Movies Remind Us, Even Scientific Quests are Personal Ones

Janine Ingram
I love to fly. More accurately, I love uninterrupted reading and, as a working single mom, have learned the only place I can actually achieve this silent altered state is in a crowded airplane.
Headed to an education summit to meet with passionate teachers, generous donors and education policy influencers, I know I’m in for an intellectually stimulating and challenging week. Forgetting to pack a suitable read (again…), I scoop up the latest TIME Magazine primarily because Matthew McConaughey’s dazzling ‘Just Keep Livin’ gaze left me no other choice.
I dive in before leaving the tarmac. An interesting theme quickly emerges. The feature is the making of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s cinematic ode to the intersection of scientific exploration and interpersonal motivation. The second story I notice is an interview with Eddie Redmayne and his PHENOMENAL portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Both stories take the viewer into highly theoretical narratives about cosmology, physics, cool scientific premises (wormholes!) and the underlying mathematical concepts that support theories virtually impossible to grasp by the masses. Perhaps it’s the date on the magazine, November 10 (my 50th year on this planet, to the day), that has ME in such an existential mood, but these cosmic connections between handsome actors, contortions of time and space, and my day job in math set me off and running.
Both actors play men of science, fully and quite physically immersing into character. Portraying an astronaut, McConaughey is all swag as a space cowboy who leaves Earth to explore the galaxy for a home to replace his dying planet. Redmayne’s Hawking actually collapses inward until such time as he ends up tethered to his chair; his expansive theories on the origin of the universe communicated one blink at a time. And while there is plenty of math and science speak to go around, both films are ultimately about love and relationships: relationship with spouses, children, community and the world at large. Relationships with the Earth and the universe. Relationships with one’s self and one’s dreams. Relationships between struggle and reward.
In TIME’s “The Art of Science,” author Jeffrey Kluger quotes McConaughey, whose character Cooper “…has the chance to go experience his dream again, and on top of that, oh, he may save the species. But he also has to make his daughter feel safe.” In order to save the world (and her), he must leave it (and her) behind. Now with a daughter of his own, McConaughey closes with this thought on Cooper – “People will take action if it is personal.”
It gets personal for Stephen Hawking as well. Although clearly hindered by his physical struggle with ALS and the toll it takes on his marriage, Hawking’s “….lifetime goal… has been to write a single elegant equation that unites the large scale universe – up at the level where stars and planets and galaxies live.”
In my role at MIND Research Institute, I am surrounded by those who live at the corner of educational passion and interpersonal commitment. Virtually every colleague, education partner and donor I interact with is motivated by a love of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – and the desire to make learning more accessible for students. We want to figure out how to take the idolization we have for fictional science heroes – like Cooper, or Sandra Bullock’s Gravity character Ryan Stone, or Robert Downey Jr.’s Ironman –  and convert that fascination to embracing ACTUAL math and science! How do we hold up the real heroes: Stephen Hawking, Mae Jemison, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and offer them as the Rock Gods of math and science? These men and women worthy of emulating for their commitment to the STEM road that must be traveled to achieve their intellectual superpowers.
The answer is: We make it personal. People will take action if it is personal. Get involved.
While reading McConaughey’s quote, I thought of a donor who supports MIND and countless other educational initiatives. Our conversations could veer toward national education policy, America’s decade of declining math and science proficiency, or theoretically –  wormholes and time travel – assuming he did most of the talking. They never do. We talk about our kids and the world they face, his grandchildren, especially the one with medical challenges that create educational obstacles. I hear the concern in his voice as he speaks, of this child in particular, and I know his commitment to education is deeply personal. He is mentoring his grandchildren, all of them, to love and embrace STEM. He is financially supporting thousands of students through MIND Research Institute so they learn to love math. He is involved.
Get involved. You aren’t Hawking, DeGrasse Tyson, Jemison, McConaughey, Bullock, Redmayne, or Downey Jr. (unless one or more of you are actually reading this, which would be the coolest 50thbirthday present EVER), but YOU can get involved. Be a mentor. Encourage kids to explore the math and science BEHIND the scientists, the astronauts, the mathematicians and engineers who build our world. Get involved.
In the end, as both Interstellar and The Theory of Everything explore, it all comes down to this value proposition. What knowledge will we seek, what places will we go, what will we risk, what will we invest in – for those we love? For our students? For our community? For our planet? For ourselves? That is the heart of these films and, really, the heart of all existential quests.
Stephen Hawking continues his search for a single elegant equation that unites the large scale universe… and I’m rooting for him to find it. The secrets of the universe really come down to simple math.
Until then, the equation that works best in our daily lives is also simple math. Whether it’s 1:1, 1:100, 1:1,000,000 – its relationships. Be the one that makes the difference for those you love and for the Earthly home we share. Take action – because it’s personal.
This blog was first published on Sums & Solutions. MIND Research Institute is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Janine Ingram is vice president of philanthropic partnerships at MIND Research Institute.

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Moss Pike

Fantastic post, Janine; thanks for sharing your thoughts on the connection between math/science and people! What makes these films--and great science fiction in general--so potentially powerful for education is their grounding in people, namely, how math/science affect people in personal ways. So, it's all about the ":" and the relationships, as you've explained, rather than the number on either side of the equation. Interstellar does a great job of exploring this connection, and I hope other films follow in its wake.

Janine Ingram

Thanks Moss! "It's all about the ":" - great phrase!

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