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Science Talk

Creating Darwin's Biopic; and Consumer Electronics

Science Talk correspondent John Pavlus talks with Jon Amiel, director of the new Darwin biography movie Creation, and with Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson and one of the film's scriptwriters. Then we'll hear from a few of the exhibitors who spoke to's Larry Greenemeier at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

Science Talk correspondent John Pavlus talks with Jon Amiel, director of the new Darwin biography movie Creation, and with Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson and one of the film's scriptwriters. Then we'll hear from a few of the exhibitors who spoke to's Larry Greenemeier at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on January 23rd, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky, and earlier this month, Las Vegas hosted the 2010 International Consumer Electronics show, the CES. reporter Larry Greenemeier was there, and he recorded a few brief interviews with some of the exhibitors at the show. We'll play those a little later, but first:

Bettany: "I owe it to my children [to have the] the courage of my own convictions. My title will be On the Origin of Species."

Steve: That’s Paul Bettany who plays Charles Darwin in the new movie, Creation. his past week correspondent, John Pavlus caught up here in New York City with a couple of a people who brought Darwin's story to life in the film.

Pavlus: I am here to talk about the film Creation with the film's director…

Amiel: …Jon Amiel, guilty of directing…

Pavlus: …and Randal Keynes.

Keynes: Randal Keynes. I'm author of the book that the film used for the plot. The book is now called Creation: Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution.

Pavlus: What about Darwin is the film about?

Amiel: The film takes Darwin as a much younger man than I think we normally associate him with being; this is not the Darwin with a great, bushy beard; this is a young man in the prime of his life. And it focuses on the year, really, where he struggled hugely, virtually to the point of a nervous breakdown, to come to grips with writing Origin of Species; and it tells us the story, too, primarily through his relationship with his wife, who is the devout believer, and with his 10-year-old daughter, who was his pride and joy.

Keynes: And there's a twist in what Jon has just explained, which is that Darwin's daughter had died at eight years before this time when Darwin was writing the book.

Amiel: The film presents Annie, the deceased daughter, as just you know, almost kind of like a linchpin in Darwin's, you know, home and working life and his whole career; was she really that important in the creation of his book and in his decision to write it versus not write it.

Keynes: The film doesn't claim that Darwin wrote the Origin of Species because of Annie. It presents her as a companion with whom Darwin can talk about certain things and through Darwin's link with whom we can see certain very important features of the story of his thinking and the difficulties he had in publishing it. So she is a figure in the film, but her death is an important part of the plot in the drama, but in no sense an explanation of the Origin of the Species.

Pavlus: Yes, I mean I think, she is an emotional interdependent rather than a necessarily intellectual, philosophical interdependent in that process.

Amiel: I think the film is full of the science that conceals science. In other words, if you are interested in Darwin's ideas, you'll find an enormous number of them embedded deeply in the fabric of the story, in the imagery, in the dialogue, in the dramatic confrontations, in sometimes the visual juxtapositions. For example, we dramatize some of Darwin's nightmares. The first segues from a picnic in a sunlit English meadow through, via a rat climbing over a sheep skull, moves into the sheep's skull, where we see maggots growing, where we see birds eating the maggots, we see the fledgling of this bird fall from it's nest and perish, only to be eaten by the beetles and worms and other things. A sequence like that not only goes to Darwin's nightmares, in other words, what must it feel like as a naturalist who's used to seeing the young of various species perish in a routine way, how must it feel to now look at those events through the prism of having lost a child himself; but it also dramatizes, you know, a central passage in Origin of Species where Darwin describes the meadow bank with birds flying around and butterflies and describes that as in fact a battleground where life is being created and destroyed on a [moment] by [moment] basis.

Pavlus: In the press materials, you said, Randal, that there are some parts of the film that you actually kind [of] appreciated in that they sort of took the actual historical record of the facts as sort of a jumping off point [and kind of went away from them].

Keynes: Yes.

Pavlus: And I'm wondering why you felt that way?

Keynes: This was the strangest part of the making of the film for me, that I found that in the making of the film, they managed a[t] a number of points to add points to the story. There are things for which there is no documentation, but the things that they added I was glad to have [added] because they provided a picture for a truth about the story that I felt was very important.

Amiel: One of the wonderful things about working with Randall in this was that he enfranchised us to do that and to explore things that neither a biographer or a historian is capable of doing; to actually go into the mind of the [man]; to say how do you deal with a loss of daughter when you're a naturalist? How do you deal with a relationship with a woman you adore, when you're so diametrically oppose in your view of a faith in religion? Why was it that Darwin became so violently ill during the writing of this? What must've been going through his mind at that time to make himself physically sick and virtually bring [him] to the point of a nervous breakdown? So these things are fortunately, I think, [the] purview of a feature film.

