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Science Talk

The Happening: A Conversation with Director M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Happening, involves an environmental backlash, the limits of reason and the beauty of math. SciAm editor George Musser discusses the film with the director. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com/daily

M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Happening, involves an environmental backlash, the limits of reason and the beauty of math. SciAm editor George Musser discusses the film with the director. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com/daily , Bugs on the Brain

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the seven days starting late on June 11th, 2008. I’m Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, a conversation with film director M. Night Shyamalan. I know, right? He has a new movie opening on Friday the 13th, called The Happening, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo. Scientific American editor, George Musser, went to a preview of the movie and a press conference with the director. He later interviewed M. Night by phone and we'll hear that. First up, though, George talking to me about the movie. We were at a book party for our fellow SciAm editor, Mark Alpert, and found a relatively quiet corner.

Musser: M. Night is really touring with a lot of ideas about what is the limit of rational thought in the film. His protagonist in the film was a science teacher—biology teacher—who talks at the very beginning about colony collapse disorder and...

Steve: This is the bees, the problems the bees are having.

Musser: Exactly—the disappearance of the bees—and it's unexplained at this point. And he makes a point that there are certain what he calls, acts of nature, as to think [distinct] from acts of god; but they are acts of nature that science is yet to understand and he is making a point that scientists need to be humble in the face of the uncertainty of nature. He probably then takes [it] a little bit too far from my taste; it's one thing to be humble but another thing to say [that] it out science will never come up with an explanation for those things. So the rest of the film really goes through that. There is a whole disaster, [an] apocalyptic disaster I[o]n which the film is based; [and it's] held often to be [an act of] inactive in nature, something it[that] is just inexplicable, nature striking back at man. I compare it to really The Birds meets Village of the Damned or The Birds meets Day of the Triffids, it is that kind of plot; [but] I won't spoil it for people. The idea is that plants emit some kind of neurotoxin that causes people to stop walking, become paralyzed and confused, and then to kill themselves. So, there is something in the environment that causes [them] to take their own lives.

Steve: Actually I think that plant exists; it is called tobacco.

Musser: Possibly—yes, yes. There are times when organisms do cause us to behave—diseases, for example—in a way that causes us to kill ourselves like rabies would do, I am rather sure there are other diseases as well that alter our behavior such as to cause us basically to kill ourselves or put ourselves in danger. What's that thing with cats?

Steve: There's a very famous example with insects where—I'll get the details—but there is a particular insect that ordinarily will stay close to the ground, will not go up to the top of blades of grass, and when it gets infected with a certain parasite its behavior changes so that it seeks the highest ground which makes it much easier for birds to ingest it, and then the birds wind up spreading the parasite. So the parasite does all that behavioral modification for its own benefit.

Musser: Yeah, the film is really postulating that, the whole environment, the whole ecosystem might have the effect on humans as kind of a backlash or a back reaction against our destruction of [the] environment.

Steve: Any other things in the film that really caught your eye as a science person?

Musser: There is the whole issue about our survival instinct and how that can be turned against us, in the film—and I think that does really happen. People are very odd at [about] risk; though [they] happily smoke while eating organic food, things like that, or they don't want a nuclear power plant next to them but they will get into a car instead and not wear their seat belts; so in a sense our survival instinct is always been turned against us. So though not in such an extreme way as in the film, it kind of happens in miniature, day in and day out; that really struck me as well.

Steve: Yeah, it's interesting. The same genetics that may be very useful in a particular environment can become totally detrimental in an altered environment.

Musser: Absolutely, absolutely. We have to take those kind of things case by case, but the broader point [is] about our, the fact that we sometimes act against our own survival imperative. We do things that where we're really thinking we would say, my God, how stupid am I, I am actually advancing my demise; just a few minutes ago, I was eating bacon and I thought as I eat each piece of this bacon, I am shortening my statistical lifespan by 5 minutes; that said, but damn it was good and I eat [ate] four of them.

