Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

The National Enquirer  has long claimed that "Enquiring Minds Want to Know." No matter how you feel about the hugely successful supermarket tabloid, stop and think for a minute: What kind of world would we live in if no one ever bothered to ask the basic questions of "Who?" "What?" "Where?" "When?" "Why?" and "How?"

Despite any warnings that curiosity killed the cat, the bottom line is that without curiosity there would be no progress. Those who ask difficult questions, seek elusive answers, and contribute to mankind's base of knowledge are continually laying the cornerstones of civilization.

Is curiosity inbred or is it a learned behavior? I'm convinced it's a learned behavior and that a challenged mind is a healthy mind. I make this claim because my father was a high school biology teacher who never stopped asking questions. Whenever my sister and I asked a particularly challenging question, we would be told to "Go look it up!" 

Is it any wonder, then, that my sister became a librarian and friends still ask me to help them find certain bits of information? Has no one taught them how to creatively use a search engine like Google for starters?

I recently had a chance to watch three programs that all focused on the importance of curiosity in shaping a person's future. One was an animated feature, the second a one-man show, and the third a documentary that would have truly thrilled my father.

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As part of its first NY/SF International Children's Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Society will offer a screening of Eleanor's Secret on Saturday, September 25th at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema. As directed by Dominique Monfery, this delightful full-length animation feature focuses on a family that has just inherited a decrepit old house following the death of a beloved relative.

At age 7, Nathaniel has not yet learned how to read. In past summers, his aunt Eleanor would read to him from books of fairy tales and other classics of children's literature. To his utter dismay, all she left him was her collection of books.

When a storm causes substantial damage to Eleanor's decrepit house, the family is at a loss to figure out how they will finance the necessary repairs. Since Nathaniel doesn't seem too interested in the books he has inherited, his parents decide to try selling Eleanor's book collection. But when his mother suggests that Nathaniel choose one book by which he can remember his deceased aunt, the young boy stumbles upon Eleanor's secret.

His late aunt's personal library contains the original editions of every fairy tale. In fact, the books upstairs are inhabited with the characters about whom they were written. Soon Nat is being warned by Captain Hook, Alice, Aladdin, and Pinocchio about their dire predicament. After Carabosse (the wicked fairy godmother from Sleeping Beauty) shrinks him down to the size of all the other characters, Nathaniel's rescue mission becomes even more desperate.

Nathaniel (who still has problems sounding out words) must read the magic inscription in Eleanor's library by a certain hour in order to keep all of its literary characters to remain alive. If he fails, they will vanish from the pages of literature forever.

Nathaniel's rescue mission includes all kinds of surprising challenges -- like trying to convince a hungry storybook ogre that if he eats Nathaniel, all will be lost. Surprisingly, Nat's obnoxious older sister, Angelica, helps to save the day.

There is a very special charm in the way the animators have captured classic images from children's literature and given them new life. Not only does Eleanor's Secret showcase the magic of books, it can easily serve as an inspiration for children to develop a passion for reading.With Jeanne Moreau supplying Eleanor's voice, there are some ways in which this delightful film may actually mean more to adults than it will to children. Still, it's a treat for children of all ages. Here's the trailer:

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One of the most enjoyable monologues performed during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival was Phil The Void: The Great Brain Robbery. Created and performed by Los Angeles-based Phil van Hest (who has been performing monologues since 1999), this hour-long intellectual juggling act asked audiences to think about how much time they routinely spend on the Internet learning useless bits of trivia. Hest highlight's America's growing capacity to look things up without really learning anything.

