Video: “Bringing Chemistry to Prime Time” Stephen Lyons
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Cliff Mead: Our next speaker is Steve Lyons. He is an award-winning writer and producer with twenty-five years of experience in television, newspapers, and magazines. He has written grant proposals, in film treatments, that have helped raise more that $25 million dollars for a dozen PBS serials and specials, and he has been a writer and producer on three documentary series for the long-running PBS science series NOVA, as well as shorter pieces for other programs. After four years as senior editor for program development at the WGBH science unit, Lyons left to form Moreno/Lyons Productions with his wife, Aida Moreno, another long-time WGBH producer. He served as project director for NOVA’s Percy Julian Biography Project, a five-year effort to call attention to the life and career of the late African American chemist Percy Julian. The project, funded by major grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, culminated in a two-hour biography of Julian, written and produced by Lyons and director Llew Smith, and starring Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Julian. Forgotten Genius was broadcast on NOVA in February 2007. Lyons is currently developing a multi-media chemistry project called "The Mystery of Matter," with support from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. I give you Steve Lyons. [Audience Applause] [1:48]
Stephen Lyons: Well, while she works on that, let me just say that coming from Boston, the home of Jacoby Ellsbury and the World Champion Red Sox [audience cheering], thank you Oregon and Oregon State! He’s a wonderful player; we’re very happy to have him. Like Bassam and Robert, I’m in the business of communicating science to the public, in my case through the medium of television. As Cliff mentioned, I spent four years at NOVA, developing science series for PBS. And I was a writer and co-producer on three films for NOVA. I’m going to talk today about the challenges of communicating chemistry to a television audience in primetime. Not educational chemistry, but entertainment chemistry. But I’d like to start by showing a clip from my most recent film – the one that got me interested in doing films on chemistry in the first place. However, I’m missing my PowerPoint. [2:45]
The film that I want to show you a clip from is called Forgotten Genius. It aired on NOVA in February. It’s a two-hour biography of a once-famous, but now largely forgotten, African American chemist named Percy Julian. The film is roughly divided between Julian’s achievements in chemistry and his lifelong battle against racism, in and out of science. The first act covers the first thirty years of his life: growing up in the Jim Crow South, where schools for black kids simply stopped after the eighth grade - that was considered education enough. He made his way to college at DePauw University and then became the first black chemist to earn a master’s at Harvard, and ultimately earned his PhD at the University of Vienna.
In Vienna, Julian studied the chemistry of plants, and he took a particular interest in a family of compounds called alkaloids, which are known for their potency. That would turn out to be very important, as you’ll see in this clip. Julian was only the fourth African American chemist to earn a PhD, and in 1931 he returned to Howard University in triumph. He was really on top of the world. He was number one, the number one black chemist in America, and then he promptly lost his job in a scandal. This is right in the middle of the Depression. Act 1 ends with that low point of his life.
The clip I’m going to show you is the very beginning of Act 2, when he begins the long road back by taking on a very challenging bit of alkaloid chemistry. One of the storytelling devices we adopted was to have the actor who plays Julian deliver a speech built of excerpts from speeches Julian himself gave during his lifetime. We introduce the speech in Act 1, and we come back to it periodically throughout the film, including this scene. So here’s the first ten minutes of Act 2 of Forgotten Genius. If I can get it to play… [4:44]
A little louder would be good.
