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Interview of Bert Shapiro by Spencer Weart on 1977 July 21, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/3907
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A brief, impromptu talk with a film-maker about his science films for classroom and television use. Comments on his own interest in astronomy, on attitude of scientists towards publicity, and on public attitudes toward science.
Now, what are we going to do about this? Shall we transcribe it? Shall we treat it like a normal interview, and you can fill out the permission forms and so forth? Or shall we just make it between us?
Whatever you like.
OK, we'll transcribe it and all that. OK, I'm interested because I'm interested in popularization and public information about astronomy, and that's your job, at least at the moment. You've been involved in it for a long time, say 20 years, you said.
I made my first film on astronomy for classroom use. I was first involved in science classroom films, and worked on a series called "HORIZONS OF SCIENCE”, this was one of the first series of classroom films that attempted to look at science, at the scientific method. Before then classroom films had peripherally dealt with science" They dealt with the subject matter of science, or they dealt with technology, but they didn’t deal with research and the creative process and the way scientists attacks problems "HORIZONS OF SCIENCE" was a historic series.
Who funded it?
It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF has been totally reimbursed I believe) U.S. Steel and other major corporations. It was produced by the Educational Testing Service at “Princeton", Jerome Zacharias was part of the governing board? But he soon left because he didn't believe in it. He lost faith in it. It was such a new idea — to talk about how science works in the classroom. He helped to organize the PSSC, the Physical Science Study Committee, and he really believed in that.
Teaching the content of science.
That's it. To deal with the content and to convey the content, but to do it in a more attractive, useful, interesting way than earlier classroom films that taught physics. But we were interested in motivating this group. The most important function of a teacher or the function of a film, for any audience, is to motivate. We felt, I still feel that we teach little, that you more importantly create an environment, or you interest people in learning; that learning is the interesting process. And we at HORIZONS SCIENCE always had a thing: we don't want to substitute for the teacher in the classroom. But Zaharias deliberately did want to substitute for the bad teacher, and the reason he did is that he and others felt that was his mandate. And it was. It was part of a national effort to improve science education and they thought that many teachers were ill equipped to teach science, and they wanted to go into a classroom in places like Mississippi and effectively replace the teacher. Weart; Tell me, did you come at this as a film maker? Had you had any real contact with science before?
None at all. My interest is still in communication and film, not in science.
So all your knowledge of science and scientists comes through this.
Comes as a result of the filming.
But you’ve done many films on science,
I don't know, would you say more on science than on any other subject?
Yeah, at least in the last 20 years. I've been in the business for 29 years. In the last 20 years, more on science than any other area.
Is this because it particularly interests you, or is it simply because you developed an expertise? Shapiro? It's because you get habituated to doing something — you know, you fall into some pattern and it becomes easier. Also I've gotten grants from the National Science Foundation. I've gotten about five grants.
They know you.
And they know me, and they know what I do. I guess I like science too. But I think there's a danger in liking the subject matter, in getting too interested in science. Because I could deceive myself into thinking that I know something about the subject, when I don't, you know. It's all off the top of my head. And I want to keep it that way. I deliberately — I can't say deliberately, because I don't have the time or capacity to really remember enough factual material to deal with the subject matter — but I want to stick to what I have to do. To the area in which I can make a contribution — communications.
You want to keep that fresh approach?
Yes, and do communications work. I mean, that's the area that needs attention. That's the area where I can potentially make a contribution. I can't make any contribution to the subject matter. I can to the simplification or the organization of it. But in communication, that's the area I can. Succeed or fail.
You feel you're contributing to science? To the scientific endeavor?
No. But to communicate to interesting people.
When you say you contribute, you're contributing to what?
Oh, I see. To conveying a picture of science, contemporary science, what the nature of it is. I always attempt to deal with the workings of science — how science operates and works — and to avoid the other kind of dealing with the subject matter, in the way that Zacharias did.
Why do you want to convey these things about science to the public?
I guess because I find it interesting myself, particularly astronomy.
You've done more on astronomy than anything else?
Yes, more on astronomy than any other branch of science.
Why is that? Shapiro I don't know. I worked for the American Astronomical Society, did two films for them. Again, as HORIZONS OF SCIENCE they were classroom films, not television films. The AAS wanted to interest students in astronomy; that was a time when there was a shortage of astronomers, and there was a shortage of students in physics, and we pegged the films for the bright students in the classroom. They wanted only the brightest students. It was a mistake to do that, because I'm afraid some of it was over the heads of most of the students. And it's kind of an elitist idea, and also films are a mass communication media, and they are misused when you direct them towards just a few people. So the films suffered in that regard. Also we were so successful that there's now an overage of astronomers.