Hest's snarky dialogue reveals a strong intellect that finds constant joy in questioning the idiocy of contemporary American culture. By the end of the festival, his act was selling out and keeping audiences in stitches. Here's a sampler:

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Whiz Kids (which opens this week at the Balboa Theatre for a limited run) is the kind of film my father would have loved. Directed by Tom Shepard, this documentary follows three 17-year-old high school science students as they try to get accepted by and compete in the annual Intel Science Talent Search, where more than 2,000 students annuially compete for a total of $1.5 million in prizes. As the filmmaker explains:
"The Science Talent Search was hugely formative for me in high school. It’s probably the reason I went to Stanford. It certainly gave me enormous confidence (in 1987 I was one of the finalists). There are fewer finalists in the Intel (formerly the Westinghouse) Science Talent Search from California over the years, and it has been dominated by East Coast high schoolers. You look more deeply and you see there are many more science magnet schools on the East Coast. There’s a whole culture now of science research in Long Island. Families move to Long Island so their kids can go to the schools that will teach them research. We needed and wanted to spend time in those science hubs.
Science is not like a tennis match. Science is not like a spelling bee. It’s much more process-oriented. At the same time we wanted drama, and we’re certainly in a culture where American Idol mania pervades, so we weren’t blind to the fact that using a competition narrative was important in terms of raising the stakes. But we were pretty clear that we didn’t want to make a competition film and that we were trying to invest the  audience in the stories of three young people for whom science has become the driving force in their lives."
The students who were chosen all demonstrated three key characteristics:
  • An insatiable curiosity.
  • A deeply felt determination to communicate their work to the public.
  • A passion to make a difference in the world.
Harmain Khan
  • The daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, Ana Cisneros is attends Long Island's Uniondale High School (whose student body is nearly 95% Latino and African American kids). Her fascination with botany has helped Ana develop a project in which she is attempting to show how certain plants learn to train their root systems not to compete with "friendly" neighbors.
  • Born in Pakistan (and having grown up on welfare), Harmain Khan is an aspiring paleontologist from Staten Island whose project involves using carbon dating techniques on ancient crocodile teeth. Driven to succeed, Harmain is the kind of hyper-inquisitive nerd who simply cannot rest until he finds the answers to his questions.
  • Kaleydra Welcker's research into contaminated water was spurred by her family's proximity to a DuPont plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia. Not only did she discover a simple test for a specific contaminant derived from the process of manufacturing Teflon (which had been routinely dumped into the Ohio River), the closer she got to achieving a real breakthrough with her home experiments, the more it seemed like the state's regional science fairs were in jeopardy.
Kaleydra Welcker
As part of their research, the filmmaking team found some students who were already working in university and government labs (sometimes alongside Nobel Prize winning scientists). Others had fewer resources and were working in basement and garage labs. The filmmakers were particularly impressed by the way these students all wanted to use their research in the public arena to make themselves heard as agents of change.

At a time when the United States is lagging behind superpowers like China, India, and Russia in scientific achievement, a film like Whiz Kids is invaluable for many reasons.
  • Whiz Kids proves that scientific talent is hardly restricted to society's upper classes.
  • Whiz Kids shows the importance of supportive parents in a child's academic growth.
  • Whiz Kids demonstrates the critical role a supportive teacher/mentor can play in a student's development.
  • Whiz Kids reminds audiences what a highly motivated student looks like.
  • Whiz Kids clearly outlines some of the obstacles that must be overcome by high school nerds and geeks who are misunderstood (or even scorned) by their classmates.
As Shepard notes:
"The film, first and foremost, is a coming-of-age story. It’s about teenagers who are wrestling with  adolescence and are primarily using science to move through that period in their lives. But if it allows a more general audience to plug into science, or engage in science, through the eyes of these vibrant kids, then I think we’ve really helped that cause. I use my background in science all the time to evaluate good and bad public policy. I honestly think that the measure of our nation, in terms of technology and innovation, needn’t be how many (or how big) our pedigrees. Having the general public be more scientifically literate will go a long way."
Whiz Kids is a delightful documentary that captures the thrill of scientific research -- especially when it is being performed by a young mind -- and shows that there are more valuable goals than merely achieving some kind of celebrity. Here's the trailer:

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