Steve: Welcome to Scientific American Science Talk, posted on February 20, 2015. I'm Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
Heather: We're going to be reviewing Interstellar as well as Theory of Everything and Birdman.
Steve:That's Heather Berlin; she is assistant professor of psychiatry and of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine here in New York City, and she's also the co-host of the new TV program Science Goes to the Movies. I spoke to her by phone.
You've got this new series starting, it sounds very exciting. Tell us about it.
Heather: So it's sort of a kind of Siskel and Ebert type movie review show, but with a science blend. So we're reviewing films – and they don’t all have to be necessarily science films, but we're kind of looking at films that are in popular culture from a science perspective.
Steve: Are these going to be all contemporary films, or are you going to go back for classics?
Heather: So we're starting out now doing contemporary films. Like for example, our first episode is an Oscar special, so we're looking at films that have been nominated for the Oscars. But we will do some sort of retrospectives as well and look at films that, you know, popular films in the past, probably with a science theme.
Steve: Well this is a particularly good year for science at the movies, with both the Stephen Hawking and the Alan Turing movies, and Interstellar. And you have a special guest for this first episode.
Heather: Yes. So for the first episode we're going to be reviewing Interstellar as well as Theory of Everything and Birdman. But particularly for Interstellar and Theory of Everything we are going to be exploring black holes. And so we had an astrophysicist come on, Dr. Emily Rice, who is currently at the American Museum of Natural History, to help kind of explain black holes and physics and time and how it relates to these two films.
Steve: So just give me a quick idea of what the science is in Birdman.
Heather: So actually I spoke a lot about the science in Birdman because we talk a lot about what it means to have hallucinations and how that's related to the brain and that kind of fine line between, you know, the reality out there in the world and the kind of reality that we create within our minds. Where normally we can see the difference between the two, but when we lose that boundary, that's when these kind of hallucinations can take over. And this movie I think really gave you a nice insight into that. It was kind of similar to like a Beautiful Mind or Black Swan, where you can sort of get inside the head of somebody who's having these hallucinations and can't quite distinguish reality from fantasy. So we're reviewing some cool things.
Like this week, next episode – well, we're filming it this week, but the next episode that will air next month, it's going to be The Imitation Game, you know, the new Alan Turing film. We're also looking at Into the Woods, but we're looking at the music in that and looking at pattern recognition. So, you know, some films that are obviously science films we'll be reviewing, but there will be other films, which you won't be able to easily make the link between the film and science, but we will. And I think that's also really exciting.
Steve: By the way, have you seen, there's an HBO documentary with Sondheim, it's called Six by Sondheim?
Heather: No, I haven't seen that. We actually tried – we were going to get Sondheim as a guest on this show, and then he couldn't make it. But he responded, and it was just so cool to get a response from him, you know?
Steve: Oh, that is a shame, because if you watch this documentary, he talks at length and so intelligently about what he does. He's got such an amazing grasp of his material and his process and how to put together the kinds – you know, he's playing on a different level from everybody else who does what he does.
Heather: Oh yeah. We really want to sort of deconstruct his music and the patterns that he uses. And also I'm going to talk a bit about why the brain, you know, we're sort of made for pattern recognition, and why there's certain kind of rhythms and melodies that really appeal to us, and those kind of songs that get stuck in your head, you know, and how that kind of works on a neural level.
Steve: Right. Although I think a lot of people would say he doesn't write those.
Heather: Yes. We're going to actually talk about that, yeah. There's going to be a musicologist who's going to come on and, yeah, that's true.
Steve: Excellent. I'm really looking forward to watching it.
Steve: And how many episodes of the program do you have planned? You're debuting Friday night, the 20th.
Heather: Right. We're going to have, the first series is going to be 13 episodes, and they'll be airing – coming out once a month. And, you know, hopefully we're looking into a second season.
Steve: And it's you and Faith Salie who-
Steve: -people who watch CBS Sunday Morning will be familiar with her work.
Heather: Yeah, she's great. She's a media personality and, you know, she talks a lot about culture and, you know, she's a commentator. And she does pieces for CBS This Morning, she's also on NPR, she's on shows like Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me. And so it's really nice to have that kind of – I think it's a nice balance, because she's certainly much more – has much more sort of media experience, and I'm the scientist. So I think it makes for a very nice kind of balance and discussion between the two of us.
Steve: And we can look forward to the ubiquitous Neil deGrasse Tyson, he's going to be on one of the future episodes, as well as—
Heather: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And we're in talks now with possibly Bill Nye is going to come on as a guest. And we're also going to have some people from the entertainment industry, so we're looking at some of the actors of these films and the directors to come on and talk about them as well.
Steve: Yeah. Sometimes the actors really learn a lot about the science if it's relevant to the part they're playing.
Heather: Yeah, exactly. You know, a lot of actors do research on a film. Like this recent film, Still Alice, the lead actress, Julianne Moore, she actually came to Mount Sinai Medical School, where I work, to do research on early-onset Alzheimer's and try to really understand it. And there are a lot of actors who do that, and so they really are interested in the science.
Steve: That's very cool. So people in New York can watch the series on channel 75 on local cable; I think that's Time-Warner in Manhattan. But if you're not in New York City how can you watch this what appears to be a really interesting series of programs?
Heather: Yeah, so after it airs, the first episode airs on TV, then it will appear online on the CUNY TV Web site. And then anybody all over the world can get to see it.
Steve: So you've just got to go to the City University of New York, CUNY, to their Web site and you can hunt around for it there. And is it also on YouTube?
Heather: I think, yes, it's eventually going to be on YouTube as well. So you can either go to CUNY.tv I believe it is, and then it will be on YouTube as well.
Steve: Well this is great. I mean for people who like science and who like movies, and I think that's a lot of people, they should really be interested in this.
Heather: Yeah, I think it's a really cool idea. I mean I think if I wasn't doing the show I'd certainly want to watch a show like this. So, you know, when I first heard the idea pitched to me I thought, "Yeah, how come nobody thought of this before?" Because, you know, especially as a scientist and I think most people, you know, like film, and then to be able to learn something about, you know, science and how the world works via these kinds of beautiful pieces of art – you know, that's how I see films – I think it's just a great idea. I'm excited to be a part of it.
Steve: That's it for this episode. To find the programs with Heather Berlin, Faith Salie, and their guests check your local listings if you're in the New York City area – the program is repeated a lot – or just go to www.CUNY.tv/show/ScienceGoesToTheMovies. And get your science news at our Web site, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can also peruse our collection of e-books, for example, the recently published His Brain Her Brain, which takes a look at the anatomical, chemical, and functional differences in the brains of men and women, as well as some surprising similarities. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @sciam.
For Scientific American Science Talk I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
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