[NOVA "Forgotten Genius" video clip] [5:10]
Stephen Lyons: There are a lot of things I could say about this little clip, but I think the most important point to make is that it illustrates our basic approach in making this film, which was to present chemistry in a human context. The synthesis of physostigmine wasn’t particularly important in terms of its impact on the world, and by itself, it’s not a very strong candidate for presentation on television. But as a make-or-break challenge for a character who, by this point in the film, we hope you’ve come to care about, it makes for an engaging story, particularly if you’ve got an eyewitness and several articulate chemists to help you tell that story. You notice we’ve managed to work in quite a bit of chemistry into this little 10-minute section: synthesis, melting points, oxidation, methyl groups, even. And yet, I think the public audience is willing to accept all that chemistry because it’s in the context of: "Is this guy, is this guy going to beat the giant or not?" So that’s one of the tricks, I think, in doing this. One of the lessons of the Julian film is that presenting science in a human context – as something people do in the midst of personal crises like insistent fiancées, and bigotry and looming unemployment – is one of the ways to make chemistry work in primetime. In fact, that approach will work for just about any science. If you make it about people, you can make any science fascinating, because stories about people are what television viewers most like to watch. [6:30]
This is Julian as an undergraduate at DePauw. If you look closely in the bigger picture, he’s sitting up on a railing next to the window, surrounded by his all-white classmates. This is, and that’s a close-up of him from the same shot. Natural Products Chemistry is what he studied in Vienna, the chemistry of plants… and now we get to this part.
For those of you who don’t know the rest of the story, Julian’s synthesis of physostigmine was later recognized as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry. Back then, in 1936, chemists recognized that it was very significant, but even after that he couldn’t get a job at DePauw or any other university. They just weren’t ready to put a black man on the faculty.
But in 1936 he was hired by the Glidden Company to run its Chicago soybean laboratory. There Julian did some very important work in steroid chemistry, ultimately becoming a key player in the race to make cortisone available for victims of rheumatoid arthritis, and that story is told later in the film. In 1973, Julian was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. I believe he is still the only black chemist ever elected; Dudley, you may know if that is accurate or not. And in 1991, the Post Office issued a Percy Julian stamp as part of its Black Heritage series.
I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about the Julian film later. But I want to move on to what happened to me after Forgotten Genius, because it bears on the larger of issue of bringing chemistry to primetime. [8:12]
Toward the end of the Julian project, someone at WGBH made the comment that whenever they go to the National Science Teachers meeting, the teachers always ask, have you, of NOVA: "Have you done anything on chemistry?" The answer has always been "no," because apparently chemistry programs were rare. I had never paid any attention to how much or how little chemistry was on television. But this comment got me looking into it.
One of the great things about NOVA is that it has a terrific Web site, including a list of all the programs it has ever broadcast, with a short description of each.
So I went back through the 12 years, I went back through the last 12 years of NOVA programs to see what subjects or fields of science the films were about. And here’s what I found.
The most popular category, with 23 films, is what you might call History/Mystery – the producer uses science to explore a historical mystery of some kind, like the Kennedy assassination.
Next is archaeology. No surprise there. People are fascinated by ancient civilizations, and a dig gives you something very tangible, and a nice process, to film.
Warm and fuzzy creatures make Natural History a perennial favorite.
Earth science is a favorite too, because of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes and hurricanes; all great stuff for television.
Stories about airplanes, bridges, buildings and other gadgets make engineering and aviation popular
And life is a popular subject, as is human health.
So far no surprises.
Mountain-climbing expeditions account for many of the films in the adventure category.
Physics comes in with a respectable 7 programs.
Films about conservation are farther down the list – conservation meaning efforts to preserve works of art, national treasures, great cities and monuments – are surprisingly popular.
Biographies have been a popular form in the NOVA schedule for many years.
And so on down the list until we get to – [audience chuckling] ta-da! – chemistry. One film in the last twelve years; that’s 190 broadcasts by NOVA. One of them is about chemistry. [10:52]
Now I have to qualify this a little bit.
In the first case, there are many films, of course, where there are bits of chemistry – films on molecular biology and acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, forensics, and so on. There’s even a little alchemy in NOVA’s biography of Isaac Newton, which aired a year or two ago. But these programs aren’t primarily about chemistry.
