Gone blind to all but his molecule
Take three graduate students in a crystallography lab: Rob, an aging and surly ex-Navy man who’s already been kicked out of one lab; Kilpatrick, a buttoned-down young man with an every-two-weeks trim, pale and hunted by failure; and Gabe, the woman who made the jump from happy and successful tech to oppressed doctoral student. Follow them and their advisor for three years, filming them in the lab several times a week, following them home, watching them fail and fail and put on brave faces and recover and try again. Then see what comes of it; see if a story emerges.
This was the method chosen by Richard and Carole Rifkind in making their hour-long film, Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist. The choice of method was no accident; Richard Rifkind, emeritus director of the Sloan-Kettering institute, wanted to make a movie that showed audiences how people do science and the creativity inherent in it, and how large failure looms in the lives of those who try. Since the movie was in the nature of an investigation, he was determined that the moviemaking be scientific, too, and not be predetermined in its outcome.
It’s a remarkably effective and multilayered movie, for which Carole Rifkind’s oversight deserves much credit. Because the movie is so effective in showing not just the world of science, but in giving the audience a taste of the need to do science, I want to briefly outline the several stories and then explore how the Rifkinds handled their themes and succeeded so well.
The lab is Larry Shapiro’s at Columbia University Medical Center, chosen by the Rifkinds after a year of visiting labs around New York to find good and likely characters. Although considerable screen time goes to out-of-lab shots, the benches in Larry’s lab are at the heart of this movie. This is where the graduate students bang their heads against the science and themselves, learn to fail, learn to grapple with assumptions and materials, and learn to handle themselves as scientists.
The central character – by chance – is Rob Townley. According to the Rifkinds, he became the center of the movie only after it became clear that he was likely to successfully solve his molecule’s structure and graduate. This was a lucky break for the Rifkinds; Rob’s a desperado, a last-chance man, skinny and raw and furrow-browed with a barberry bush of hair. He loved the camera and it loved him back; several dramatic scenes are taken from a video diary he kept himself during the filming.
The cast and their stories
We meet Rob several years into his PhD program, and as he tells the camera, all his bridges are burnt. He’s dropped out of school twice, found himself while serving in the Navy, and come back to turn himself into a scientist. Thrown out of one lab for general cussedness, he’s shopped himself around and found Larry, who’s taken him on despite Rob’s own warnings. One thing stands in the way of his graduating, and that’s his molecule, AMPK. Solving its structure first means a big win, a top-tier journal paper, a PhD, and a shot at a lab and students of his own. Although he’s intimate with his molecule and intent on it in his efforts to get it to crystallize usefully, you won’t hear much stargazing about science from Rob in the movie; he wants to make good on this last chance and leave. And this is exactly what he does. After a string of failures with crystals that look good but aren’t, he spends months despondent, then comes back determined to finish the job. His next crystals diffract, he solves his structure, has a paper in Science, gives a thesis defense to a packed house, and graduates in time to share the news that his wife is pregnant with their first child. Currently he’s a postdoc at Albert Einstein Medical College.
Rob’s foil is Kilpatrick Carroll, the lean young man from Nevada gunning for success. What success might mean isn’t something Kil manages to spell out in the film, and maybe he’s not clear himself; his fiancée thinks she knows what is, though, and she’s not seeing it in him. We do hear plenty from Kil on the theme as he talks about who’s successful and who isn’t; his salary; his fear of turning thirty before he graduates (“It’s not cool to be 30 and be a graduate student – don’t tell Rob,” he says); the promising signs in his failures; and how he expects success to materialize in the next few months. We see disappointment tightening his face as he talks gamely about learning experiences, synthesis, and personal growth. Every so often, though, what comes over Kil’s face isn’t the determined junior-varsity look; it’s the look of the boy who thought science was cool, really cool. That’s not enough, though, not for a grown man who wants to start a family someday. The fiancée leaves, and Kil himself wants obvious, well-defined success too much to stay in basic research. He graduates, and leaves the bench for consultancy.
And Gabe? Sunny Gabe becomes an afterthought; she struggles for two years with being told to work independently, fails and fails and is entirely responsible, and is miserable. She leaves the program and goes to work in industry, where she’s happy to trade “independence for productivity”.
Their advisor, Larry Shapiro, has an intentional Zen, and his hands move deftly and tentatively as he talks. He also has a bird in his office, and he’s birdlike himself in conversation, with a bright smile that turns quickly from smile to grimace and back again in talk about painful things; as he talks he seems to flee conversation and return, flee and return. He seems to understand why it’s necessary to be kind. Although the film doesn’t dwell on his career, he’s up for tenure and, at the end of the film, gets it.
This is a movie about anxiety narrating itself, and to some extent about beauty, and I suspect this is why it succeeds so well in communicating a compulsion to do science. All of the labmates are bright with varieties of anxiety, better-defined and more real than anything I’ve seen in a work of fiction. At every step, each student is dogged by the fear of having to leave science, of not being good enough, while testing his or her own self-definition. Are they scientists? What are they, if not scientists? When their endless failures dog them, you can see the fear spring up: Will they have to leave? How far are they behind their competition, Larry’s expectations, and their own secret timetables? Are they cut out for this? How will they explain it to other people, all this work with nothing to show for it? (They’re left talking to themselves because, in a wise decision, the filmmakers give us none of their own dialogue. This movie is about the scientists and no one else.)