(music)

Steve: I checked and the parasite I was thinking about is the lancet liver fluke. I had a detail wrong, the ant gets eaten by grazing animals, not birds, to spread the parasite and complete its life cycle. George and M. Night Shyamalan spoke by phone the afternoon of June 11th; here's that conversation.

(music)

Musser: So, one of things—actually I had brought up this question in the press conference as well—I wanted to ask you about what are your thoughts on the limits of science; that's clearly something on your mind; [it] comes out in very beginning of the film and through the end of the film as well.

Shyamalan: Yeah, I mean, the thing is, you know, we have only the our own invented categories in which we're suggesting, and so we say okay, this thing that we're looking at, which of the eight categories or however many number we call that, you know, does it fit in, you know? And the things that don't quite fit in, we shove into something. We're inventing those categories. It is very, very limited, I mean, it's also like, you know, psychologically if you're looking for something in your data, you'll see it, you know, so you're like doing an experiment, you're looking for reproduction patterns, and then you go, "Oh! There it is, I see it." You can see it, and that same way, if you are going always [for] an explanation that we have already at our fingertips you could then find some way to put it in there; but there is so much unexplained—stop! I mean, I don't even quite understand the scientific explanation of the placebo fact [effect] which is in everybody's reports. You know it is there but as science now the fact that the placebo effect exists is a fact, but what is it? We have no idea and that is the phenomena I love that, I didn't love that with regard to home-court advantage. What is that? If anything you have more pressure, you know and yet its something connected to a belief system, both things—the placebo and the home-court effect—are a belief system, so we can turn thought into energy into actual biological function, which is that in itself that something science says is not possible.

Musser: You know it's really interesting that you say that because I think most people if you just stop them on the street would say, science has always got the answers to things; and if you stop most scientists in their laboratories, they would say the exact opposite, how little they know about the world.

Shyamalan: Exactly.

Musser: Most scientists' in an act of humility and I think you had Elliott say something very similar to that.

Shyamalan: Right. That's such a great line. "Scientists' act of humility."

Musser: Do you see somebody's acts of nature, I mean, you brought up for instance in the film the red tide and the colony collapse. Are they always going to be beyond our capacity to explain?

Shyamalan: It'll either get thrown into some tenuous explanation or it will be thrown into the pile of the placebo effect. Okay. It's a fact, but we've no idea. We're just going to pretend about that one. There was another one I was just thinking of as we spoke up. Oh! You know, how animals like that, when the tsunami came, the animals all ran. That was the tsunami; that is sensing it happening. So, what is it that's in their primitive, we'll call it primitive, you know, biological makeup that we've forgotten? It would seem that that would be quite an asset for a species to have what they have. You know, we don't have that and yet we seem to be the higher functioning, so what happened there? What is that? We don't even understand that. What is it about intuitiveness of animal sense? Is it a microscopic shift in the atmosphere that they are sensing or is it just like my-knee-hurts-it's-going-to-rain kind of thing? I don't know. What is it exactly? But there is so many of those you know, kind of amazing things that tie us to each other that make us all one system, but I think the main thing about the movie is that we are not pretending we are not part of the system.

Musser: Yes. You said you had drawn inspiration from a recent biography of Einstein, the Isaacson biography.

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Musser: What were some of things you pulled up from that and tried to instill into what you did?

Shyamalan: I guess it's the same type of thing that, you know, I get that feeling of what drives you to that; there is an answer for seven things and it is one answer, you know, that kind of, the beauty of simplicity. What is the beauty of simplicity? That is, there is something that binds everything, you know, and to keep looking for that. That drive is almost the Holy Grail and I totally stand on an intuitive level, you know, and that is somehow tied to some mystical, I don't know if mystical is the correct word, but it's beyond logic, you know, it's the evidence that you know, all things come from one simple thing.

Musser: Yeah. It's interesting because certainly fundamental physics as Einstein practiced [it] is always at that boundary between physics and metaphysics, you could put [it], or the mystical and their material.