What about other people who have supported it, like NSF (National Science Foundation) has supported films on astronomy, there's wide-base support for —
Well, I can only conjecture that (the NSF) (taken to mean new television film projects) have a great deal of difficulty in describing what astronomers do. There's a very heavy financial commitment to astronomy. You know, a great establishment. Oh, I heard recently that only one-tenth the amount they spend on particle research —
goes into astronomy — Shapiro — goes into astronomy. But still, it's a huge sum for the National Observatories, for their subsidies. And they thought — I would think, because you know, I can't put myself in their heads, — I can only say what I suppose that they think — that it's difficult to convey the message of how those funds are used. What do astronomers do, you know? That's very difficult to illustrate. I think I've had a little success in that area, to make it reasonably intelligible, and I think, based on that, they have continued. I see this film as the second part of a trilogy, you know, on the whole history of the material universe.
"Birth and Death of a Star" being the first.
Yes, and this one on the universe, and then I want to do one on the planets, and I think that has the greatest potential.
The planetary system.
Planetary, and what is a planet? How did this one (earth) begin? Are there other planets? Also, to deal with some of the physical ideas about a planet, about tectonics and the oceans and the atmosphere.
It's clear you find the physical content of the science, and the scientists' personalities — like when we sit down to talk, I find you talking some of the time about the personalities and some of the time about the scientific ideas. You seem to be excited about both of these things.
Yes. And I like scientists. I think I'd rather talk to scientists. Maybe my mind runs in that direction. There's a kind of detachment about it, you know, the ability to deal with a disparate subject, one away from your own daily problems. And that's attractive.
How do you find that the scientists deal with you? You were mentioning about Sandage, that he was very uncertain about whether he wanted to appear on such a show. Do you encounter much of this kind of thing?
Yes, I think I represent a conflict for them; they have dual feelings, and I bring this out — On the one hand, they would genuinely enjoy the notoriety and the publicity, and on the other hand, they don't want to be judged in the eyes of their colleagues as getting more than their share of publicity. Scientists like to appear low key and not seeking attention. On the other hand, it's part of their life blood, attention — not just on the part of the scientific community, but some would like more public attention. So I represent a problem for them.
Is this all scientists, or are you speaking specifically of astronomers? Shapiro? I think in astronomy, probably a little more. I'm trying to think back on other people. No, I remember in oceanography it's the same. There is a split in their own minds about publicity, the need for it, whether to get it or not to get it.
What about their feelings about the need for publicity for astronomy's sake, some of these things you were mentioning.
Yes , Well, that's, the way you appeal to them.
You go and tell them, "Astronomy needs… "
Well, I don't tell them all of it, but I imply it. You know, I don't give them the naked argument; I dress it up a little.
But it's sort of understood between you?
It's understood, or I make it gradually clear to them that it's good for astronomy, it's good for science. On this project, I think a lot 6m scientists are interested in evolution. And I find this project interesting because it deals with material evolution. I think it is interesting to talk about material evolution, how it differs from biological evolution, where did the term come from? The astronomers stole it from the bi0logists, and yet they mean something totally different than the biologists mean. What do they mean when they talk about stellar evolution? I'd like to find out. And I'd like to describe material evolution, not only in terms of stars, in terms of the universe, but in terms of the planets in terms of all of the material world. And I feel these three films, at least in part, will be a description of that. I think evolution needs more defining, I think it would help for people to think about it more clearly. I've asked a number of people what they mean by evolution, and there's a great spectrum of views. Most of the people underplay it, and they say, "Oh, I mean simply an order of things, time-dependent order with some kind of progression —" Others have many more elaborations. But I think that the importance of it — that it's the motivation for so much research. If you hear people talk, "evolution of the universe," that has a lot of meaning. It motivates a lot of astronomers. Evolution of a star motivates a lot of astronomers.
Right. Now if I'm an astronomer, and you want me to appear on your film, you will be bringing out these kinds of ideas? Exciting ideas?
No, I don't think I really convince anybody of anything, to be in it or not to be in it. Except maybe in the one case I mentioned to you. But I think I just play on those feelings that are already there. I think I'd rather have willing people. I think I kind of duck those that are genuinely not willing.
Have you found that these feelings have changed at all over the last 20 years? There's been big talk about —
Oh, yes. In the old days you could throw all kinds of arguments at at people about the shortages of scientists. That's the way we started with astronomy films: that we'd like to encourage more physicists, more astronomers, whatever — oh yes, in those days. Today, as a matter of fact, that argument is counter-productive, there's so much competition. So that was a kind of evolution.
Would you perhaps find today an argument about the need for public understanding in order to maintain science funding?
Yes, that is a continuing thing. There's always need for more funding. There's no need for interesting more students in becoming scientists —
— but there' s always need for more funding.
But that hasn't changed over the last 20 years?
No, that's always been there, and that continues. Again, I don't hit them with that baldly. You know, it's not the kind of thing you can talk about gracefully, but you kind of beat around the bush on that a little bit. But as I say, essentially, if people don't want to be in the films — unless there is an active interest, or at least you sense that there's an active interest, if you sense you have a customer then forget them. If a guy's reluctant, he's usually also pretty close-mouthed, and not wanting to communicate, and of course then you don't want him. He's not a good candidate for you anyhow.