Larry, nearing middle-age and maybe not as secure in his career as his students might imagine, says it straight out: It’s all he is. He can’t imagine what he’d be, if not a scientist. Rob is becoming a scientist, wants to be a scientist, dreads the thought of being shut out, and yet it’s on his mind. If he weren’t doing science, he says, he’d be in the mountains, climbing – and yet he knows, as everyone else does, that this is only fantasy. He’s committed. In fact he insists he’s committed, repeatedly, but he seems not to notice that in fact he committed years ago, and that there’s no need to convince himself.
Kil and Gabe argue with themselves and the invisible interlocutor throughout the movie: Aren’t there things just as worthy as doing science? And think how much more money they’d make on Wall Street – hundreds of thousands of imaginary dollars! But if they leave, others will think they’re quitters. Science is beautiful, the “big picture” is wonderful, but the bench, and the failures, and the lack of a sense of progress, forward motion….Back and forth they go, in a series of small clips throughout the movie, arguing their cases for and against being scientists, and you see the cliff they’re staring over just as surely as you see the city laid out through the lab windows behind them.
The fact that the Rifkinds set their movie in New York, whose strongest flavor is money, is tremendously effective in showing this anxiety to be not just high-stakes, but universal. In the city – and there are many sidewalk, building, skyline, storefront, and traffic shots as the young scientists talk – they’re not exempt from any of the normal requirements of life, and special though they may be, they’re four in eight million. On the street, they look like anyone else, and their building looks like many others. Success in New York might be defined in many ways, but everybody knows what pays the rent every thirty days, and it’s not prestige or scientific awe. This persistent awareness of the city, and of the students’ having the same problems and questions of identity, future, and success as anyone else, is wonderful tactic. It not only grounds the lab but, I think, shocks the viewer out of the cliché of the isolated lab that exists somewhere in Scienceland.
Carole uses anxiety cleverly in Kil and Rob’s lives outside the lab, and though it may not have been her intention, I think her treatment of the women in theses scientists’ lives tells something about how one man manages to become a scientist, and how the other takes himself out of the lab. Rob’s wife, Claire, also a graduate student, is gentle, ever-supportive, quiet, undemanding, peaceable; she believes in him. When they go rock-climbing, she’s there to hold the rope. There’s a beautiful moment in the subway after one of Rob’s failures in which they’re simply standing together without talking or looking at each other, and you know that if he has to, he can tell science to go to hell; he has love. Kil’s fiancée, on the other hand, is a lawyer who watches him, probes his failures for chances of success, doubts his (unrealistic) timeline, and seems to be a practical woman with a robust sense of how to get what she wants. One man has less anxiety out of the lab, and the other has more. And I get the sense that this has something to do with why Rob is able to succeed in basic research, and Kil has to leave. (I also wondered where Gabe’s gentle, quiet wife might come from. On screen, she has to make do with a dog.)
What emerges is that a certain looseness is key in withstanding all the uncertainty, all the failure. Rob, for all his intensity and focus, can admit failure without trying to smooth it over or tell himself it’s a blessing in disguise; if he’s self-conscious about age or sweaty desperation, it’s not enough to stop him. If he manhandles his experiments, he has the sense to stop it when Larry tells him to. Disgusted by his own failures, he’ll leave the lab for months or years, and then come back to try again. And Larry, for all his formality and architect’s clean style, cultivates looseness. He accepts the strange and difficult, and in the way he’s put himself together as a scientist, he has enough play to support his students through their failures and decisions to leave.
This is also a movie about beauty. The students’ anxiety has a focus beyond themselves, and that focus is science, or beauty. It’s less well shown than the anxiety, and that’s because the Rifkinds made a deliberate decision to make this a movie about scientists and not about science. We zoom in on shots of lovely crystals to heavenly-synth-choir music, we stare in awe at the diffraction pattern, we watch in wonder as the molecule’s wireframe spins on a screen. Either too often or not enough, the scientists discuss their work, fumbling with simplifications, but since the technical language is never explained, much of it will be meaningless to the uninitiated.
It isn’t enough to make a believer of a nonscientist, but it’s clear that Kil, Rob, and Larry have all got religion, and that Gabe struggles with her faith; those “big ideas” might be waiting for her somewhere, but she doesn’t find them at the bench. In an extraordinary set of scenes, we ride along on Kil’s trip to the synchrotron at Brookhaven, his face taut to the point of mild insanity. Beyond him, out the window, is the Manhattan skyline, uninteresting and unglamorous for perhaps the first time in movie history. The city’s where you eat and sleep; Brookhaven is the metropole. And when Kil’s synchrotron scan comes up blank, the abandonment is a sock in the gut. We’re seeing not just failure, but nature saying no.
The experienced is balanced by the pattern that turns up on Rob’s win: a regular stippling of dots across the scan’s circles. What does it mean? We have no idea, and frankly Larry’s assertion that it means 9,073 atoms isn’t much help to the nonscientist, but the heart leaps when one sees that there is some sort of pattern in the lines of dots. The students, seeking and seeking, have prepared the audience to look for a sign and believe it means something important. Not bad, but I think the movie would have been far more effective than it already is if only it gave the audience a taste of whatever the scientists have been drinking.
Still, there is magic here. And in presenting this combination of anxiety and magic, I think the Rifkinds succeed where John Adams failed in his recent opera, Doctor Atomic. The anxiety is genuine, and the magic is real.
This review was first published in Lablit.