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‘The Most Unknown’ (review)

Produced by Ian Cheney,
Lindsay Blatt, Xavier Aaronson
Directed by Ian Cheney
Featuring Jennifer Macalady, Davide D’Angelo,
Axel Cleeremans, Luke McKay, Rachel L. Smith,
Erik Cordes, Victoria Orphan, Jun Ye,
Anil Seth, Laurie R. Santos


A circular documentary about 9 cross disciplinary scientists nerding out with each other in cool and exotic laboratories and locations?

Yes, please.

This interesting an innovative film takes us on a journey that starts and ends in a cave with a biologist.

The biologist talks with a physicist. The physicist visits a psychologist. The psychologist hangs out with an astro-biologist. The astro-biologist checks in with an astro-physicist…

…The astro-physicist swaps stories with a geo-biologist. The geo-biologist checks out the experiments a physicist is doing…

…The physicist learns about the brain with a neuro-scientist. The neuro-scientist hangs out with some monkeys and a cognitive psychologist…

…Last but not least, the cognitive psychologist winds up in a cave with the biologist.

By the end I needed a nap. I watched about 2000 IQ points in action. It was a lot to take in.

To really enjoy a science documentary you don’t necessarily have to be science literate, but you must have the one trait that drives all human discovery, curiosity.

Every scientist in the documentary is genuinely curious and that curiosity drives them to learn, to observe, to experiment, to fail and to start all over again. Curiosity has brought us to where we are today scientifically and our ability to discover is increasing exponentially. If you read Ray Kurzweil’s, The Singularity is Near, he addresses exponential growth in innovation.

The overarching theme for each of the scientists is the unknown, unsurprising based on the film’s title, but fascinating still. Little quotes throughout the documentary punctuate the desire for discovery, the passionate curiosity and the abject wonder this special group of people bring to the world.

“We are on the verge of something, but we don’t know what”

It’s likely that 30 trillion species on Earth evolved from a common ancestor, but if they are wrong, the biologist can’t even conceive of where to look for the second primary ancestor. That is science in a snapshot. We think we are right, but if the tests tell us we are wrong we have to start all over again. It is humility in the face of data and something everyone needs to pay attention to. Facts are facts, whether you like them or not.

“Science is a journey.”

“We are studying the essence of consciousness”

“Are we alone? Studying microbes in hot springs sets the boundaries for life on Earth.”

“We are studying origin questions of how we got here”

“We are seeing what no one else has seen on the sea floor”

“The brain has no time sensor” – SIDEBAR – My first reaction to this statement was that means all time is relative. Blindsided by Einstein on a Thursday night. BOOM!

“Discovery is an uncertain process.”

It was at this point we get to the cognitive psychologist, the brilliant Laurie Santos, who I have been smitten with since her TED Talk in 2010. She starts her segment playing Pokemon Go on the dock of the monkey island where she conducts her research and during her segment absolutely blows up all human perception around watching films. She says the science of movie watching tells us humans only perceive movies in two ways. What happens at the peak of the film and how does it end? So for all the aspiring film makers out there, keep this in mind.

There is so much to enjoy here if you like and appreciate science. If you don’t, definitely pass. You will be bored and confused. However, if you do like science, I highly recommend this film. The camera work and visuals are stunning, from the shots of the night sky to the violent beauty of the hot springs we are treated with one magnificent visual after another as the scientists take us on a journey of fundamental questions of existence, evolution, cognition and curiosity.

Also, Laurie Santos.

4.5 out of 5 stars



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