so long and not see how much was happening?

When we brought the stinking water samples to school to test them in our lab, I started seeing that we were connecting to the lakes. We were seeing the water with our own eyes and handling it ourselves. Now I want this to be part of a school curriculum, where every kid goes out once a week and gets a lake sample.  It makes a big difference when you engage and do it yourself.

I started sharing the data through crowd sourcing to get everyone to see what was going on. When you do that, it’s important to make the data very visual so people don’t have to look at numbers. On my website I have color-coded maps saying whether the water is safe enough to drink or take a bath or water your vegetables. Now people can look at color-coded maps all across the world and see how their lakes are changing over time, what local actions people are taking. We’re building a community so that it’s no longer just one person going and getting a water sample.


EOS: Laura, I was under the impression that only judges and competitors are allowed to attend the judging session at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. How did you manage to get in?

LN: We talked to the Society for Science and the Public for about a year to get permission to film the judging. They’d never let cameras in the judging process before, and it took a very long time to convince them of the value of that. I felt it was really important to show because that’s when you see the students communicating their science projects in a very quick way to someone who knows about it. I think that’s the greatest value in participating in the science competition, because it forces students to become science communicators. They must explain their research in a way that’s compelling, that involves storytelling, not just data analysis.

There’s a chasm in our culture right now between the general public and science. The scientific community can get better at communicating what the work is, how it’s done, and what value it has. But I think the general public also has a sense that it’s too hard for them to understand. I was very intimidated when I started to make this film because I don’t come from a science background, but I realized that was helpful because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: I needed to understand it in order for the audience to understand it.


EOS: Sahithi, as a scientist yourself, how important is it to communicate what you’re doing?

SP: A lot of scientists are proud of the complexity of what they’re doing. They lose sight of the fact that it’s valuable not because it’s complex but because of what it can do. And they can’t make an impact unless the people who are helping them make an impact understand what’s going on. Solutions are made in the lab by scientists, but they’re brought into the world by businessmen, people in the humanities, salespeople, storytellers. So much more goes into bringing science into the real world.

Even the science aspect can’t be done alone. There’s a reason why solutions of scale are deployed by big companies. Individuals are limited. If I go on trying to push my project using only my own time and my own abilities, it’s not going to be nearly as impactful as if I brought in another five or ten people to work on it and make it a more robust system. I think the image of the lone scientists in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

L - R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos - Monterrey, Mexico. They invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals that could nourish the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.


I don’t know where people got the idea that science should be done solo. If you look at the very nature of scientific research, you measure a paper’s success by how many other people were able to do work based on it. Science is by nature very collaborative, because nobody solves these huge complex problems alone. Nobody does it alone in the real world of science—it’s more in the depictions that it becomes a solo thing. In high school and college you do all your assignments alone. Making it more collaborative from the beginning might help, but so would depicting it the way it actually works, with a lot of people coming together.


EOS: Laura, what makes film such an incredibly powerful medium for communicating science?

LN: A lot of feature films focus on the biopic of an extraordinary person conquering an extraordinary project. They gloss over the details of the science because they’re focused on the hero’s journey. I was really interested in showing the process of science. When you do science, you fail a lot. You do some research and you stop and start and don’t always get the results that you want, but you keep going. Watching young people tackle that in a very pure way was really inspiring, because they have a vision about what they’re doing and a clarity of purpose about the why of what they’re doing. The why is something that gets left out a lot when we depict science.

The why is also where you can find the emotion in the story. An environmental film focusing on a science fair seemed potentially very dry, so for me the goal was to bring emotion to the story and show how this was very personal, this was young people fighting to save their homes. Each of the students I chose for the film was very connected to the why of that they do. The challenge for me as a filmmaker was how to make this an emotional story and also something that was really compelling to watch.

I went about that by maintaining a kind of first-person perspective so that you get a sense of what it would be like to be fifteen years old and facing this huge environmental crisis. I wanted the film to communicate the uniqueness of that perspective, because we can learn something from it. These kids automatically understand that they have to do something. They’ve taken the responsibility of committing to action. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that they don’t think about it politically. They think, ‘Here’s a problem that we have to fix.’ Our generation got stuck in this political spin cycle where we can’t move forward because we’re blocked by financial and economic and political issues, but these kids don’t think about that at all. That’s the way we should be approaching it. I wanted to put that framing out into the world as a way for us to be able to learn from them so that they can become our role models as we look forward.

