It’s not the most original conceit. Round up scientists from different disciplines, have one specialist introduce his or her speciality to somebody from a wholly unrelated field, and see what happens.
But The Motherboard, the science corner of Vice.com, takes this roundtable discussion idea into the field and the far corners of the Earth for “The Most Unknown,” a documentary film/global game of tag with experts in the brain, measuring time, cognition in monkeys, particle physics and cave microbes relay racing their way from Italy to Puerto Rico, Hawaii to Sussex.
As microbiologist Jennifer Macalady from Penn State suggests, “Humans get smarter, the more things they experience.” So she leaves Fransissi Cave in Italy and “probably the most beautiful slime I’ve ever seen” to the deep underground particle research lab of Davide D’Angelo in Milan, observing “a physicist in his natural habitat.”
And D’Angelo meets, on camera, psychologist Axel Cleeremans in Belgium, and gets wired up for Cleeremans’ studies of consciousness.
Cleeremans is the REAL fish out of water when he goes camping with Montana astrobiologist Luke McKay, helping take DNA samples from the mud of boiling hot springs in the American West. And so on.
From methane vents in the deepest corner of the Pacific to Macaque Monkeys on Caya Santiago off Puerto Rico and the measurement research of Jun Ye and his colleagues in Boulder, Colorado, home to the world’s most accurate atomic clock, which they’re striving to make even more accurate, “The Most Unknown” mashes up scientists from widely divergent fields for intellectual, scientific, social and even comic effect.
Make a “Ghostbusters” reference, a “Pina Colada Song” joke or “Pokemon Go” aside, chances are the other scientist knows what you’re talking about, even if she or he doesn’t know what the Western term “ride shotgun” means.
They talk of how no one genius making a breakthrough alters human knowledge, but of scientific scholarship, building on tradition, earlier proofs, a wall of What We Know built one brick at a time.
One stand-out “fun fact” from the movie was Jun Ye’s explanation of how, if the clock is accurate enough and is measurably impacted by even the slightest changes in the mass around or underneath it, you could predict earthquakes with it, even the Big One headed for Yellowstone sometime down the road.
Whatever the intent of Ian Cheney’s film, at its best it humanizes a class of people being demonized in America’s virulent outbreak of Know-Nothingism. These are smart, funny and charming worker bees with limits to their knowledge, just like the rest of us.
Where they differ might be in their grasp of all we don’t know, what constitutes “The Most Unknown” in their area of science. The fact that they admit what they don’t know and grin at every “Eureka” moment of understanding they gain from this until-now stranger who is expert in something they know little about is reason enough for “The Most Unknown” to exist. And that’s why this class of open-minded thinkers should be celebrated, emulated and above all else, funded.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jennifer Macalady, Jun Ye, Axel Cleeremans, Rachel L. Smith, Luke McKay, Victoria Orphans, Anil Seth, Davide D’Angelo, Laurie Santos
Credits:Directed by Ian Cheney. A Motherboard/Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:32