Friday, January 23, 2009

Cinema and the scientific method

Nick Nolte taps the wellsprings of scientific inspiration by way of a dream-like state.

Last weekend we watched, again, George Miller’s (yes, ‘our’ George) film Lorenzo’s Oil (1992).

It will be recalled this is the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone’s efforts to save their young son from the ravages of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD).

ALD is an in-born disorder of metabolism which, untreated, causes catastrophic degeneration of the nervous system and certain death. As the diagnosing specialist tells the shocked couple: “It’s progress is relentless. The end is inevitable.

What then unfolds is a harrowing journey through the horrific onset of an appallingly cruel disease. But ultimately, too, there is redemption of sorts in a truly epic story of tragedy, heroism, persistence, and ingenuity.

The Odones belatedly realise the doctors to whom they have “consigned” their son’s fate are “groping in the dark” and they embark on a quest to understand and tame the scourge afflicting their only child.

Astonishingly, their efforts culminate in a therapeutic breakthrough which leads to salvation for thousands of sufferers all over the world. Ultimately and tragically, however, it comes all too late to save their own son from profound impairment.

As I was watching, it happened that the words of the late great Michael Crichton (yes, again) came to mind:

The scientific method presents a genuine problem in film storytelling and I believe the problems are not soluble. The best you’ll ever get is a kind of caricature of the scientific process...

Well, I wondered then whether Crichton may have missed seeing Lorenzo’s Oil, because if there’s a film that faithfully captures the scientific method — and its vicissitudes — then this is the one.

It’s all in there, in the gropings by the Odones towards the light. Formulating, revising, re-formulating the problem. The observational artefacts and dead ends. The inevitable, often regrettable, politics and economics of the scientific enterprise. The perspiration. And...

The inspiration... As told in the film, Augusto Odone literally receives his epiphany in a waking dream. This isn’t by any means an unlikely scenario, as for instance Alfred Russell Wallace formulated the theory of evolution by ‘natural selection,’ independently of Darwin, whilst he was in a malarial delirium.

The glory and the passion of the scientific enterprise is all there in a highly-accessible, skilfully-told cinematic work. Not withstanding a very few inferior moments, this achievement of George Miller’s is certainly one to rival Happy Feet.

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Blogger Caz said...

Wasn't there a telly show, by the BBC perhaps, on the discovery of DNA?

(I'm pretty sure it wasn't a film, so it had to be the BBC.)

Quite beaut, if I vaguely recall, very exciting stuff.

Mind you, the written word isn't necessarily inherently 'good' at capturing the scientific method either. It still takes one heck of a good writer, or the luck of the scientific method making a fine yarn (eg, the Aussie who injected himself with bacteria to prove that stomach ulcers were not cause by stress and did not require elaborate lifetime pharmaceuticals to treat).

Oddly / surprisingly, one of the very best "factions" I've read that captured the scientific method in all its madness was "And the Band Played On" - a galloping, captivating, mystery, full of political and ethical shames (well, mostly Reagan's), mixed in with the personal turmoils and denial of gay communities, all leading up to the identification of HIV/AIDs. A film couldn't do it justice, it would be tawdry, and the science and politics played out across various continents could never be captured on film in manner that didn't look just like another cheap Hollywood disaster movie with some maverick doctor doing battle with bureaucrats (because that's what it would be reduced to on film).

26/1/09 8:53 PM  
Anonymous Jacob said...

Ah yes, I remember seeing And The Band Played On way back when. Same kind of scenario - race agaist time, institutional resistance to combating a 'minority' disease, etc. Must revisit that one.

And yeah, I think I saw a bit of that DNA program. It's always a buzz to see an accessible scientific exposition like that.

There was also an absolutely stunning program just a few years back produced in Australia on the dreaded meningococcal disease. Surely a preventible disease, but not enough (young) people die from it to make it an overly huge priority.

27/1/09 1:50 AM  
Blogger Caz said...

Now that surprises me hugely.

Meningococcal not only appears out of nowhere, kills (damned quickly too), but leaves many maimed for life. Beggars belief that more research & funding isn't put into that disease, it has staggeringly awful consequences.

27/1/09 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Jacob said...

Yeah, really nasty, tough group of infections. A vaccine for meningococcal C was listed on the PBS a couple of years back, but available only to certain high-risk age groups. I think there's some issues about efficacy of available vaccines generally.

Have to look further [adds to list]

28/1/09 7:21 AM  

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