Second, some might quarrel with my categorizations. The two material science programs at the bottom of the list here, or near the bottom of the list, are about artificial diamonds and the Samurai sword. Both concern the structure of matter. If you put them in the chemistry column, chemistry vaults right up over math and botany. [Audience laughter] Even so, the conclusion is inescapable: You just don’t find much chemistry in primetime, even on the world’s leading science program. In fact, when I searched all the way back through NOVA’s 34-year history, I could find only six programs that were clearly and primarily about chemistry.
Before Forgotten Genius, there was a wonderful film on the race to discover Carbon-60, the Race to Catch a Buckyball, twelve years earlier.
In 1987, The Hidden Power of Plants, an earlier look at natural products chemistry.
In 1979, A Plague on our Children, which asked the question: "Is the chemical industry a boon to modern civilization, or a major threat to our health and that of future generations?" gives you some indication of what chemistry’s standing was in the 1970s.
In 1977, a profile of chemist Russell Marker, whose work on steroids helped lead to the birth control pill.
And that same year – 30 years ago – another profile, of Linus Pauling.
So that’s 6 chemistry programs out of the 650 or so that NOVA has broadcast since it went on the air in 1974. About 1 in every 100 programs.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m picking on NOVA. If the Discovery Channel had easily searchable archives like NOVA, I’m sure we’d find the same pattern there. In fact, there’s less even chemistry on other networks than there is on PBS. If you don’t count Roald Hoffmann’s The World of Chemistry, which was really a telecourse, not a primetime entertainment program, I think you’d have a hard time finding more than a dozen primetime chemistry programs in the entire history of American television, on all networks combined.
When it comes to coverage in the popular media, chemistry is just the neglected science. Given the number of chemists in the world, the amount of chemistry they do, and the enormous impact it has on the way we live, the lack of attention from the media is very striking.
And it raises the question "Why? Why is chemistry so neglected?"
I’ve asked questions of a lot of people over the last couple years, as I’ve been trying to develop my next project on chemistry. Some people attribute it to chemophobia. But while fear of chemicals and chemistry is very real, I don’t think it really explains why producers aren’t doing more chemistry programs.
One very common explanation is that chemists aren’t good communicators, the way biologists and physicists are. [Audience laughter] But I don't think that's right either. As we discovered in doing the Julian film, and as you saw in that clip, there are lots of articulate chemists out there. They’re just not being given a chance to show their stuff. Some people think it’s because [audience laughter] so many people were scarred by their experiences in high school chemistry class. And I think there’s some truth in this, because badly taught chemistry has left a lot of people – TV producers included – with a lasting aversion to chemistry. [14:30]
Another factor often cited is that chemistry is hard to visualize, because you can’t see what’s happening at the molecular level. That’s certainly a handicap in making a film, but it doesn’t stop producers from making films about the Big Bang, or black holes, or super strings or lots of other equally invisible things in physics.
One thing that may be a factor is that so much of chemistry takes place in industry. Because companies are concerned about protecting trade secrets, this means producers can’t always get the kind of access they need to do a good film on, say, the development of a new drug.
But my own feeling is that the main reason chemistry has been so neglected by filmmakers is that the chemistry being done today doesn’t often generate the kinds of stories documentary producers naturally gravitate toward.
In looking back through the NOVA archive, I found that almost all the films fell into 13 distinct types – so you can think of this as a taxonomy of science films.
One very popular genre is the adventure film. The camera follows a person or group as they climb a treacherous peak, dive to the bottom of the ocean, or re-enact the voyage of a historical figure like Ernest Shackleton.
Profiles are very popular. They can be traditional biographies, like the film on Galileo, or profiles of places or things, from a fabulous Japanese garden to animals like the bowerbird, or plants like the bristlecone pine.
Many films are framed around a crisis or threat – a city in jeopardy, the decaying Declaration of Independence, the population explosion, an invasion of alien species, or global warming.
Some films simply report on a new discovery, from a critical fossil to a series of genetic switches that control how our DNA is expressed.
A small number of films explore the history of science. There’s the story of the English clockmaker who solved the longitude problem, a history of the computer, and an account of the Apollo moon program.