So that process kind of weeds out people.
Now, let me ask you also, going back to what we were talking about earlier at dinner, you quoted Wall Sargent as saying "astronomy is public entertainment” , but evidently this is not quite the way you see the function. I want to ask you again, what do you think the public gets out of it, out of these sorts of films that you do?
It appeals to a non-material side of their nature and of their personality. People aspire to religion; in the same way they aspire to astronomy. It's something bigger and somehow better than daily life, or than the kind of everyday pursuit that they're involved in, and they put it on a kind of pedestal. But there interest usually doesn't go very deep — because if you talk to people at a cocktail party, and I do this frequently, about astronomy — I think I'm getting tired of telling people that I'm working on an astronomy film. I find I'm getting pretty tired of doing that. I don't do it anymore.
Oh. Why is that?
Because invariably, I get the same responses — "I am SO interested in astronomy, I can't—" And this is invariable, "I can't tell you, I'm so interested in the stars, in the galaxies, in the cosmos —" Then we talk for about one minute, and as soon as you spell it out in any detail, as soon as you fill out the picture of what it is you're doing, they fall somewhere. You've lost them. It's so inevitable, you know, that they're interested in it only in a very-abstract kind of way. But when you get to the heart and meat of what astronomy is about, when you get to the details, when you get to the subject matter it's very hard to hold people. At least in conversation. Now, in films you have a lot more weapons going for you. You have pictures, and you do a lot of designing and carefully working out how to involve people. But in ordinary conversation, I find it hard. I wonder how many astronomers would say the same thing? That the initial response is, "SO interesting!" And that isn't entirely phony. There is an interest there in something that they think of as astronomy. That something has to do with stars and outer space, and the great wasteland of space, etc., the great numbers of stars. As long as it remains an abstraction, that’s fine. But as soon as you concretize it — as you have to. People study this. And what do they do? How do they do it? That has a fascination for me. It doesn’t have, for many people at least in conversation. Incidentally, if you want to know the objective of this film, or of any of the other films in astronomy, how we can succeed or fail. Well, I'll tell you what it is. Then you can say whether you think it's an objective. To convey the most important ideas in astronomy: that space is as vast as it is, and that there are as many stars as there are, and as you look out in space, you look back in time. I think if we can in this project convey anything of those notions in the film, that will be a measure of success. So I guess that's an objective.
All right. Do you find that this is different, or stronger perhaps in astronomy as compared with other science films, this non-material emphasis, in terms of the public interest?
Well, non-interest in the details
There are two things there. One is they're not interested in the details. The other is, the interest in astronomy as something remote from material life.
Yes. It's special to astronomy. We were talking about the difference between astronomy and particle physics — you know, the funding is 10 to 1. And yet the situation, at least in potential interest, astronomy versus particle physics, the interest is ten times greater in astronomy. If you do something on particle physics, you'll work your head off to get people at least initially interested — whereas in astronomy, you've got something going for you at the outset. You can fail later, but —
Why should that be? They're both pure, at least, at present.
Well, I suppose for one, it's a nice part of the natural world, the stars. A sympathetic and conjuring part of the natural world. Whereas the other —, nobody ever reflects about the heart of matter, or what the basic or fundamental particle is. But people do wonder about, what is a star? Stars are in literature, in poetry, and in, you know — what is the heaven for? What's that famous quote, Browning?
"Or what's a heaven for?" (“Andrea del Sarto")
But there's no comparable background or tradition, you know, for any other science. The oldest and the most oft-mentioned of the sciences. I think that way you have a leg up on it, and then the trick is to hold the people with the details — which are also equally interesting, if not more interesting, because I think in the end, the interesting thing is the ideas and what's in people's minds. That's what I'm going to try to use in my current project. What have we got going for us in this new film? We don't have technology, or we're not going to have it, because that isn't interesting. Machines — people lose interest, particularly women. You know, if you want to turn off half the audience, scoom!, get into some details about how something works and you're killed right off.
— you mean diagrams, pipes, and —
Oh yes, that's the end of the line. And then, personalities, we don't have — at least, not very great personalities.
We have some interesting personalities, but not on the order of, say, the whimsical or dramatic statement kind of persons —
— not as if you were doing —
We don't have the most dramatic whimsical kind of person you could have in the world. So the only thing we have left, really, is ideas, and that has to be our stock in trade.. That's what we have to deal with. We have to hope that people are interested in ideas. And the ideas in astronomy — intriguing. Because it's so difficult. Astronomers themselves, that's all they have is ideas; they have a couple of little points of light and some ideas. It's the ideas that are important and significant. So we have to try to convey the intrigue and interest in those ideas. That's what we're after. And then at the same time conveying the numbers of stars, and the kind of space and so forth.
I think we'd probably better stop now, because I promised not to keep you too long from your wife.