EOS: What is it like to be a teenager facing this environmental crisis?


SP: Every year we put on a play in school. The scriptwriters based the play on the students’ attitudes. Last year our play was about the environment. The last line was “If not us, who? If not now, when?” I think it’s as simple as that. We can’t do nothing. We can’t wait, because it’s only going to get worse. But I think there’s also the fact that it can get better. This is something people don’t appreciate enough. Right now, at this point in time, we have the technology to not just slow down climate change or stop it but actually potentially reverse it. It would be hard, things would have to be implemented at huge scale, but we could. It’s not impossible. It’s not even a lack of abilities. It’s something we can do, it’s just that it’s not happening. I think young people who are really engaged in this realize that the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. It’s just something we have to do, because we can’t wait. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, so we just have to do what we can now. It’s important to keep in mind that it can be done. It’s not beyond possibility to actually take things back.

Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018


Particle Fever/Director Mark Levinson and Producer David Kaplan

In Particle Fever, six brilliant physicists lead us through the Large Hadron Collider as the international scientific community gathers to search for the Higgs boson, aka “the God particle.”  Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson and professor of theoretical particle physics David Kaplan offer an intimate look at the men and women asking the biggest questions that can be asked—and what happens when they get an answer.  •Availability:  In theaters March 5. Check for local listings at Fever. Thanks to Brooke Medansky, BOND Strategy and Influence, for arranging this interview.


DT:  With the discovery of the Higgs boson behind you, you’re now working on trying to disturb the vacuum of space.  What does that mean?


DK:  We’ve known for many years what all matter looks like:  It’s made of atoms. The thing we now hope to see at the LHC is what the vacuum of space itself is made of.  Investigating it is similar to looking through a microscope. You look through the microscope; light hits the thing you’re looking at, then bounces off and goes into your eye through a lens, which makes it bigger.  The light has frequency and wavelength.  The higher the frequency or the smaller the wavelength, the smaller the thing you can look at.  What we want to look at are things that are very tiny—the tiniest scales and lengths and elements of the vacuum itself.  To do that, you first need to go to incredibly high energy, and to do that you have to build an insanely big machine that can move particles at incredibly high energies and smash them into each other. You have to do that when you investigate the vacuum because you can’t bounce off of nothing, so you smash two things together, and the energy from the collision goes into the vacuum, then reflects out what the vacuum is made of, what its structure is.  So by inserting energy into a vacuum and then refracting or reflecting stuff out, we get to see what the vacuum is made of and all the information about our spacetime living in the vacuum.  And that’s important.  That means you can discover new particles, particles that don’t just hang around and live here for long periods of time every day but particles that could live only tiny fractions of a second.


DT:  Do you have to make any modifications to the LHC to explore the vacuum of space?


DK:  In some sense the LHC looks like a very sophisticated and elite thing, but it’s like the NASCAR of physics because it literally is the fastest thing on the planet. We move things faster than anybody else. We smash them into each other.  The modifying is just trying to get the thing aimed so that the particles hit each other as hard as possible, at as high an energy as possible, and to get as many collisions as possible.  In some sense it’s mundane, but it’s very hard to do.  Then we outfit the detectors, which are like layers of digital cameras whose guts are silicon and other materials as well.  When the collision happens, two particles smash and hundreds of particles come out of it. That’s what’s coming out of the vacuum.  They’ll plow through the different materials of the detectors and be recorded electronically, and you’ll get a snapshot, which is just like a three-dimensional photograph of what that collision looked like.


DT:  Those were the gorgeous images at the end of the film.  Spectacularly beautiful.


ML:  Which actually is not the way physicists look at it.  Those images are more for the public.  The physicists are looking at data, and numbers, and charts, and things like that.  You asked if the LHC was modified; it was designed to do this specifically.  What they’re modifying right now is trying to get it to higher energies, but the whole purpose was to be able to do this analysis.


DK:  It was decades ago when people realized we have to investigate the vacuum, not just the particles.


DT:  Can you briefly explain the relationship between the vacuum of space and dark matter.