Many films follow the course of an investigation – why a particular plane crashed, what made the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, or what Pocahantas was really like.
There’s a closely related category of films about mysteries, from an examination of the Piltdown Man hoax to how one of Hitler’s subs ended up off the coast of New Jersey.
Another class of films follows the course of missions, often to outer space, or expeditions like the search for the lost city of Ubar.
There are natural disaster films about tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes.
Quest films follow the efforts of an individual or group to achieve some goal, whether it’s proving a famous mathematical theorem, searching for the Loch Ness Monster or training for the Boston Marathon.
Speaking of races, there’s a whole class of films about races or competitions. Whether the goal is to be the first to make Carbon 60, to fly around the world, or to land a big Defense Department fighter plane contract, the film is about: Who's going to win?
Some films simply tell a good story, whether it’s about the invention of the airplane or the sinking of a Japanese aircraft carrier.
And finally, there are films about technological marvels, ranging from spy planes and fireworks to big bridges and buildings. [17:56]
Now there's a certain amount of overlap among these categories, and some films satisfy more than one description. Probably 95% of all the films ever made by NOVA fit into at least one of these 13 categories. So these are the kinds of stories science producers typically look for.
A few of these categories clearly won’t work for chemistry. It’s hard to see how there could ever be an adventure film about chemistry, for example. Same for mission films, natural disasters and technological marvels.
But that still leaves nine potential categories. With so many possibilities, why aren’t there more films on chemistry?
Here’s one clue. A few years ago the National Academy of Sciences put out a book on the future of chemistry. The authors listed what they called the "Grand Challenges" facing chemistry. These are the top 5:
"Learn how to synthesize and manufacture any new substance that can have a scientific or practical interest using compact synthetic schemes and processes with high selectivity and low energy consumption." That’s number one. [Audience laughter]
"Develop new materials and measurement devices that will protect citizens against terrorism, accident, crime, and disease."
"Understand and control how molecules react over all time scales and the full range of molecular sizes."
"Learn how to design and produce new substance, materials, and molecular devices with properties that can be predicted, tailored, and tuned before production."
"Understand the chemistry of living systems in detail."
Now, this book was written by a committee, and I know it doesn’t really reflect the excitement chemists feel about their work. But I think it does reflect the image chemistry projects to those of us who are outside the field.
To those of us who are outside, it seems to be a very practical science, mostly concerned with making material things that will improve our lives. It doesn’t often have revolutionary leaps forward, but instead it proceeds through incremental steps. Many chemists seem to be focused on fairly narrow, technical questions, not the kinds of big questions that captivate a television audience. And finally, when they do have a discovery that might be of great public interest, chemists are not very good about letting the world know about it. Biologists and physicists may not be any more articulate than chemists, but they’re definitely more practiced when it comes to PR.
If chemistry is ever going to become a bigger presence on TV, it will require contributions from four key players: [20:41]
First, producers need to be willing to take on the challenge of producing films on chemistry. I’m certainly willing. I’ve been trying for a while now to get another one going. I haven’t detected any rush among my fellow producers to make more chemistry films - as far as I know I’m the only one out there who’s trying to - but there are producers out there who take some satisfaction in tackling subjects that other producers shy away from. So there may be others who can be enticed into doing it.
Second, companies. If the chemical industry wants more coverage of chemistry – and my sense is that it does – one way to get it is to open up a little, give journalists and television producers the kinds of access they need to produce good films about what’s going on in industrial chemistry.
Third, funders. One of the best ways to get more chemistry on TV is to support such programs financially. If companies, foundations and other organizations with an interest in chemistry established a fund designed to generate more coverage of chemistry in a range of media, including television, the impact could be very significant. Finding the money to make documentaries is always a struggle. So if it becomes known there is money available for chemistry programs, more chemistry programs will get made – provided there are good stories to tell.
That’s where the chemists come in.
