What if? Science and Storytelling Panel at Woods Hole Film Festival

by Etta Devine - updated on April 15, 2018

Storytelling and science are basically the same thing; they both tell us how the world works. At least that was the consensus among the amazing screenwriters, filmmakers, and scientists that ScreenCraft got together at this year’s Woods Hole Film Festival.

Popular opinion may separate writing a Star Trek movie and taking a submarine to the bottom of the ocean to study extremophile microbes, but they are both trying to answer the same essential question. As panelist Nora Kay Foster (Heroes, American Odyssey, The Following) put it, “Scientists and storytellers are very much alike because we all ask the question… What if?”

Ken Buesseler, scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute agreed, saying, “You’re trying to figure out how to answer things that no one else has done.” He went on to say, “I’m thinking about things all the time… at night, in the morning. It’s not something you turn off.” Sound familiar, screenwriters?

There is also a symbiotic relationship between real life science and science fiction. “The invention of things come about because scientists do the hard work,” Foster said, “But some of it comes about because the ideas are out there, gives them a goal to reach for… a target to hit.” She references a science fiction story in which a man talked to his wife via his wristwatch. “I thought that would never happen. That’s crazy!”

The inspiration works both ways. Documentarian Joshua Seftel’s frustration with the fact that he knew more about Kardashian iced tea preferences than the incredible breakthroughs of the cancer researchers he was interviewing led him to pitch the television show The Secret Life Of Scientists and Engineers.

There was a general consensus that good storytelling about science is critical. “Science needs marketing,” Julie Huber (also of the WHO Institute) said. She didn’t know a single scientist until college but she knew she wanted to learn how the ocean worked. The future stewards of the planet, future taxpayers, and viewers of science media need to understand why science is important.

One example everybody loved was The Martian. They appreciated that it didn’t dumb down the science for the audience and instead used science to enhance the story. In general, the scientists wished that science was portrayed as a more personal endeavor. Nobody thinks someone writing a symphony is doing it without passion, but it seems to me that going out on boats to test 1,000 samples of ocean water for radiation from Fukushima (one of Buesseler’s projects) would take a lot of passion too.

Huber also thought scientists being presented in media as more diverse would be helpful. As the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media says, “If she can see it, she can be it.” And that doesn’t just apply to girls. Science can benefit from all kinds of diversity being inspired in those that appreciate it, those who want to write about it, and those who want to do it.

One of the “What if?” scenarios from panelist Michael Barnett (Becoming Bulletproof) is The Mars Generation, about NASA space camp and the kids who very well may take us to Mars. How many of those kids at space camp saw Star Trek and wanted to go to space? How many kids went to space camp and then wanted to write Star Trek? See? They’re essentially the same thing, but one you can do and not get motion sickness.

Unfortunately, most of our universities put writing and science in completely different buildings, but it would probably benefit everybody if there were more overlap. We need science to write about the world today. And scientists need us to do a little PR for them, catching the imaginations of the best grad students to carry their equipment, because it’s those imaginative grad students, inspired by a story, who will become the scientists who are best at asking “What if?”

Wish you could have been there? Here's the next best thing:

Etta Devine is best known for portraying the eternally optimistic loser Mary Olson in the short film Girl’s Night Out, which garnered over 1.3 million hits on YouTube and spawned the web series Mary OlsonAfter graduating from San Francisco State University she moved to Los Angeles where she became half of the comedy duo “Diani & Devine” with Gabriel Diani. Often compared to “Nichols & May” and “Burns and Allen,” the two have become audience favorites at comedy clubs and festivals all over the country. She co-produced and co-starred in the award-winning independent film The Selling, published the book “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [Robotic Edition],” and is a member of the A2 Ensemble at the Antaeus Theater Company.

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