Immersive Storytelling for The Lost Children Pt. 3

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a lover of science. Astronomy especially. I grew up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and James Burke’s great series Connections. Even today, I am indebted to writers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Sean Carroll for writing about subjects like black holes and the nature of time in ways that a layman like me can understand. I think people like this are imperative to society because many of the subjects they study are critical to us as a race. Two of those subjects are NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and astrobiology. NEOs of course, because of the potential direct impact (pun intended) they can have on our lives. And astrobiology due to the implications for religion, philosophy, and how we view ourselves in the universe. Right now is an exceptionally thrilling time, as we are discovering new planets circling other stars every day. The Lost Children film touches on both of these.

One of the constant issues with films is balancing the information you hand out with the drive of the narrative. I was taught very early on that pretty much all exposition should be erased from a script. So much so that I still cringe when I hear some line crammed into a story for the sole benefit of the audience. To me, this is a failure in the script. It’s hard to blame anyone because writing characters that exist purely through their actions is very, very hard. But when it’s done right, it’s pretty amazing.

But this is where transmedia comes to the rescue. In The Lost Children, there is some exposition. The format of a documentary is more forgiving of that I think. But given that, the film is actually very sparse in that sense. You do have to pay attention to character actions to get what’s happening. This is one reason I’m relying on another platform to dig deeper into the astronomy aspect of the story; live lecture & Q&A.

I am very pleased to partner with Columbia University’s Astronomy Outreach program to bring astronomers to the Jan 22 event; and Professor Irv Robbins for the Jan 28th event. Professor Robbins runs the astrophysical observatory at CUNY Staten Island.

Don’t worry though, I know the film is playing after this portion. Audience won’t need to see the film first to engage in this conversation. Rather, it’s my goal to use the conversation to help prime the audience’s mind for the film. I talk about priming in Part 2 of this series.

Q&A

Of course, everyone has talk-backs with films, plays, etc; and Q&As and experts on the subjects in the films and all the rest. But I rarely stay for these. I’ve never really cared for the sort of tacked on feeling they have. There is never any sense of experience design around the Q&A. And it’s completely separate from the movie or play. It’s always felt more like a chore to me. Maybe that’s me, but I think in some aspects, the way they are typically handled is part of the problem.

This Winter, I attended Epic Theatre Ensemble’s Dispatches from an Amended America, by one of The Lost Children co-stars, Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. And they handled the talk-back in a way I could consider an actual part of the show. The play ends with a pizza party, which is extended out into the audience as the actors break character and encourage us to group up and consider a few questions related to the play. The play is about race in America, so everyone has something to say about it. These small groups then were pulled together into one big group, and the discussion continued. Audience members were divided by their answers to questions, by their beliefs on certain topics, and we got into some pretty good and passionate discussions. And it was so rich and meaningful to me, that I wound up not distinguishing it from the play at all. It was a critical part of the show for me.

It was this experience that really convinced me to try making the Q&A an integral part of the evening. At the first event on Jan 22, the audience was engaged and some came armed to grill the astronomers with questions. But to get your mind buzzing for the Jan 28th show and beyond, I asked Summer Ash of Columbia University’s Astronomy Outreach to talk about a few topics ahead of time.

Me: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from being an astrophysicist?

Summer: I would say the most important thing I’ve learned from being an astrophysicist is how we everything we know about the observable universe comes solely from the light that reaches our eyes and our telescopes. Think about that. Biologists, geologists, physicists, chemists: they can all collect samples, do experiments in the lab, and palpably manipulate the objects of their studies. Astronomers cannot. It’s a passive science in a sense, we can’t go get a piece of a star, or crash two galaxies into each other. We have to sit and wait for the light to reach us. To make it even harder, not all the light even comes in our direction. If you think of a star as a sphere, light is being emitted from every part of it’s “surface.” It’s only the teeny tiny fraction of light from that star that reaches Earth. And it’s only a teeny tiny fraction of *that* light that reaches a given telescope’s detector. Not to mention that many objects give off light only in particular directions; if they’re not pointed at us, we’re out of luck. I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet! Once we capture the light we can, we have to figure out ways to extract as much information from it as possible. Without going into too much detail, we are able to determine speed, direction, temperature, composition, size, and more. All from light. Think about that the next time you look up at night.