Pavlus: Paul Bettany, the star who plays Darwin was telling us that he thinks that the film, if it has a message, it's one of tolerance, if anything else, because it's about a man and a woman who just, like you said, are so differing in their ideas about how the world works and their own place in it, and yet they so clearly love each other and support each other and make a happy life together; and I'm wondering what each of you have to say about that—what you'd like people to take away from this film, if anything?

Amiel: I think we may've offended staunch creationists and, sort of, [members] of the Darwin industry, almost equally by portraying Darwin, firstly as a human being, not a bearded demon, as the creationists would like to have us believe; but also as a very fragile human being, and not the granite bastion of simple, rational thought that the Darwin [industry] would somehow up to have you believe. I think that in presenting him as a human being, powerful, indomitable and frail all at the same time, what we have done is done an enormous service to the man himself; and secondly, hopefully to provoke thought and argument about him. So much of what one hears about Darwin in the media is sloganeering and completely unrelated to the man or the reality of who he was and almost what [he] really thought. By humanizing him, I think we've done, in a sense, the most dangerous and provocative thing of all, and I hope that audiences will be moved. My greater hope is they'll leave wanting to learn a lot more about the man and his ideas.

Keynes: I would just say that I agree very much that the central achievement of the film is to bring [Darwin] to life as a thinking, imagining, feeling, caring person. Then, I hope that people will be influenced from the film to recognize how all of those aspects of human life are important in the exercise of science. And I think we can get a better understanding of science, scientific achievement, what it is to be a scientist, if we recognize that scientists are not the cool, rational, objective…

Pavlus: Yeah...

Keynes: …determiners of the truth, that they would often like to be considered to be, because that way it seems that what you're arguing has an inevitability; but need commitment, need imagination, need creativity, need support from their friends, their partners and others around them to do what is just so difficult just to make progress in knowledge and understanding.

Steve: Randal Keynes, in addition to being Darwin's great-great grandson is also the grandson of Edgar Adrian, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology, and he's the great nephew of economist, John Maynard Keynes—quite a family tree. The annual international Consumer Electronics Show, the CES, took place in Vegas earlier this month. reporter, Larry Greenemeier came back with four brief interviews he conducted with exhibitors at the show.

Nixon: My name is Tim Nixon. I'm the OnStar chief engineer, and we've been working on OnStar mobile app now for a number of months leading up to this event. And the whole point of the mobile app is really to extend a lot of the capabilities that are in the Volt today or that will be in the Volt when it launches later this year, pull them out of the cockpit and put them in the hands of a customer. We've recognized that customers are going to be using the vehicle in unique ways compared to a normal gasoline-engine vehicle. It's a vehicle that you can plug in, obviously it's an electric vehicle with an extended range, so you're going to have a situation, potentially, where customers are going to want to know, "What's my state of charge, I've got to go, not just home, but I've got to stop over at my buddy's house on the way home and you know it's not that normal five or 10 mile drive, and do I have enough charge? I can use the phone to tell me while I'm sitting in my office or maybe while I'm sitting in my living room at the house, tell me what's going on, right, and get you that extra connectivity. And that was really the whole point of bringing the connectivity [that] OnStar has [to] the vehicle. We do this everyday with our advisors. You can press the button and talk to a person, but we've recognized that the people [who] are going to be driving the Volt are going to really want to know some additional things that a normal car vehicle customer aren't necessarily going to be, right, they're not going to be thinking about it so much. You have gasoline, you drive it, you fill it up when you need to. Today, we're announcing the app on iPhone, Motorola/Verizon's Droid and the Blackberry Storm, and we chose those because those are kind of the prevalent smart phone[s] apps there are out there. We recognize that there may be others that come along, certainly Google just announced a new phone today or just this week, so we also recognize that we're going to have to keep an eye on what's going on, but we didn't want to go after just one device, because we felt that customers are going to be coming, bringing smart phones to this car, of course, there are customers that are out there with their phones, they're going to bring those into the dealer showroom and buy a Volt, we want to be able to accommodate more than just one device if we could. There is a demo, it's at and basically if you go [on] there, if you have an iPhone or Droid or Blackberry Storm, when you go [on]to that site, it will give you instructions on how to download the app and create a native demo app on your phone. It'll be on iTunes and they can get it on the OnStar site and the OnStar site will also direct you to the iTunes store; so there'll be a button there, if you go there with an iPhone, it'll direct you to the iTunes site and bring up the app.

Pearson: Melanie Pearson with Liquid Image Co. Really what all of our products, are they're taking camera and putting it into the product, so that your hands are free and you're carrying around one less item. And all of the items, all of the products, actually have both videos and still image. We have everything from snorkel goggle[s] to scuba diving and everything from VGA to HT video and now [what] we've done is we've added a wide-angle lens, a 135-degree, as opposed to last year we had 54 degrees, so you get a wider field of view; and then we've also increased the depth to 40 meters, 130 feet. The depth grading, we were working towards deeper depth grading for multiple industries including, you know, commercial divers and people who dive on a daily basis [who], you know, go to deeper levels; but we've added lights and filters, somewhat at the request of divers and people who would use that. Primarily though, everything that we do, we do it because we want to use it, and we improve it so that it works for us. Swim goggles is more of a family fun–type product. You know, you're playing in the swimming pool and you want to capture photos and videos, and it's got a cheaper price point, $79. The new diving model will be SMA retail at $350, and it should ship around May, the snow goggle, $149.