Shyamalan: Yeah. What was that whole thing we were struggling with which, you know, the quantum of it all, you know, that whole, I forgot, you know, I have a very light handle on all [those]that subjects, but the sense of when you say God doesn't roll the dice, that kind of things, you know where it's random, where a thing is, you know what I am talking about.

Musser: Yeah. It is just in quantum mechanics you've got that kind of irreducible randomness.

Shyamalan: Yes, but he doesn't like that and I don't like that either. At the end of the day, the last thing can't be random.

Musser: That was Einstein's point of view, and I think some people wonder whether that was right or whether there is this kind of randomness that we will never be able to explain that's inherent in the world.

Shyamalan: Yeah. I mean, that would be countered to at least our primitive understanding.

Musser: It's interesting what you said about the beauty of simplicity, because I think you almost had that embodied in the character of the math teacher and, you know, with that inevitable death as you drive to Princeton, he tries to bring that out in his fellow passengers in the car.

Shyamalan: Yes, Exactly; just talking about how amazing that is that, you know, we think of it as a small thing, but the principle of doubling in a very short order makes it, you know, an incredible magnitude.

Musser: Which is the general idea. I was struck by it as I watched the film, here they are, they are about to die and to focus on and give their deaths some nobility, they went back to the math problem, the beauty of simplicity.

Shyamalan: Yeah, exactly. I told, you know, John, when he was doing that scene that he just, you know, he sees beauty in those numbers in math, he is [has] always found [himself] kind of awed at it, that's the great satisfaction that comes from that understanding, well this is it and it comes out to that; it's amazing and it's the thing that has driven him and it makes him connect with Elliott, you know; he sees that in science; that's why they are so close and then he's in that room, he just wants one thing and just says, "This is my joy, what I see, and this is the joy of life for me, just one more time, just teach one more kid—that joy."

Musser: All right. This was also the teaching aspect that I hadn't grasped until now.

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Musser: Now obviously a lot of people as they come away from [the] film or as [it] will be depicted in the press, we'll [will] talk about the environmental aspects that are here and clearly the whole plot revolves around that; but I wanted to ask you almost from a deeper level in the sense [that] there is this breakdown of survival instinct, that is at the core of what it is; and it's struck [me that in the real world that you live in, there is also sometimes a breakdown of our survival instinct. We do things that are not in our own survival interest.

Shyamalan: Right.

Musser: There is the classic example of someone smoking in an organic food restaurant, but it is also like our attitude towards risk, and that comes out in how the government is not approaching global warming for example.

Shyamalan: Right, right!

Musser: And there is our survival instinct very much in play and it's not acting the way you think it would.

Shyamalan: Right, right! That's true. I mean, you can give mitigating factors for each of those, you know, the survival instinct is really, kind of, somehow ingrained in us. If we understand it, you'd think, I mean, may[be] there is a God version of that and an intellectual version of that and the intellectual version of it fails us all the time, so we smoke in an organic food restaurants. It just fails us, you know, the intellect part of it. So, yeah lot of our instincts have kind of flipped because, you know, its not like you are running out to go, you know, hunt a deer down for dinner, you know, or an animal down there just, you know, we have it readily available and so the body's instinct to store carbs is now turning against us and so everybody is obese, you know, but you can't turn it off. You're always going to have food. Stop triggering that thing, you just crave and crave, that's how everybody's kids always like, how come we always want to take bad things, you know, why can't we want the vegetables, you know; not that because our body is doing that from an old, old habit, that's [it's] trying to store as much fat as possible, so its like that a little bit, that's flipped. You know, when I was thinking about what could you do to the human species, you know, if you were fed up with it, or is it our species that is, you know, the very basic thing of the survival instinct gets turned off.

Musser: I actually have a copy of that Sapolsky article I mentioned to you earlier, and there's actually a closure that ties into the zoo scene of the film.

Shyamalan: Wow.

