Movie review: Jane (2017)

So you think you know all about Jane Goodall? Maybe. Maybe not. This documentary uses 100 hours of newly discovered film shot from Jane’s early days studying chimpanzees in Gombe. The film was shot by Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s. Hugo would go on to become Jane’s husband. It is interspersed with more modern film and an interview with Jane herself.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1957, Dr. Louis Leakey thought that the study of chimpanzees could teach us about early man. He was looking for someone not tainted by thinking in the scientific community. He needed someone with an open mind, a love of animals, and a passion for knowledge. Jane had grown up dreaming of living in Africa among animals. She unfortunately was unable to attend university so she had no training and no degree. It was a perfect pairing.

Jane left on a six-month study of chimpanzees in Gombe. She found chimpanzees and tried to get close to them. The first five months went nowhere. At six months, the funding would run out. Thankfully she experienced a break through with the chimpanzees during the last months. The chimpanzees accepted her. Her study and observations went into high gear…and more funding followed.

This was the 1960s though. And she was a young twenty-something. A woman by herself in the wild just would not do. So her mom went with her. Yes, her mom. Her mom seems to be something of an independent woman (where else would Jane have gotten her independence?) who strongly supported and encouraged her daughter. She opened a clinic and provided medicine to African fishermen while Jane conducted her study of the chimpanzees.

Jane’s observation of the chimpanzee stood a lot of assumptions on their head. She countered the beliefs that only humans were rational, only humans had minds, only humans used tools. She disproved all of these and was attacked for it. After she observed chimpanzees fashioning tools to reach termites in order to eat them—and passing this tool-making knowledge on to other chimpanzees—a photographer was sent to capture the chimpanzees and Jane.

At first annoyed that her solitude was disturbed, Jane later found that she and Hugo (the cameraman) seemed to be two peas in a pod. After his assignment ended and he went elsewhere, he proposed and Jane accepted. Jane never dreamt of marriage, but there she was getting married. She never dreamt of having children, but there she was having a child.

Marriage and motherhood threw her a curveball. Reflecting the times, wives and mothers took second tier to their husbands’ careers. Jane was no exception. She took what turned out to be a hiatus from studying chimps to go to the Serengeti with Hugo. She wrote books and he filmed. Later she raised her son in Africa until he was school-age and then sent him to England to live with her mother while he attended school.

Although disruptive to her career, motherhood for Jane was informed by her earlier observations of an infant-mother relationship (the chimpanzees Flo and Flint). In turn, her own motherhood informed her observations of the chimpanzees.

The film shows fun times with chimpanzees. The observers became close to the chimps, touching and even grooming them. Later though this community of chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic. It was excruciating to hear about and witness—I cannot imagine the pain that Jane might have felt as she watched what happened to the chimpanzees that she had grown to known quite well.

Some of the chimpanzees suffered paralyzed limbs. Others were not affected. One in particular was euthanized to end his suffering. This was a case of the human observer interfering in the so-called normal course of nature. But Jane could not watch a chimpanzee basically die through starvation because he could not move to feed or care for himself.

The film portrays other emotional moments with the tribe. When Flo, the elder female chimpanzee whom Jane had observed over the years, died, her teenage son Flint was so distraught. He stopped eating and within 3 weeks died himself. Heartbreak seems to not just be a human trait.

Flo’s death had other consequences that deeply affected the tribe. Some split into a separate tribe and moved south. They became strangers to the original tribe. The result? When the groups interacted again, there was warfare. The southern group was obliterated. Suddenly another assumption was destroyed: chimpanzees are not the mostly docile bunch Jane and others thought they were. (Granted, she recognized that they killed other primate babies…which was a consideration when raising her own son in Africa).

Jane helped me understand more fully Goodall’s life and the important observations that she made that contributed to our understanding about ourselves and mankind. Jane never stopped doing the work that Dr. Leakey first set out to do: study chimpanzees to better understand early man. Her observations debunked so many erroneous ideas (only humans are rational, have minds, use tools, conduct warfare) and led to better understandings of ourselves (mother-infant relationships).

In many ways, Jane is a role model, a woman who lived her dreams. She tried to combined career, marriage, and motherhood, but her life again reveals how hard that is—she had to put her own research on hold and the marriage ultimately ended. Her life story is both the sad reflection of the societal limitations on women and the ways that women can and cannot overcome them.

Book review: Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

After recently reading Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, I moved on to his lengthier work, Reality Is Not What It Seems. I wasn’t disappointed.

