By Stacy Jannis
Kavli Science Video Contest Manager
The Kavli Science in Fiction Video Contest challenges Gr 6-12 students to examine the science in fiction, including science fiction movies, TV shows, and games. Our contest advisors include science educators , scientists, and Hollywood scifi visual effects experts.
Steven Schlozman, M.D.
is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is also the co-director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School. His first novel, The Zombie Autopsies
has been optioned by George Romero for adaptation to film. Dr. Schlozman’s zombie curriculum has been adapted by Texas Instruments as part of an innovative STEM educational program STEM Behind Hollywood.
When did you first become interested in science?
That’s such an interesting question because so much of the question is about definitions. If you choose to broadly define science – that is, if you define science as the careful wondering about cool and interesting questions – then I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t interested. I know that’s a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they hold truth. I can remember, at a very early age, wondering why some music sounded sad and some music is more uplifting. My parents often played soundtracks from musicals, and different tunes made me feel different ways. I’d ask my parents why “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof was sad and “Aquarius” from Hair was happy, and they’d say things like “well, that song is more upbeat” or “this song is in a minor key.” I wasn’t old enough to be able to know words like tautological, but I did know that these answers weren’t satisfying. In other words, these answers just got me to wonder about why minor keys are sad, which was essentially the same question. To that end, I was first interested in science when I was first interested in wondering. (Corny, I know, but true)
What has been your primary area of interest, and why did you gravitate towards it?
Definitely the science of understanding behavior – and by that, I mean all behavior.
Why do ants do what they do? How does a jumping spider jump? And, with regard to humans, my professional and personal interests wonderfully meld. I love trying to understand the nuances of individuality through the lenses that neuroscience, anthropology, culture, psychology, and sociology offer. I don’t think you can look at humans without all of these different disciplines coming together in a hopefully increasingly coherent mosaic.
Why do you like Zombie movies?
What’s not to like! I love that zombies map onto almost any scenario. You can throw zombies into any scene, any story, any setting, and because zombies are really an absence posing as a presence, the zombies make us aware of our shortcomings. I’m aware that this sounds sort of high-brow, but I don’t mean for it to sound that way. A zombie looks like your girlfriend but isn’t your girlfriend. It forces you, therefore, to really consider how you feel about girlfriend without any outside input. This messes with the fundamental neurobiology of pattern recognition and mirror neurons. We look for what’s not there and when we don’t find what we’re looking for we’re reduced to something more primitive and alone. That’s when our humanity is truly challenged. Zombies, as George Romero is fond of saying, are the thing that happens to everyone else in the movie. The humans then have to decide whether, as they watch humanity crumble, they’ll choose to cling to their own humanity or abandon their friends and colleagues.
These are pretty basic issues in the modern world – if someone attacks you but it’s not about you (road rage, for example) do we become another person with road rage (the mirror neuron response) or do we rise above it? Easier to grapple with these issues in the cheeky world of a zombie flick, and then, as with all art, use the hypothetical grappling to work out tough problems in the real world. Plus, I like being scared (a little).
How can Zombies help students learn science?
I think if we conceptualize zombies as sick, then we can end up wondering what it is that makes them sick. That takes you pretty quickly to functional neurobiology. What region of the brain makes you hungry? What regions of the brain allow you to solve problems? You get the picture. From there, you can ask things like “well, how would a zombie contagion spread?” That brings you to epidemiology and microbiology and even immunology. Finally, you can study the psychology of reactions to illness. How sick does someone need to be in order to be considered something other than him or herself? That’s a cognitive neuroscience question as much as it is an existential concern.
Watch Dr. Schlozman in action teaching about zombies and science:
Tell us (more) about the Zombie Autopsies.
The Zombie Autopsies is a sort of found footage novel. It is a first person account of a largely unpracticed scientist who is asked to go to an island where everyone is infected with a zombie contagion. Most of the world is infected, and this guy is kind of the last hope. The problem, though, is that he is himself infected, as is everyone else on the island. Therefore, as he slowly turns into a zombie, he loses his capacity to think clearly exactly as he needs to think most clearly. The title is a play on words – it is only an autopsy if the subject is deceased, but the protagonist realizes that the “Living Dead” are in fact “living.” That forces him to rethink how he treats them. The book sneaks in a good deal of neuroscience as the scientist unlocks the clues, and in the end he does in fact solve the mystery of what causes the transformation of humans to zombies. However, the reader has to look for clues in order to discern the answer. I’ve had readers as young as 12 figure it all out, and readers as old as 50 (and who happen to be scientists!) tell me that it isn’t fair that I don’t come out and tell them what the contagion is.
The book has also been optioned by George Romero, the creator of “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” and really the founder of this genre, and the script is finished now and reportedly bouncing around Hollywood. (Fingers crossed!)
How does real science enter into better science fiction in movies, especially when the movie takes place in a complete fantasy world?
Science is often intuitive, so when the science doesn’t feel real the story loses authenticity. However, not all science is intuitive. It doesn’t, for example, necessarily make sense to say that there is no sound in space. BUT – if the science is made real even in the realm of fiction (in “Lord of the Rings”, Newton’s laws still hold), then we can have more fun with the fiction.
Good fiction is always about tweaking the recognizable into something new. In Avatar, why are the aliens so tall? Well, there’s less gravity. Aha! Now, let’s play with how we’d do in a world with less gravity.
How can teachers use movies, and science fiction, to teach science concepts?
Pick a movie, one that you like, and ask the kids why. Ask them why again…and then again. Why are the aliens so tall in Avatar? Answer: well, there’s less gravity so they can grow taller. Why is there is less gravity? Answer: well, because the planet is less dense. Why does a less dense planet let you grow taller? Answer: well, there’s less gravitational force detracting from bone growth. And so on…
How do you think we can better encourage and inspire the next generation to become scientists and engineers?
By not compartmentalizing! Music and literature and science and math are all more similar than different. I think kids get turned off when they’re forced to turn off one way of thinking and turn on another. I’d try to get kids to think about scientific questions in English class and to read poetry about the universe in science.
What inspires you in your work?
The ongoing ambiguity. Who wants to live in a world when we always know everything?
What advice can you give to science and engineering students ?
Same advice my football coach gave me. I was a little guy growing up in corn-fed Kansas. I played football mostly to get a date, but also because I really loved the game. But then I’d walk into the weight room and there’d be these monstrous kids with muscles where I don’t even have places. My coach had a sign on the door there. “There’s always someone who can lift more.” In other words, I wasn’t comparing my work in the weight room with anyone but me. The same ought to go for science and engineering. Reach out for help, take advice and instruction, but at the end of the day you are likely your own biggest competitor!
The Kavli Science in Fiction Video Contest is open for entries now!!! To enter the contest click here.