Musser: And I'll just quote the article: "This is akin to someone getting affected with a brain parasite that generates an irresistible urge to go to the zoo, scale a fence and try to French-kiss a polar bear.' (laughs) But actually there are these parasites in nature that subvert and even turn the survival instinct against the animal.

Shyamalan: You know that's amazing. So, it's a parasite.

Musser: That's right, and in this case it affects rodents and it takes away their fear of cats.

Shyamalan: Wow, that's fascinating.

Musser: Going back to the environmental themes, it was this kind of backlash, just [a] natural backlash against humanity in the film.

Shyamalan: Right.

Musser: And it strikes me that, of course, in reality there is always a sense of a backlash like this, much more precarious than we sometimes give a credit for. So it's a risk more precarious, did that, was [that] also, kind of, kicking around in your mind?

Shyamalan: Yeah! You know, I mean, you know, I find the only times that we see ourselves correctly like, right now I'm on, you know, the highway in Manhattan and there is a million of us and [it] all seems all very important where all we were going, you know. You know, this seems like, you know, there is some trees lining the road, here that we're on Bronx western highway; but, you know, really the moment that you feel accurate with regard to our importance in the world, is like when you are out in the ocean, and you get little too far out, you know, you're floating out there and you get a little bit of a pang and then you look around and [you're] so far out and you thought you were in the same place, but the ocean has pulled you another, you know, 50 yards out; and you are out there and you feel vulnerable and, you know, this is [these are] the tiniest moments in your life [when] you actually feel the correct relationship with nature, as when people are in a giant storm, or you know—I mean those moments is [are] precarious and it reminds us, you know, those are the moments that we go back to kind of a Native American point of view of nature and, oh yeah, remember those silly, simple folk, they're right.

Musser: You mentioned also in the press conference you've done [did] a [lot of] research as you were writing the script and talked to people about the possibility of the whole concept. Can you just talk more about that research that you had gone through?

Shyamalan: Well, it was about the plant; I mean, I have to go back and look at the specifics, but it was about the plant mechanism, how they react to threats, that they are proactive in the day and they do have evolved incredibly complex systems to deal with problems; and that they've acted in a way that seems proactive sometimes with regard to threat like, you know, the cotton field when it is getting attacked by a parasite on one side will send out a signal to the other side of the field to tell [it] in an advance that it is getting attacked, and that you should put out the chemical for predators in advance. It is an amazing kind of communication system. And then also, yeah, the idea, this possibility of—could it be possible that everything is reacting, you know, and that would only work if they were all communicating? and if that is possible and then now came back, usually the case.

Musser: One thing that really struck me also about the film was really the ending—or maybe the immediate pre-ending; three months had passed like a decade was and is almost life has gone back to normal.

Shyamalan: Yeah.

Musser: It was that because in your conception it is that people had ignored that signal or...

Shyamalan: ...Yeah, that there was enough ambiguity to let it go, you know, so much as we, you know, everybody just goes back to that thing. As long as you give them an out to back to their lives, they will take the out, you know; so I need a path of least resistance, so if you tell me it is probably the government well, you know, what it was a nuclear leak. If that was possible? I'm just giving a go to that, you know, and I am going to keep it to that. There is sense also. Yeah! I mean there is a, you know, to make a change on that scale we would have to make, if that was happening, on and off we would be capable of doing that without even more pain.

Musser: What kind of changes do you think it would have entailed, at least within the, kind of, fictional universe?

Shyamalan: Yeah, I mean it would have taken a complete eradication of what it is that large populations do, you know, how they are affecting the environment. What is it about the understanding likely to be, is there a collective energy that we're giving off? Do, you know, why do plants grow when you think of that, you know, all those kind of questions, you give off an energy; is energy even a valid way of communicating, and not a new age thing but a real thing, you know?

Musser: So, it would provoke some kind of introspection about those kinds of effects we're having on nature.

Shyamalan: Yeah, you start to get back to again the correct hierarchy of thinking about our relationship with nature like again the Native American thing, which I think is the correct one.

Musser: What role do you think science would play, ideally would play in that kind of transformation that would occur?