This book is a fleshing out of ideas, placing them in historical context. Rovelli starts with the Greeks, the views of reality they expounded, and how more modern theories of how the world work built on their theories or disproved them. A lover of history and a novice when it comes to physics, I found that his Seven Brief Lessons on Physics gave me enough of a scaffolding to understand the facts and scientific history that he described.

I learned so much more about physics—the exotic and mundane. (Was Einstein really bad in math? Suddenly, I didn’t feel like such a moron due to my lack of skill in the math department.)

My education about how the world works seemed to have been based on Newtonian physics. Theories and discoveries since then are kind of, well, mind-blowing. Space is finite but has no boundaries. How can that be? It curves. Time is not what we think. Time is local. The present is an illusion. (Kind of sounding Buddhist now.) Space is not a vacuum and the question what makes up space actually makes no sense. Rather than a Big Bang, there was more a Big Bounce. The universe expands and contracts.

Do not ask me to explain any of these things or the basic ideas of quantum theory. I understood enough of what Rovelli describes but not enough to articulate it or the reasoning behind it. Fascinating stuff physics—the quest to understand how the world works.

If you are interested in the history of quantum gravity and the ideas behind it, Rovelli’s book is for you. With his explanations about quantum theory, he may upend what you know—or what you thought you knew—about space and time, the universe, and how it all works.

Book review: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

I was excited to delve into this slim book on physics. I was never a stellar pupil of science. I shied away from it in school, confused and befuddled. I grew up in an environment where you either got it or you didn’t. I didn’t. Physics was deemed the hardest, so I did not even attempt to dip my toe into that milieu.

But adulthood is different. I have waded into different fields, trying to make up for time lost. What can I learn? What could change my understanding of the world? What can I grasp from these fields seemingly closed off in my youth?

I don’t profess to understand all that Rovelli discusses in his slim volume, but he starts to lift the veil on different fields in physics, what constitutes these fields, and how they contribute to our understanding of the world.

These lessons are divided into chapters based on a series of articles that appeared in an Italian newspaper. Rovelli walks through the major theories and its proponents: general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the cosmos and its elementary particles, quantum gravity, and probability and black holes.

Some seems to contradict early learnings or expands on them. Other introduces me to whispers that I heard elsewhere or am encountering for the first time. It is all a brief, cursory intro. But my hope is that like with other things in life, this basic knowledge will form a loose framework that I can add to over time. I can build on this knowledge, that something that I encounter in the future will remind me of a concept that he introduced and it will help illuminate the concept further. That something will click and a lightbulb go on.

Rovelli’s book may be too basic for those well-versed in physics or science. But to the novice it is a great place to dip one’s toe before wading in.

Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.

Movie review: Merchants of Doubt (2014)

There must be a special place in hell for those that seek to influence public policy through lies and deceit.

Merchants of Doubt walks us through the tactics used by companies to prevent public policy that would derail profits or destroy industries. The process is likened to a magician who uses various methods to distract you from reality and show you a completely different reality for you to buy into. Similarly, those in the pay of companies that harm the environment or human health seek to manipulate people’s sense of reality and how the world works.

The documentary starts with the tobacco industry and the long fight to prove that smoking is dangerous. In 1978, Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine, came out against smoking…and ran headlong into pressure from money, political power, and as he put it, meanness. Thousands of pages of internal tobacco industry documentation were leaked, revealing research that the tobacco industry had been conducting for decades. The research showed how harmful smoking was.

For decades, tobacco industry advocates insisted that they knew of no harmful effects. And yet, according to their internal documents, in 1958 they knew that heavy smoking led to lung cancer; and in 1963 they knew that smoking caused heart disease and that nicotine was addictive.

What to do when you know your product causes harm? Hire a PR firm. In 1953, tobacco companies hired Hill and Knowlton who advised them to cast doubt on any claims of harm. This worked for 50 years.

Other industries—chemical, asbestos, oil, etc.—adopted this playbook with disastrous effects on human and environmental health. It is only after decades of concerted efforts by investigative journalists and scientists that science, data, and reality wins over the tactics of doubt and misrepresentation.

In the movie, two Chicago Tribune reporters, Sam Roe and Patricia Callahan, walk us through the fight against flame retardants and the tactics used by the companies that produced the flame retardants. Interestingly, the use of flame retardants owes its existence to cigarettes.

In the 1970s thousands were dying in fires caused by cigarettes, which continued to burn after they were set down. The tobacco industry refused to change their cigarettes to self-extinguish. Instead, they pointed to the “real” culprit: furniture. They argued that rather than change cigarettes, the world around cigarettes needed to be fire-proofed.