DK:  In some sense dark matter is a more prosaic thing than the vacuum of space, because it’s just stuff.  Now, it’s stuff that’s not made of atoms—we know that very confidently—which means it’s stuff that’s made of something else but we don’t know what it is.  And it dominates the universe.  About eighty plus percent of the matter in the universe is dark matter.  It’s responsible for the galaxies, because dark matter particles all attracted each other and created these gaseous clumps, in which we, the atoms, fell in, collided, circled around, created galaxies and stars and people and us. So the dark matter has a lot to do with the structure of the universe, but when we look at our list of fundamental particles, there’s nothing there that could be dark matter.  Nothing has the properties of what it is. In the simplest case, dark matter is one new type of particle that we’ve never seen before but feel gravitationally, and we’re trying to nail down what its properties are by detecting it or creating it at the LHC.


DT:  The film Journey of the Universe teaches us that humans are made of the same stuff as stars.


DK:  We’re made of stardust, right.


DT:  In an interview you guys did with PBS, you said that dark matter is something other than what we’re made of.  I was tremendously gratified to find that we’re made of stardust and terrified to find that eighty percent of the universe is called dark matter, which is something entirely other than what we are.   It bothers me the way the idea of chaos bothers me.


ML:  In one of the scenes in Particle Fever, some of the physicists are joking about Mr. Dark Matter coming and taking you away at night.


DT:  It’s the ultimate boogeyman.


ML:  When we were at Princeton, people were joking about whether there could be life in the dark sector, but it’s certainly not something that we worry about.


DK:  In some sense, when we discover a new particle, we think, What the hell is that?  It’s this odd thing that doesn’t fit into what we are and how we are made. And then, over many years, things start to get incorporated: “Oh, there are symmetries, and we’re a reflection of that.”  There’s a theory called supersymmetry, in which dark matter is the partner of a particle of light, or photon. In the theory of supersymmetry, every known particle will have a superpartner, with symmetry balance between them, and amazingly, light’s superpartner could be the dark matter, in which case both light and its partner fill the universe.


DT:  That’s so cool.


DK:  Light and dark. It is cool.  It’s poetic.  Nobody planned it that way.


DT:  In light of the mammoth effort behind the LHC, can you talk about how science progresses—how scientists go from one discovery to the next?


DK:  Science progresses highly nonlinearly.  In fact, we wanted to make this movie because nobody ever portrays it that way.  In TV science documentaries, you have scientists explaining things to you.  You get very beautiful explanations and graphics for how the world works, but you have no idea how they got there. It seems insane that anybody would come up with such an idea.  You think, How did they come up with that?  I would never think of that! And you wouldn’t, because you start where you know. Then you go down a path saying, “Well maybe this is true, maybe this is true,” and you go down blind alleys, you go out on limbs, and the limbs sometimes break and you’re back at the bottom of the tree and have to climb back up.  What we end up with in textbooks is chapter seven leads to chapter eight leads to chapter nine and that’s how everything is explained, but between chapter seven and chapter eight may be a hundred and seventy-five years and many, many false starts.


DT:  Unless I’m mistaken, you dealt with that in Particle Fever, in the section about multiverses.


DK:  The multiverse represents a totally different approach to the way we think of fundamental physics or particle physics.  Because of that, it’s hard for some people to accept.  Or it may have implications that are completely different from the path that we thought we were on.  So in a sense it’s a beautiful example of thinking things are going this way and then there’s this other idea, which, if true, means none of what you’re thinking is right and you’ll never be able to discover what you’re after and you have to do something completely different.  Which is why this was a perfect time to make this film, because there was a lot of uncertainty over what was true.


ML:  As far as the process of science, there are other ways to be looking for dark matter, so there are other experiments. These collisions are happening all the time, so there are satellites out there and things deep underground where they’re hoping to see them. The great advantage of the LHC is that it’s a known environment, you’re doing it somewhere where you’re controlling the collision, and you can look at it.  But it could be that they’re going to see evidence of it in one of these other sites where they’re just waiting for random events.  We try everything.  The great advantage of the LHC is we’re doing it right here, and we’re looking right here.


DK:  It’s a great advantage for the movie, too.


DT:  Or it could be like the burning bush; it’s always been there, and it just takes the right guy to see it.  Let’s talk about the structure of the film.  First, really fascinating scientists get us involved in the story of the search for the Higgs boson.  Then, once we’re hooked, the science of the Higgs boson comes at the end. It’s a very interesting decision. Why did you choose to make the film in that way?


