Review: The Most Unknown

What are the big questions in modern science? All too often, the public perception of science seems to be that we know all that there is to know, and the modern game in science is to simply fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We recently came across a fascinating documentary that not only looks at some of the big questions today in multi-interdisciplinary science, but has scientists ask and interview other scientists.

We’re talking about The Most Unknown, directed by Peabody-award winning filmmaker Ian Cheney (director of The City Dark and The Search for General Tso) and advised by filmmaker Werner Herzog (known for The Wrath of God and Grizzly Man). The film takes nine scientists for diverse disciplines such as biology and astronomy and catches them all pushing the boundaries of their respective fields into the unknown. What emerges is a fascinating look at the state of modern science, and a glimpse at where things are headed.

The Most Unknown was made possible by the Simons Foundation Science Sandbox. The story literally “begins under a mountain, and ends on a monkey island.” The documentary describes itself as an experiment, as it follows each researcher and expert in their respective field, and follows them as they meet and interview the next scientist. This is science at its collaborative best, a look at how seemingly disparate branches and fields are interlinked.

What I really like about the documentary is how it shows science and scientists outside of laboratory and plying their trade in the field, a far cry from the average perspective the public has of modern scientists.

The Most Unknown is available on Netflix. The film features:

Geomicrobiologist Jennifer Macalady – A Penn State professor looking at extremophile life on Earth to get a glimpse at how life might evolve on other worlds;

Particle physicist Davide D’Angelo – A CERN physicist on the hunt for elusive dark matter;

Cognitive scientist Axel Cleeremans – From the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium working to understand the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human;

Evolutionary biologist Luke Mckay: Looking at early life in extreme environments here on Earth in an effort to understand how life could evolve on other worlds;

Astronomer Rachel Smith of the Appalachian State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina, an astronomer studying the formation of the early solar system and the chemistry of protoplanetary nebulae;

Biologist Erik Cordes- Temple University taking the Alvin to the depths of the sea, an environment that may be similar to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa;

Geobiologist Victoria Orphan – California Institute of Technology, as they take the Atlantis survey submarine down to survey the ocean depths;

Physicist Jun Ye (JILA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) a researcher interested in relativity and time;

Cognitive and computational neuroscientist Anil Seth- University of Sussex, looking for the biological basis of consciousness.

Professor of psychology and cognitive science Laurie R. Santos: as she journeys to the ‘monkey island’ of Cayo Santiago off the coast of Puerto Rico to study primate behavior.

The Most Unknown includes such far flung locales as a particle accelerator buried under the Italian Alps, the windswept Keck observatory in Hawaii, and the deep sea. The film also credits, among other things, “the yeti crabs, proto-stellar clouds of dust & gas, neurons and dark matter particles who made this film possible.”

In an era of UFO and Bigfoot documentaries on cable TV masquerading as science, The Most Unknown is a refreshing and true science documentary. Let’s hope Netflix continues the trend, and other online outlets for original content (are you listening, Amazon and Hulu?) follow suit!

Dr. Rachael had these things to say to Universe Today about The Most Unknown:

Universe Today: What was it like doing the documentary?

Smith: “Doing this film was really an incredible and amazing opportunity for me. I’ve never been in a film before, and I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity to work with such great filmmakers, storytellers, as well as other scientists, and with my jobs being to share my excitement in observing at Keck telescope for the work I do, as well as learn about another researcher’s fascinating science in a really unique field site — a methane seep 1000 meters under the ocean’s surface! This latter opportunity was once-in-a-lifetime, as I was a passenger on the Alvin submersible during a research expedition. This was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had. Seeing the unique life in a methane seep,  the behaviors of fish and other creatures at such high pressures, and looking beyond the seep communities to what appears to the eye as a sandy void, felt like an off-planet experience and something akin to what it might feel like to be under the ice of Europa, perhaps! Overall it was a great privilege to work with such incredible artists and respected professionals in the film and science worlds, learn about the film-making process and other scientific endeavors pushing the frontiers of knowledge, and I think that the film reflects the level of team work and dedication that went into its production. I can also say that I had great fun and really feel honored to be a part of The Most Unknown!”

Universe Today: What was your favorite aspect of the completed film?

Smith: “It’s a bit hard to come up with a favorite aspect since there were so many great moments, but I can say that how the scientists are all linked together in a “network” linked by the film’s segments is pretty special and unique to science documentaries. I think the film accurately portrayed a diverse array of scientists who all share the same high level of wonder and enthusiasm for their work, and the film’s unique paradigm of having scientists “teach each other” about their work successfully conveyed how eager scientists are to learn new things, and also how we love to share our work with others. I also really liked how the final version included a lot of the personalities and “human” aspects of the scientists, not just depicting their science. Finally I think the film’s cinematographers are incredible artists and the film is really beautiful to watch!”

Universe Today: What aspect of the film would you advise the viewer to watch for, one that, say might not be evident on the first pass?

Smith: “Perhaps in the first pass the viewer might be focusing on the stories, listening to the explanations of the science, and watching the interactions between the scientists. Subsequent viewings might enable viewers to see more of the beauty in the film itself, such as the gorgeous land- and seascapes surrounding the research sites, and the incredibly complex machinery that goes into the research — for instance, the multitude of people operating Keck telescope, Alvin and the home ship of Atlantis, or the intricate complexity that goes into making the world’s most precise clock. Certainly more than one viewing is helpful for fully absorbing the science discussed and the motivations of the different studies … even if you’re a scientist!”