Storytelling Our Way Into Science

This past weekend, my family, like perhaps many others around the U.S. went to the movie theatre to watch Matt Damon living on and (spoiler alert!) figuring out how to get home from Mars. We all liked the movie, my eight year-old daughter most of all, full of questions during (sorry people behind us!) and after the movie. “I want to be just like her!” she said, gesturing at Jessica Chastain (Captain Melissa Lewis) as she floated through the spaceship. “The Martian” is perhaps an extreme example, but as an extreme it may best illustrate the power of great entertainment and a great story as an on-ramp for creating STEM interest.

The Martian is many things as a novel (by Andy Weir) and a movie. In particular, the latter comes off as much a science love story as it is a story of the indomitable human spirit (which is often the story of science!). We see Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor lead an un-self-consciously diverse group of scientists (with the stray, but important conflicted administrator or two) through an integrated collage of brief lessons in botany, agriculture, psychology, math, computer science, astronomy, astrobiology, physics, chemistry, and of course, engineering, all rigorously and artfully directed by Ridley Scott so as to be aligned with the mission of the story rather than as obvious didactic call-outs. It’s essentially a story of problem posing and problem solving, which on a more universal level is a story of cycles of despair and hope, and as such, one that captures the audience in the gut. That kind of connection, sustained throughout the movie, enables the science to also grab hold of the viewer, as answers to a curiosity (or as salve to anxiety) raised by the suspenseful narrative. That is, the —> Read More