ML:  Putting the science in was the hardest part of the film, just in terms of knowing where and how to do it.  From the beginning, our approach was let’s get the drama and the narrative right.  We know we can do the physics, but let’s find out what our story is and what it demands.  I’m very happy to hear you say we put the science at the end, because that means we put it in unnoticeably before, since if we hadn’t laid the foundation, you wouldn’t have understood the end.  And so we seeded it in the places where we needed it initially. The idea was always that just when you’re on the verge of not understanding something, we explain it so that you can move to the next step, and set up the end.  The end, specifically though, was a consequence of what happened [i.e., the discovery of the Higgs boson during the course of filming]; this was not what we initially thought the end of the film was going to be, but once the Higgs was discovered and it had that specific mass, we had to set it up. So we went back and had to figure the places where we could do it, as the idea always was that it would not just be some omniscient narrator explaining the physics. We always wanted it to come organically out of the story and out of the characters, so I’m very happy that you didn’t feel it was stopping the story at any point along the way. David’s lecture became a great way to introduce a lot of things in a nice organic way, and we had scientists filming themselves with small cameras, just conversationally talking about things in an approachable way.  We carefully threaded the science in so when you got to the end and we were really dealing with the physics, you were ready for it.


DK:  I’m a beginning filmmaker, and my naïve approach was that you first have to be attached to these people and then you hear what they do.  You’ve got to love these people, and once you love them, it’s OK if you don’t quite understand what they’re doing.  You’re inspired; you say, “Well, he likes it. I’m with that guy.”


ML: These people often talk in very technical language, and if we didn’t explain it, the danger was that you would not identify with the character. That was the delicate balance: How do you get attached to characters if they’re speaking gobbledygook?  That was really the trick.  We couldn’t not talk about the physics initially, but we had to do it in a way that still got you attached to the characters so that they’re vested at the end.


DT:  You started shooting without having any idea where the film was going to go, because you started shooting without knowing whether the Higgs boson would be discovered.  Along the way, however, you got many beautiful moments.  One of them was Fabiola Gianotti saying, “Physics addresses big questions in a more practical way than philosophy.” Can you talk about that aspect of physics?


DK:  People ask me, Are you religious? Do you believe in God? What’s your philosophy? Do you think there are things that are not physical?  I can imagine speculating about those things for the rest of my life and not getting anywhere.  And it would be nice to get somewhere.  It’s OK if it’s incremental, and it’s OK if I don’t get all the answers by the end of it.  But to actually make some progress is so inspiring. Fabiola, who’s a very artistic, creative, and philosophical person, is also very practical in that.  She wants to feel the progress.  She wants to walk down that path.  Now, very beautiful things have been said.  Einstein said, “I want to know God’s thoughts.”  And in a sense you get to interact with something that is not human.  You are asking questions of something that is not created by another person. With no motivation. And you’re getting answers back.  It’s not really a dialogue, but you get to learn something that is outside of yourself and outside our race.


DT:  Talk about the international cooperation that was needed to pull off the LHC.


DK:  It’s totally insane.


ML:  CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research] was founded in the fifties as an outgrowth of UNESCO, so right from the beginning it was seen as an endeavor created to unite people in something that transcended politics and divisions and war.


DK:  After WWII.


DT:  But in the midst of the cold war.


ML:  Even more.  I met somebody at a retiree benefit who had been there right at the beginning, when it was just shacks. He said it was difficult—that you were basically supposed to start working with somebody you would have been shooting at five years earlier.  Right from the beginning that was the mandate, and I think that it’s continued, and it really is a universal thing.  Now we see that it has to be.  No single country could ever do anything like this, and I think that’s fantastic.  It unites people beyond petty concerns, and that’s a great aspect of the process of science at this level.


DK:  I like to say that people’s first language is physics and their second language is whatever they were born speaking, and that’s how it feels at CERN.  It doesn’t matter where the person’s from, what they’re like, what they look like.  It doesn’t matter because you have something to talk about and you’re both passionate about it, and you speak exactly the same language.


DT:  One more question. What’s your next film?


ML:   I have a couple of projects I’m thinking about.  The big question is, Is it another documentary or is it fiction, cause that’s my background.  I’m looking for good stories with good characters, and I’m very interested in the art and science overlap, so I’m looking at various things that could explore that further.


DT:  Can’t wait to see what’s next.


Copyright © Director Talk 2014