Of course, chemists aren’t going to change the nature of their research just to get more TV coverage. But if they are doing research that is potentially of interest to people outside their field, they can frame it - to use a word that Bassam used earlier - they can frame it in terms broad enough to appeal to the public. They can work with their news offices, whether they’re in industry or in universities, to reach out to the media. And they can let us know. If they have a story they think would make a good film, they can contact me or someone at NOVA, or the Chemical Heritage Foundation, any one of a number of organizations, and just let us know what this candidate is.
I’m already working with the Chemical Heritage Foundation – with Robert Anderson and Dudley Herschbach and Mary Jo Nye, and Bernadette, who couldn’t be here today – on a new project about the historical quest to understand the nature of matter. But there must be other potential films out there. What are the chemistry subjects that fit these nine categories? Surely there must be something that would work.
The history of chemistry is filled with stories of scientists pursuing big questions. Linus Pauling’s career is a perfect illustration: the nature of the chemical bond, the structure of proteins, the formation of antibodies, the mechanism of heredity – all huge questions with great interest among the public. What are the comparable questions in chemistry today, and who is pursuing them? That’s something that television producers aren’t going to know automatically. It’s up to the chemical community to reach out to television producers and let them know about those big questions that are being pursued.
Both the Julian film and Linus Pauling’s life show that chemistry doesn’t have to be boring. But producers, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, funders and chemists need to work together to get more of it on TV. If all four of these key players do their part, there’s no reason chemists can’t become regular figures in the primetime schedule – or at least give the botanists a run for their money. [Audience laughter]
Thank you. [Applause] [24:10]
Cliff Mead: Thank you very much. We will have time right now to take some questions from the audience for Steve Lyons. Yes, Jim. [24:17]
Jim: I’d like to say that I appreciate the video you showed us. It was tremendous. It was very good.
Stephen Lyons: Thank you.
Jim: I’d be interested in knowing what kind of feedback you’ve gotten as far as how well it was received by the big audience. [24:32]
Stephen Lyons: Well, that’s really two different questions. It was very well received by the critics. In fact The New York Times gave it a wonderful review on the front page Science Section. They said it was "riveting." They commented on how ambitious it was, and a very compelling story. The ratings were very respectable for NOVA; they were above the NOVA average, and very close to the PBS primetime average, and considering we were asking people to sit through a two-hour film about chemistry, I think NOVA was very happy with the ratings. So the reaction has been very positive. The reaction from the chemical community and the African American community especially has been very positive. There have been a number of people, congressman for example, who have said, "I want every school in my district to have a copy of this film," and they’ve made sure that’s happened. So it’s been very good. [25:57]
Audience Member: I’m always curious about funding.
Stephen Lyons: Uh-huh.
Audience Member: I’m always very curious about how we’re always talking about the problem of funding this, funding that; I mean the wealth of this planet is going to China, it’s going to Saudi Arabia. Our nation just passed the [inaudible] on the second of August. Forty three point something billion dollars to educate kids in math and science. NOVA’s a great program. My question is, is that about one month’s budget for the War in Iraq? Remember Donald Rumsfeld told us 50 billion, no way, it’s not going to go past that. It’s 500 billion now, it’s getting bigger.
Stephen Lyons: Right. Do you have a question? [Audience Laughter]
Audience Member: My question is, how about a documentary on Ethiopia or Beijing, in China, what is it, what’s the capital of China? [Audience murmuring]
Audience Member 2: Beijing.
Audience Member: Beijing. You can’t see twenty feet. Now, how come we can’t do environmental problems, say of those two countries, and all of the chemistry involved, and the environmental engineering people are doing in those two countries. It’d be a good story. That’s it.
Stephen Lyons: Okay. Thank you. [26:38]
Cliff Mead: Fred.
Fred: Going back to the phrasing of…
Stephen Lyons: The Julian film?
Fred: "Great story." How did Sir Robert Robertson take it? [Audience laughter]
Stephen Lyons: Well, I think he was a little –
Fred: He did alright after that.
