Words bring life to life

Drew Berry is one of the great movie-makers of the molecular world. He makes gorgeous computer visualizations of DNA, proteins, and the various goings-on inside the cell. Last night I spent a little time watching a new TEDx talk of his just posted online. My first thought was, “Why didn’t I get to see these movies when I was learning about biology as a kid? Life is unfair.” Compared to the flat cartoons of textbooks, or even the crude animations in documentaries of yore, Berry’s work seems to come from some advanced alien civilization.

In case you haven’t seen Berry’s work before, I’ve embedded his lecture here. (You may have heard about him when he got a recent Macarthur “genius” grant.) If you have seen his stuff before, I’d suggest you watch this anyway. And this time, don’t just watch. Listen.

When I first saw Berry’s work a while back, I was immediately gob-smacked. But as I watched his synchronized swimming of molecules a while longer, I realized after a while that I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. I didn’t know the names of the molecules I was looking at, and, more importantly, I couldn’t tell what a lot of them were doing. The only sense I could make of it all derived from what I already knew.

Berry’s TEDx talk is more satisfying because it’s a talk. You look at the mesmerizing images, and Berry explains what you’re seeing. What’s really interesting is how he–no doubt unconsciously–uses words that switch on the mental eye. When he zooms in on a chromosome, he points out structures passing through it that look “like whiskers,” which act as the “scaffolding” for the cell (the microtubules). He then zooms into the place where the chromosome and microtubule meet, the kinetochore. What you see looks like a supercomputer’s acid trip. But you can make sense of what you see because Berry uses metaphors. He calls it a “signal broadcasting system.” Now all the molecules jittering around aren’t totally random. We can see how molecules come together to make life possible.

There’s no question that people like Berry are going to be making the movies that fill our heads in our future when we think about what’s going on in our bodies. But those movies will need good soundtracks.

4 thoughts on “Words bring life to life

  1. Harvard has done some good work with graphics. I’ve used their Inner Life of the Cell for an introductory college course in biology back in 2008. The narrator is “intrusive”, if that makes sense, and I had difficulty listening to the whole thing. They need to find an “Attenborough” to narrate these.

    However, the musical sound track for the non-narrated one is good. That’s the one I played before and after the series of lectures on molecular and cell biology, and while they missed what was happening when they first viewed it, they understood what was happening in the second viewing (I used still images for some of the lectures so they when the saw the video again they were viewing familiar images; and I did the before and after thing to show them that they had indeed learned something in-between the viewings).

    You’re quite right. A good soundtrack is needed to compliment these visual works of art. Otherwise, people will turn it off. In my mind, it was the soundtrack that ruined March of the Penguins (bland elevator music, all the way through. They should have taken a hint from Winged Migration or even some of the Home soundtrack–parts were like nails on blackboard, mind you, but overall, well done).

    Harvard videos here for those interested: multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/media.html (e.g. see the 3-minute version….there is an 8 minute musical clip somewhere, but didn’t find it on the above link…it is in youtube though).

  2. Thanks for linking my TED talk, Carl. I was particularly interested in your critique of how I verbally explain these molecular structures – particularly if there are consequences for the tack I chose. I use metaphors to try and relate this complex biology to something that the general public can grasp and at least get some sense of what is going on. I do put an effort in to avoid use of any scientific jargon or technical language as that is a major turn off for the audience.

  3. Having not heard of this fellow before, my first thought/image, upon reading the sentence, “Drew Berry is one of the great movie-makers of the molecular world” was of Drew Barrymore, and I wondered to myself what the heck is Carl yammering about?! So glad you set me straight… GREAT stuff!

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