Shyamalan: Well, we would have to put on, you know, measurements and say, you know, at this point we, you know, I guess it would come down to the same type of things we're talking about now, about emissions and things like that, try to label it and try to go[know] what we've allowed. Is it right to have 4 million cars on this road right now, you know, rather than public transportation and all that stuff?

Musser: But ultimately you would be optimistic that we could work it through just if we had the will to do so?

Shyamalan: Yeah! You know, there is this, kind of, my wife was telling me, or someone was telling me recently about, kind of, farms that were self sustaining, you know, like this fancy new idea of self sustaining, you know; and I was like, do you mean like the way we used to be? It's like yeah, you grow what you can eat, you know, what I mean? And what you actually give to the community, you know, you do that thing, not more than that, you know. If we went back to that a little bit it would be, we get back into harmony, you know, it is like they don't mind us being here as long as we are not taking advantage of the situation.

Musser: But you think we could sustain our industrial, modern civilization or we have to go back to, sort of, a simpler...

Shyamalan: More real thing.

Musser: Yeah!

Shyamalan: You know that's a good question. If you have really thought about, I need to make this; the only [way] I can make it is out of plastic, is this the appropriate thing, you know what I mean? You know, we would have to rethink and rethink a little bit with regard to, am I hurting my family? Can you make something that can go back to nature and things like that, you know? If not then we can't build that thing.

Musser: These are, kind of, microcosm issues that our whole planet will be facing in the next 50 years or so.

Shyamalan: Every single thing, every single choice will be evaluated through the nature itself, how is it affecting the group.

Musser: Do you think you'll explore the same ideas in future films?

Shyamalan: Well, I do not know about the same exact ideas, but definitely of the research we got, science is such a fun, kick-off point for larger issues. It does have that almost, kind of, based, you know, on a true story, based on a true story, you know, feeling to it and you really can, you know, take a one more step and just kind of take it to a nightmare situation and then wake everybody up, kind of, feeling, I definitely have a couple of things noodling in my head now.

Musser: Cool, I am looking forward to hearing about them.

Shyamalan: Cool!

Musser: And I am glad you could take your time out.

Shyamalan: Oh! Thanks, man.

Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: The Mars Phoenix Lander is having trouble doing experiments on the soil because it's clumping more than expected.

Story number 2: If you like garlic and also want its health benefits, jars of minced garlic have just as much good smelly stuff as fresh cloves do.

Story number 3: A genetic propensity for what we call attention deficit disorder may actually have been beneficial under different living conditions.

And story number 4: At the game between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, Monday the 9th, the biggest cheer before an A-Rod homer in the seventh went to an impedance of photons.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. It was in the high 90s with scorching sunshine at the Stadium Monday afternoon. I was there, and as newspaper accounts verified, the crowd’s biggest cheer in the first six innings was for a small lone cloud that actually put the ballpark in shade. When the sunshine returned a few seconds later, it got roundly booed.

Story number 3 is true. Genetics associated with what we consider to be attention deficit disorder may have actually been an advantage for nomads. That's according to a study just out in the journal BioMed Central Evolutionary Biology. For more, tune in to the upcoming Friday June 13th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

And story number 1 is true. The Mars Lander has tried to get soil into its oven for baking and chemical analysis, but the soil refuses so far to disintegrate into fine enough particles to fit through the oven's opening. The good news is that the clumpiness may be due to the presence of water.

All of which means that story number 2, about bottles of minced or chopped garlic being just as healthful as fresh cloves, is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because fresh garlic maintains higher levels of the compound allicin than does the bottled kind, which is usually stored in water or oil. Studies have shown that allicin may help prevent blood clots and bacterial infections. In research published in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, extracts of garlic stored in water lost half its allicin in six days. Garlic in vegetable oil lost half its allicin in under an hour. Stink about it.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Visit SciAm.com for the latest science news, our own little movies, and slideshows. And sign up for the daily digest at SciAm.com/daily.For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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