A Human Touch

A Human Touch

‘CURIOUS’ BRINGS THE HIGH SCIENCE OF JPL AND CALTECH DOWN TO EARTH

By Julie Riggott 11/08/2007

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In a scene from a new public television series called “CURIOUS,” a mobile robot maneuvers around in dirt terrain and drives into a bale of hay. Andrew Howard, engineer and physicist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, watches the rover he programmed and how it responds to the obstacles in its path, trying to learn how to best teach the machines “decision-making.”

“It’s very easy to put yourself in the head of the robot. ‘Why is it doing that? I think it’s doing this,’” he says. “And you also get cranky. When it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to be doing, you say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ You talk to the robot and say, ‘Clearly you shouldn’t be doing that. I taught you that was the wrong thing to do.’”

After a pause, Howard says, “OK. Now I sound like a parent,” and laughs.

“CURIOUS” producer, director and writer Mark Mannucci and co-producer Tara Thomas were surprised that the stories they discovered at Caltech and JPL were “incredibly human.”

“One of the things that amused us was how many times these NASA scientists at JPL would talk about how ‘he does this’ or ‘she does that’ and I’d say, ‘You mean your robot?’” Mannucci said. “It was funny to see them get attached to their creations, as if they were working with people instead of machines. It was charming.”

When Mannucci and Thomas set out to create a science show for Thirteen/WNET New York that was both educational and entertaining, they realized the key was good old-fashioned storytelling. Mannucci had never worked on a science show before and had no preconceived ideas about what one should be like, so he decided to let the scientists tell their own stories, without the assistance of narration.

“[The scientists] tell you what they did, they tell you how they felt,” Mannucci said.

The result is a down-to-earth and emotionally engaging science program, sometimes dramatic, and with plenty of opportunities to smile and laugh. The researchers’ goals, passions, questions, emotions — and those of some of the people who are part of the studies — bring the stories to life.

“We found these great human stories,” said Thomas, who worked with Mannucci throughout the year of filming. “[The scientists] do what they do to help people ultimately.”

“CURIOUS,” which airs on KCET from 9 to 11 p.m. next Thursday, Nov. 15, focuses on cutting-edge research at Caltech and JPL: an alternative fuel source and an experimental chemotherapy drug in the first part, “Survival”; and neuroeconomics, our social brain, the aerodynamics of fruit flies

and robotics in the second part, “Mind/Brain/Machine.”

Mark Davis’ dramatic story struck the filmmakers as a perfect example of how personal science can be and how directly it can impact our lives. Davis’ story begins as he’s driving on the Foothill (210) Freeway east to City of Hope in Duarte. He’s talking about the restless night he had and the “cautious nervousness” he’s feeling. A professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, Davis never would have predicted he’d devise an alternative to chemotherapy and witness its first use in a cancer patient after 10 years of lab studies.

Ray Natha is anxious for another reason. His pancreatic cancer has spread to his lungs and is no longer responding to chemotherapy. He’s been given a few months to live. Davis’ experimental drug, IT 101, is his only hope. “It’s exceedingly rare to be a faculty member at a university and to be sitting there chatting with the first patient,” Davis says in the show. “It’s really personal now. It’s just not a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper.”

Davis’ wife Mary tells us there is a love story behind IT 101. After suffering with side effects from her own aggressive chemotherapy for breast cancer, she asked her husband to help. “There’s got to be a better way,” she said.

The filmmakers followed Davis and Natha through six months of infusions and were at City of Hope when everyone learned that the nanoparticle Davis created stopped further tumor growth and then started killing Natha’s tumors. Natha and his wife shed tears at the good news and the prognosis of a longer life.

“How often do you get to follow a story like that? That’s amazing to see someone get the first drop of this drug,” Mannucci said. “Everyone was nervous because we were not sure what was going to happen. It was very emotionally intense,” Thomas said. “It was incredible.”

To “cast” the series and determine themes for each episode, Mannucci and Thomas talked to about 50 scientists via one-and-a-half-hour conference calls with video hookup from their offices at WNET. Then Mannucci had to learn as much as he could about the research they chose to focus on for his interviews and filming that would take place over a year. “It’s like I went back to school,” he said.

Since the scientists’ words became the script, part of the challenge was making sure the dialogue was conversational rather than technical, something they found was actually more challenging with the graduate students than with the professors.

“The main thing was learning as much as we could and helping them be clear, linear, chronological and entertaining. ‘No, you’re not writing a paper. You don’t need to use a word with that many syllables,’” Mannucci said, playfully recalling his “direction” of the cast.

Music, creative filming techniques and a wide assortment

of graphics from an animation company called Asterisk, all combine on the television side of the equation and add to the clarity and entertainment value. Sossina Haile, one of the Caltech scientists working on a way to use sunlight and water to create hydrogen fuel, laughs as she explains a catalyst in terms of your mom waking you up for school. You were going to do it anyway, but the catalyst makes it happen sooner, she says, as animation makes the idea visual.

“Laughter is sorely lacking in science programs and doesn’t need to be,” Mannucci said.

His only philosophy for “CURIOUS” was: “Let’s find some really good stories and make some really good television. As long as I felt wowed by what we were seeing,

I felt pretty good that we could turn that around and convey

that excitement.” Mannucci and Thomas hope people will come away from the series aware of the life-changing research going on

at Caltech and JPL and maybe even surprised by how fascinating it is.

“Who’d have thought flies were so interesting?” Mannucci asked. “Who’d have thought you could be mesmerized by the way a fly takes off? I haven’t really felt good about killing a fly since then; I mean I’d feel like I’m killing 300,000 finely engineered neurons.”

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