Knight Science Journalism Fellow, ’14-15
Ian Cheney is an Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker. His films and collaborations include King Corn (2007), The Greening of Southie (2008), Truck Farm (2010), The City Dark (2011), The Melungeons (2013) and The Search for General Tso (2014).
What has been your most enjoyable or enriching experience at MIT so far?
Most Wednesdays, the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences department hosts a wonderful lecture that features a scientist from outside MIT speaking about some of their research-in-progress. The lectures are held on the ninth floor of the beloved Green Building, with views of Cambridge and the open sky. Crucially, cookies are served. The talks run the gamut, from “active asteroids” to research on the plumes beneath Hawai’i’s volcanoes. For me, it’s a rare opportunity to see scientists sharing ideas in an informal setting. If I don’t follow all the math, I daydream about new ways of visualizing complex information — or I go get another cookie.
What has been the focus of your research during your Fellowship? Why is this topic important to you and for the public?
I’m focusing on the planetary sciences, trying to understand Earth (and the other planets) on a big-picture scale — both spatially and temporally. I’ve always struggled to comprehend geologic time, or place the human experience in the context of the wider universe, but grasping these planetary perspectives allows critical contemporary issues to be understood in a new light. So I’ve been wading into geochemistry, geobiology, and studies of planetary formation.
At this point I have about 35 film concepts stored up, and am looking forward to spending the spring chipping away at them with my rock hammer until some clear ideas shine forth.
“Human narratives not only hook viewers, but also provide context and grounding for otherwise complex or intangible ideas.”
How important is a compelling human narrative when reporting on a complicated scientific issue or a new piece of research?
Documentary filmmaking — my corner of the journalism world — is fundamentally about storytelling. Human narratives not only hook viewers, but also provide context and grounding for otherwise complex or intangible ideas. The recent burst of Hollywood films portraying the lives of such luminaries as Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking is decent anecdotal evidence that audiences are deeply curious about the lives of scientists. But beyond celebrating science celebrities, I’m very interested in using nonfiction film to celebrate the lives of hardworking, unsung researchers — sharing not only the success stories, but also the myriad challenges faced along the way. Better public understanding of the lives of scientists can also yield increased interest in scientific careers; in other words, compelling human narratives about scientists are good ways of recruiting more young scientists.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Daniel Pritchard