Show Emotions to Tell Science Stories: Let Characters Tell the Story

After the initial montage used in 7 Days Out to tease the culminating event, this series does not waste time with a narrator setting the scene. Episode 3 “NASA’s Cassini Mission” starts like the others, with a simple onscreen caption that describes the scene and establishes what will happen on Day 0.

Then the story is carried entirely by its characters.

Yes, you read that right: characters. Although this is a work of nonfiction, with real-life humans on screen, I think of them as characters that move through the narrative. Yes, the narrative is a construct of the editors, choosing from many hours of footage, but it is a narrative nonetheless. Also perish the thought I use the term “character” in a pejorative sense: these are some of the richest lived human lives you could encounter. There is nothing eccentric or odd about any of them.

So who are these characters?

Julie Webster, the Manager of Cassini Spacecraft Operations, who calls herself the “chief engineer,” is first. She is the main character of this story. In her opening “role” she introduces Cassini to us, quickly speaking to the craft’s specifications, what it has done over its mission, and that they are now preparing to “dispose of [the craft] properly.”

Julie is shown in the control room and there are many cuts to blinking lights and diagrams of orbits and screens of numbers. She is an engineer to the core, shown in her element of the spacecraft’s components here on the ground while also out there.

Morgan Cable, Project Scientist is next, speaking to the ocean that is the universe and solar system. She is one of the scientist explorers, proud to be part of the crew of Cassini as they sail around Saturn, uncovering where life might be.

Life elsewhere is a central element of Morgan’s scientific portions. Water makes life possible so far as we know. So it makes perfect sense that we see her immersed in her element: surfing before she’s amidst the mission control settings of JPL.

Linda Spilker, Lead Project Scientist, follows, picking up the thread that Morgan started to weave. How Cassini has made discoveries around Saturn that have re-written the human understanding of how planetary systems are put together.

We find out later that Linda has been a mentor to Morgan, so it is fitting that her words pick up where her mentee began. Together, these two planetary scientists represent all the scientists that have worked (and will work) with Cassini‘s data. Appropriately many of the intercuts of Linda show images from the mission. She too is immersed in her element – the worlds of Saturn.

Earl Maize, Project Manager, completes the quartet of the main in-person characters. He describes himself as the “boss” of the mission, speaking to how the data gets back to Earth so they might decide where to go next.

Like Julie, Earl is an engineer so his intercuts are to the infrastructure of mission control: radio dishes and computer screens and the like. His element is signals to and from the spacecraft.

Like artful Shakespeare, captivating documentaries use pairs of characters.

Julie and Earl are an obvious pair, as are Morgan and Linda. The connections are made clear in the spoken words and the shared imagery. This helps us follow the narrative, as we understand that scenes including Julie and Earl together speak to what the craft’s goings on. Scenes showing Morgan and Linda together speak to what information Cassini has returned to Earth to tell us of Saturn. Julie and Earl speak to the past as precedent but necessarily live in the days of now; Morgan and Linda speak to past findings and future possibilities.

That is, in this seven days to mission end, Julie and Earl are driving (and are shown in a car near the beginning) while Morgan and Linda receive and ponder and imagine forward.

True, all four are intercut with many a view of Cassini sailing around Saturn. This is because the spacecraft itself is the lead character: this episode is as much her story as theirs.

But studying narrative often reveals that seemingly superficially related characters are more deeply connected than would seem obvious. Characters who have the narrative’s themes reflected in their personalities and actions. This gives us a deeper access to what the story tells us of ourselves.

Julie and Morgan are such a pair, as are Earl and Linda.

The more obvious of this pairing is perhaps Earl and Linda, as both are described as being mentors to Julie and Morgan. Both the mentors and the mentees acknowledge this.