Stephen Lyons: Yeah, he won the Nobel Prize a few years later, so it didn’t hurt him any.
Fred: That’s right.
Stephen Lyons: When we started looking into it, we were hoping that it got into a real battle between the two of them, but it didn’t really shape up that way, because it was all over before he really knew what happened. He had written these nine papers and then Julian suddenly got involved at the end, and by the time the American journals got over to England, Julian had already finished the synthesis. So it never got into a back-and-forth between the two of them.
Fred: So he didn’t say any more about it?
Stephen Lyons: Well, that’s something we didn’t really have time to look into in great depth. But, I think he published only one paper after that, and he had clearly been beaten. He did, in fact, get the compound wrong, and Julian beat him to the synthesis. [27:43]
Cliff Mead: Warren.
Warren Washington: I’m probably the only one here who actually met him.
Stephen Lyons: Really? When did you meet him?
Warren Washington: I sponsored a symposium back in 1969, the AAAS meeting. He and his brother-in-law came. His brother-in-law was as equally accomplished as Percy. He published over a thousand papers in Science of Anatomy.
Stephen Lyons: Who was that?
Warren Washington: Montague. His brother-in-law actually married Julian’s wife’s sister.
Stephen Lyons: I see.
Warren Washington: So it was a very small… At the AAAS meeting I was rather disappointed in the… because he was already a very famous man, of course, by that time. And we invited many students from Washington D.C., because the meeting was in Washington D.C. And very few students actually came. I was very disappointed, we had advertised it and so forth. But he was certainly, even then, a very big magnet for minority kids to go into science, and certainly a gentleman.
Stephen Lyons: And we had been told by people who knew him that he went out of his way to talk to those kids, made time to talk to groups of kids and encourage them, much as Bassam did earlier today, to go into science and be enthusiastic about it and not give up, to keep working to overcome whatever obstacles they faced. He was a very inspirational guy. [29:27]
Cliff Mead: We’ll take one more question. This gentleman here has been waiting for some time.
Audience Member: I’m curious, if you’re trying to interest young people in going into chemistry or going into science, is it more important to have NOVA, where you’ve got lots of science to a really small audience, or programs like CSI where you’ve got a little bit of science to a huge audience.
Stephen Lyons: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, it’d be great if we could have a CSI for chemistry. Some people at the American Chemical Society have said "How come we can’t we have a program like Numbers," the mathematics program, and maybe someday there will be one. But you know, you can only do what you can do. I’m not in a position to create a new primetime entertainment show like CSI, but I can make chemistry documentaries, and that’s one way of getting the word out there. The chemistry in Julian’s life is fairly complicated for a television audience, certainly for a young television audience. But the material that I’m working on now, the earlier material in the series called Mystery of Matter, is much simpler stuff. It’s not organic chemistry, for example. So I think there’s a hope that if we can bring those stories alive in the same way we did Julian’s, and the concepts are simpler, we’ll be able to get kids more enthusiastic about chemistry, because it really does involve investigating mysteries about all the stuff around us, as Bassam said earlier. We’re surrounded by chemicals. Everything around us is made by chemicals, and for thousands of years, nobody knew what they were. And they had to figure it out, one step at a time, and it’s really quite an engaging story. Bassam, you wanted to say something? [31:07]
Bassam Shakhashiri: May I just say, twenty seconds, something about Stephen. I’ve said this to him privately; I’d like to say it publicly. He really deserves a great deal of support and encouragement from us for what he tries to do, and it’s really important for all scientists, not just chemists, to try to help out with these projects, because he’s very serious, very methodical, and very knowledgeable, and he also listens to good advice. So I just want to say this publicly, Stephen I’ve said this to you privately, and I think it’s very, very, important, all of us, lend as much support for the various connections that we have, to help achieve the goals that he’s talking about.
Stephen Lyons: Thank you, Bassam.
Cliff Mead: Thank you very much. [Applause]
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