There is a moment in the Netflix documentary 7 Days Out episode “NASA’s Cassini Mission” when Julie Webster describes the construction of the Cassini probe. Specifically that she (and others) used to climb inside of the spacecraft to see the wiring and hear the mechanical parts turning. This is an engineer’s approach: to fully understand and be able to visualize how the machine works so that when something goes wrong it can be fixed faster. In fact, NASA often builds a replica spacecraft so that the engineers can piece together what might be going wrong during one of the countless times of trouble.
Julie and her colleagues thus know Cassini to its core. When she closes her eyes, she sees the heart of Cassini. In a haunting combination of feeling and objectivity, Julie imagines that this heart of electronics is “what’s gonna scream in the end.”
This month has had an eruption of delight in science. The first captured image of a black hole was released on April 10, 2019 and social media exploded in information rapture. Better comedians than I can make light of celebrating the darkest of all discoveries. 😉
Those on the #SciComm circuit of Twitter, where I participate now and again, were quick to applaud the persons of the discovery. Most especially and very deservedly is Dr. Katie Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and soon to be CalTech professor, who worked on the algorithm that rendered the image. As of this writing, the candid photo of her seeing the image for the first time – literally the moment of discovery – is arguably just as popular as the image of the celestial object itself. (As an aside, watch Dr. Bouman’s excellent TEDx talk from 2016 showing her command of SciComm).
Touring the CalTech/JPL campus, Dr. Morgan Cable speaks to her time as a graduate student when she would sit by a water fountain there and think of “what I wanted to do with my life … what I wanted to invest my energy in.”
Throughout the 7 Days Out episode, Morgan is like a mirror to Julie: the next generation of a space mission scientist and the elder generation who has made that future possible. Both women are clearly going through a barrage of emotions, from pride at what has been done, nostalgia of what happened to make this present possible, and delight at what might come next. (Foreshadowing more candids like Katie’s.) They are objectively stark in the reason to end Cassini in this way: the literally ultimate data collection opportunity that keeps as many options as possible open for the next missions.
To watch the faces and hear the words of Julie and Morgan in these last 7 days of Cassini is to see how bittersweet a moment it is: a melancholy finality yet a happy accomplishment and future possibility.
Science is shot through with emotion because science is done by humans.
As I noted previously, the story arcs and character development of a documentary are made clear and captivating through editing. Sifting through hours of footage, deciding who to profile, where to show them, what quote captures to use, what order to place these pieces in for a coherent story.
This makes science storytelling much like its subject. Science is the practice of editing: sifting through data to find the evidence that makes the discovery clear. Developing computer algorithms like Dr. Katie Bouman or astrobiological models like Dr. Morgan Cable or building circuit routines like Julie Webster to capture understanding from a chaotically complex universe.
But in storytelling the goal is not the objective data that gives interpretation to the subjective perception of nature. The goal is to find humanity in the riot of storylines. To inspire and reflect and wonder and resolve what is possible in this life.
Thus Andrew Rossi and his team edited as they did to show the very heart of the science: the very human scientists themselves to enthrall the very human audiences peering into their world.
Showing the emotion of scientific discovery is to show science being done.
And to show science being done is to entice others to appreciate its findings, aspire to carry on the work, and all of us consider what sort of future we might forge knowing now what we know.
The ultimate tool of science storytelling is that same tool of all storytelling: Show the heart of the voyage by showing the hearts of the voyagers.
Although I might return to 7 Days Out for more reflections, as it is a masterclass in storytelling, this will be my last post of this arc. I urge everyone to watch the entire series, for you will see the hearts of many voyagers on many different voyages. The destinations might seem as disparate as possible: a dog show, a reopening restaurant, a science project, a horse race, a fashion show, and a video game contest. But all are experienced by humans, at times wearing their emotions on their sleeves and at others stoically accepting their fate. Just like all of us in the audience.
We see ourselves in all that is possible, because stories reveal us.
Here are the other installments in my blog mini-series, as they appear:
The Heart of It All (this post)
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