Yet Earl and Linda are super-mentors in a sense as they captain all the engineers and all the scientists. Their words to camera speak to career dedication to rising to their current roles. Earl speaks to selecting Julie as someone who understood both the circuits and the craft. Linda speaks to how she had once been one of the few women on these planetary missions, and now Cassini is emblematic of so much more equality. Morgan exemplifies that younger generation.

Julie and Morgan then are utterly mission-focused to their mentors’ administrative roles. Both Julie and Morgan speak to the honor-bound duty to “dispose of [Cassini] properly”.  While Julie is the pragmatic engineer who will see the job done to completion, Morgan speaks to this importance so that the next mission (to Saturn) can continue with an uncontaminated system. Given their disparate ages, Morgan will probably be part of those future missions, while this is probably Julie’s last hurrah.  So Linda might pass the intellectual baton to Morgan, but Julie is an agent of Morgan’s scientific future.

We see lives flowing into each other so they may carry the legacy of past and future.

More cinematically, Julie and Morgan are shown around the campus a little more, often with wistful thousand mile stares. They reflect on the personal paths that they took to get to where they are.  Julie the wanderer who has found her best place. Morgan the scientist since childhood, reveling in her destiny. They carry the story in and out.

But there is a third pairing in this story: Julie and Cassini.

At one point in the opening arc Earl speaks to Julie as “kind of the heart and soul of the project”. Julie herself near the midpoint speaks to the many thousands of people who touched Cassini as it was being built. She herself crawled inside its core so she could see and hear the mechanisms as they whirred to action. As the self-described chief engineer, she knows this helps her better understand the craft if something goes awry.

But Julie is known to have an intimate relationship with the craft that others acknowledge. One of the Mission Aces (the sort of watch pilot to Julie’s Chief Engineer and Earl’s Captain), Joey Jefferson, says of Julie that “Cassini‘s like her baby”.

The parallels between Cassini and Julie as we are shown, are striking. Singularly dedicated to mission success. Exemplary at what they do. Traveling together for 23 years, from construction through launch to getting there to being there. Dedication to a proper end.

It is never made clear in the episode what Julie will go onto after Cassini and yet there is no real need for us to know. All that matters in these 7 days is that she is carrying out this career role. She is the companion to Cassini from its birth to its last seconds.

Julie and Cassini are thus our main characters, their stories literally intertwined.

Note this is why Cassini is in frame as it sails around Saturn quite often. Other documentaries of the solar system mostly show the planets themselves. This is not those stories.

This is the tale of the journey, not the places.

Here is the great art of this documentary’s storytellers: Julie in a way personifies the spacecraft and is its human connection on the ground. She speaks to her initial draw to the mission as a fascination with far-distance communications. Later she recalls being the one to detach the Huygens probe (as her now late father looked on). At the end of the mission, she is the one shown to first utter “gone … that’s it”, then in her established role declare to Earl the official “Okay, we call loss of signal … that would be the end of the spacecraft”.

Humans carry the stories of science because exploration is a most human story.

This is why I hold up this perfunctorily titled episode “NASA’s Cassini Mission” of 7 Days Out a masterclass of science communication. It hardly tells much of the science while it speaks volumes of the humans doing the science.

For viewers like myself who have great interest in the scientific data, we get a new story because the people in it are perhaps not known to us. For viewers like my wife who are new to the science content, their curiosity as to the content is piqued; but non-scientist viewers come into newfound interest through other humans, not data. The stunning visuals certainly help, and that is precisely the point: they accompany the human stories.

The best science communications convey wonder and the opportunity for the viewer to learn what they will find most interesting. These stories permit us to explore the data but also the meaning. We, by proxy, watch the acts of discovery and then are encouraged to discover more.

Stories, fiction or not, have us ponder the universe and ourselves.

Here are the other installments in this series, as they appear:


Begin in the Middle

Let Characters Tell the Story (this post)

Editing Renders Memories

The Heart of It All

Want to know more tips to improve your presentations? Contact me to learn more about my workshops and 1-on-1 coaching services – I look forward to helping you Put Audiences First.



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