Me: What’s the most important thing the public can learn from an astrophysicist?

Summer: I would say a sense of scale. Astrophysicists study objects on a variety of scales, everything from fundamental particles to planetary systems to clusters of galaxies. We have to learn how to approximate orders of magnitude so that we can better understand the relationship of one type or group of objects to another. Some astrophysicists may research stars, but to do so, they need to study both the atoms stars are made of and the environment stars exist in, i.e., they have to look at phenomena on both smaller and larger scales. I think this lends itself to both a practical understanding of how things fit together and a more abstract appreciation of being part of something bigger. The idea that Earth is incredibly small compared to the expanse of the Universe shouldn’t be a scary thing. It should remind you that we are a part of the Universe, we play a role. Another way of looking at it is to think about the scales we are more familiar with: individuals, neighborhoods, cities, countries, etc. To understand cities, you have to understand neighborhoods and countries and so on. While the individual is small compared to the entire planet, they still are a part of the whole.

Me: Which recent discovery should the public be most excited about?

Summer: Exoplanets. Definitely exoplanets. The first extra-solar planet (exoplanet) was discovered in 1995 and the number of new planets discovered has been increasing exponentially ever since. As of right now, there are a total of 860. What’s even cooler is how our idea of a typical planetary system has evolved with each newly discovered planet. For the most part, we based our assumptions on what we knew, our solar system – small rocky planets close in, gas giants farther out. But many of the early discoveries were very large planets orbiting very close to their stars. We nicknamed them “hot Jupiters” to put them in a context we could relate to. It turns out though that we were just biased against finding anything else; our technology wasn’t good enough to see planets that were smaller and farther away from their stars. As you might imagine, these planets started showing up in the data as we built better and better detectors. Thanks to NASA’s Kepler Mission not only are we finding exoplanets closer in size to Earth, we are finding they might be the rule rather than the exception: 17 % of stars with planets have an Earth-sized or “super-Earth” planet, while only 5% have a Jupiter-sized one. Think about that for a second. There are approximately a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. That means there could be millions of planets like ours out there. Millions.

Me: Which recent discovery should the public be most concerned about?

Summer: I hesitate to answer this question because I don’t believe that any astrophysical discoveries have been made that warrant any concern by the public. However, it seems the big issue in the public’s mind concerning any danger from space is “near Earth objects” (NEOs). These are asteroids whose orbits around the Sun bring them close to Earth, the question being “will any of them ever hit us?” This is an extremely active field of research. Astronomers at the Minor Planet Center track all minor bodies in the Solar System (comets, asteroid, etc.). The trick is that these bodies don’t give off any light, they can only reflect varying amounts of sunlight based on their size, shape, and composition. Essentially, we see them best when they are large and close by – two things you don’t really want in NEO. That being said, we do a pretty good job of tracking these objects and determining their orbits. The NEO currently highest on the watch list is Apophsis which recently did a flyby on January 9th and is expected to make an extremely close return in 2029 with the possibility of a direct hit in 2036. By extremely close I mean closer than some Earth orbiting satellites, but I can assure there is no danger of it hitting us. Each and every observation of a NEO allows astronomers to better constrain its predicted orbit: the more observations, the better the prediction. We’ve been observing Apophis since 2004 and the probability of an impact in 2036 is now less than 1 in 10,000,000.

Follow Columbia Astronomy Outreach: @ColumbiaAstro. Professor Irv Robbins runs the astrophysical observatory at CUNY Staten Island.

In the next project I’m developing, I am taking this one step further, as the story involves a number of science topics, and a much larger scale story world. I will start blogging about that process soon. Follow me on twitter if you’re interested. @MegaMarkHarris