They distorted reports from fire scientists, who found that flame retardants do not help protect against fires. (Never mind the serious health effects of the high levels of flame retardants now in American bodies.) They planted their own spies in firefighter organizations. One organization unknowingly selected a tobacco lobbyist as their legislative representative. This was the start of the industry countering with their own people as “experts” to sow seeds of doubt.

The documentary next dives into the most pressing issue of our times—climate change—to illustrate the same tactics used: the use of doubt and the so-called experts. Scientists, who work with objective data, were not prepared. James Hansen, a climate scientist who spoke out in 1988 expressed this: “We just assumed that humanity would take sensible actions to avoid undesirable consequences.” They didn’t anticipate the power of money and ideology.

One scientist, Naomi Oreskes, started to realize something. The attacks against data were similar whether it was about smoking, acid rain, or the hole in the ozone layer. The same people were involved. This wasn’t a scientific debate about the data. She noticed too that it wasn’t necessarily about money or profits.

Two huge voices against climate change—Fred Singer and Fred Seitz—were scientists but not in the climate field. In other words, they did not have expertise in the field, but they passed themselves off as experts. Interestingly, both previously worked for tobacco companies. (And saw smoking as the fault of smokers, not the companies!)

Even more interesting, Oreskes discovered that these two fake climate experts were scientists from the Cold War who were vehemently anti-Communist. Their ideology pre-disposed them to violently reject anything that would require government intervention, which smacks of Communist control.

Whether the problem was tobacco, DDT, the ozone layer, or global warming, all require government intervention and regulation. And in their minds, regulation is a slippery slope to Communism. Government control of the economy was NOT acceptable to the Freds. They would do anything to prevent it, even allowing the destruction of the environment and human health.

This revelation actually informs the hordes of people who deny climate change or the human role in it (as well as the rise of libertarianism). Few people change their minds when presented with data. People are too attached to their ideologies.

Government intervention, regulation, control of the economy, and Communism are all linked, seemingly logical stepping stones from one to the other. Climate change requires government intervention and regulation, which climate change deniers see leading down a slippery slope towards Communism. Based on an ideology that is anti-government intervention (libertarianism, anti-Communism), climate change must be denied. Period. There is no room for acknowledgement, let alone discussion about it.

The documentary shows one man who was open to changing his position when he was confronted by the data. Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, initially railed against climate change. And then he sat down and looked at the data. He raised the point that people belong to tribes and will stick to beliefs that do not jive with facts in order to remain in the tribe and keep their identity. The libertarians that he is a part of violently deny climate change at the panels he attends. For them to do otherwise would require them to accept government intervention and regulation, the core thing libertarians are opposed to.

The documentary also shows other tactics of deception that people use to sow doubt and to suggest that the debate about climate change is not settled among scientists. Organizations pop up that mirror legitimate scientific ones. Their documentation lays out “data” in the same way with the same design. The research from the legitimate experts and the fake ones are hard to tell apart. They hide behind numbers, claiming that tens of thousands of scientists signed a petition about climate change not being real, when in fact it was the signatures that were not legitimate.

And then there are the think tanks, which are really lobbying organizations that do not do research but push public policy positions based on ideology. The George C. Marshall Institute is a case in point, run by a CEO who, it was discovered after some digging, was a lobbyist.

These lobbyists and so-called experts flood op eds and news programs. Journalists fall for their scam, presenting them as legitimate counters to scientists who present data showing that climate change is happening. We too fall for them, never looking for their credentials.

One such fake expert, Marc Morano, was happily interviewed for this documentary. For decades he worked to attack scientists. Not the science. Not the data. The scientists themselves.

The conversation about climate change had now moved very far from being a debate about the data. The conversation had moved very far from being the sowing of doubt about the data. Like with magic, they were seeking to distract and keep people from looking at the science. The point was to switch your focus to something else.

And that’s when talk about freedom entered the conversation on climate change. Freedom is so fundamental to being an American, it easily gets people up in arms (quite literally in the US). Acknowledging climate change is seen as an attack on freedom, an attack on the American way of life. If climate change is true, then I have to change how I live my life. My freedoms are being attacked.

Merchants of Doubt is an incredibly powerful and important film. The deception used to prevent public policy that would improve lives and health is sickening. The documentary shows the use of fake news before the term came into our current lexicon. It reveals the ways that we are deceived in hopes that we wake up.

In the past we have come to our senses after decades and decades of fighting by scientists and investigative journalists to bring the truth to light. But as one person stated, in terms of climate change, we don’t have decades and decades to wait. We may lose this battle, too busy distracted by fake experts, the supposed threat to our freedoms, and the ideological horror of government regulation.