Michelle: Hi, I'm Michelle [Soon] from Eton Corporation, and I'm going to tell you about our new product lineup for 2010. We've got an entire emergency preparedness family from American, with a co-branding of American Red Cross. The Clipray is a self-powered flashlight as well as emergency cell phone charger, so you can just plug in your cell phone to the USB port, crank it; about one minute of crank will do about two minutes of talk time, so it's really for that emergency call. We've got the Blackout Buddy, which is great; it's pretty much a night-light as well as a flashlight, so you can plug it into your wall, keep it plugged in; when it's nighttime, you can see that, when it's dark it'll actually illuminate itself—it's a nightlight—and then once it's daytime, it turns off again. And when the power is cut, it jumps to life. What you can do is you can actually pull the whole unit out and use it as a flashlight and fully charged, it will last for about two hours, which is great, you know, [it's] dark, [there are] blackouts, it's [an] emergency; you've got to get to, you know, your radios or whatever to find out; and the radios have AM/FM as well as the weather band. So its great for, you know, being informed. It's got solar panels as well as hand cranking, it has the internal batteries that stay charged, it also has its own batteries, you can plug in your own batteries as well as a DC adapter that can charge everything up. Brand new for the Eton line, we've got the Scorpion. This is a very cool all-in-one kind of outdoor utility tool. It's got the aluminum carabineers, you can just put that on your backpack and go for it, its got your AM/FM as well as weather band radio, flashlight with LED lights—all of these by the way are LEDs—it's got a fun little bottle opener, just because, you know, that's definitely [an] emergency; it also has the, what's really cool about it is it's self-contained, because the solar panel, one hour in the sun, it will last for 30 minutes of radio playtime as well as a line in. So you can plug in your iPod and watch it work as its own speaker. It's got an emergency cell phone charger as well and that is the same—you know, one minute of crank is about two minutes of speak time.

Fuhriman: My name is David Fuhriman; I'm a product marketing manager and the company is Oregon Scientific. And the Green Line is intended to help people monitor their electricity usage which in turn helps to manage it, and what we use is first a basic individual appliance manager with an LCD screen. [It] helps you to see in real time how much energy is being used; it can also account for peak pricing, so you can see what the overall cost is, even if your utility uses peak pricing models. This will be coming in the fall and I think our core competency is in wireless transmission and technology. A lot of people know [us] for weather stations that send temperature and humidity data. We're really translating that over into energy usage and passing along that same information in an easy-to-use display for people in one location in their home. The other two items that we have are wireless energy managers. So they use a wireless sensor plug that you plug into the wall, you plug your appliance into the plug, and then it will wirelessly transmit that information to a monitor or display that you can put anywhere in your home. And from that you can see in a real time not only costs from one appliance but up to eight on the Advance Wireless Manager. It also has two-way communications. So you can actually set timers for different lamps or places in your home from the display. The Aromatherapy line, in particular, the ultrasonic aroma diffusers are intended to, you know, set a nice mood and nice atmosphere, regardless of where you're at. It uses ultrasonic technology so you just add a couple of drops of aroma oil in water, and it'll start to send out those aromas, it has soothing sounds and color changing light. Funny story, we had our first baby in August, and I had a[n] early prototype of this, and I took it into the hospital because you can't take anything with flames into the hospital, and we loved it; I mean, it had a nice aroma, not the hospital smell, not hospital sounds or lights, and it worked out really well for us. So, you put a couple of drops in there with some water and it will diffuse throughout the water and send it out ultrasonically to the top of the product. This will be available this spring. This is the first from us. There's been other ultrasonic diffusers, but what we're trying to add are [a] number of unique and fun features that allow [it] to set an entire environment and not just send out the right aroma, but also the right sights, the right sounds. [It] also has a nice handy remote so you can use that on your bedside or turn it on and off or set a timer so that the aroma turns off, you know, half [an] hour after you go to bed.

Steve: You can read Larry Greenemeier and Nikhil Swaminathan's coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show at our Web site. Larry and Nikhil report on net books, supersafe external hard drives, driverless automobiles, solar powered Bluetooth devices, and much more. Just go to and search for CES.

We'll roll out the news quiz, TOTALL……. Y BOGUS in a separate stand-alone episode coming soon. Till then, check out the January 22nd blog item on how little we're doing to track the kinds of objects that would make the Earth quite a mess, if they smashed into us. It's titled, "Report Says Scientists Lack Funds to Meet Congressional Goal for Finding Smaller, Near-Earth Asteroids," and you'll find that the article at For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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