Curtain up for researchers

Why do we know the names of so many writers and musicians, but of so few scientists? Maybe because we do not invite them often enough to share what they know and who they are. “Scientist-communicators” are now filling this gap. Six exemplary films, recorded in French and subtitled in English and Chinese, present a certain way of putting across research.

Jean-Pierre Luminet explaining the Universe. © Gallimard Jean-Pierre Luminet explaining the Universe
© Gallimard
Angel Osorio y Sainz describing the potential of 3D imaging in medicine. © Gallimard Angel Osorio y Sainz describing the potential of 3D imaging in medicine.
© Gallimard

A blonde lady on a theatre stage pulls a piece of red cloth out of a sort of box, unfolds it and shows it to the audience. “Look, it’s two metres square.” No, this is not a magician, but Catherine Vidal, a neurobiologist and research director at the Institut Pasteur, where she is working right now on the neuropathology of prion diseases. The piece of cloth she has just unfolded represents the meanders of our cortex. Catherine Vidal explains the “creased universe”, the “black holes” and the other mysteries of the brain, creating a parallel between this part of ourselves – which we believe lies at the basis of our humanity – and the universe. This public session (the organisers call it a “lecture show“)has been filmed and forms the basis of one of the first DVDs in a series of researcher “portraits”. This Circo collection has been launched jointly by the CNRS(1) and publishers Gallimard (FR).

Six scientists open this series of film portraits. The films, co-produced by the researchers themselves and subtitled in English and Chinese, are a montage of professional and personal documents, reports, debates and testimonies. “For years, we have seen writers on television. Listening to them and watching them express themselves makes us want to discover their works. Science dominates our daily lives yet remains a book with seven seals for the general public. For us it was high time to share the experience of world-class researchers, to better understand their dreams, what motivates them and their work,” the project producers explain.

A certain way of narrating

The scientists in this series have been selected both for their excellence in their fields and for their communication skills. Astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet, for example, in his film L’enfant qui voulait voir l’invisible (“The child who wanted to see the invisible”), explains his boyhood fascination with the “black” between the stars. He explains the universe with the help of balls placed in a fishnet stocking and sheets of paper, and the way a black hole can live “married” to a star, before destroying it in a shower of sparks.

Ethno-psychiatrist Tobie Nathan speaks of peoples and cultures. He tells of spending his childhood being shuttled between different countries. This taught him very early on to understand and respect other people. Tobie Nathan dislikes the terms “patient” and “therapist”. Distrustful of one-on-one therapeutic relationships (“the one who knows and the one who is known about”), he introduces cooperative relationships extending what is perforce called psychotherapy to the wider areas – the family, the group – so important in other societies.

Also featured in this first set of six DVDs are physician and actress Catherine Dolto, illustrating what she calls the “science of affectivity”, surgeon Angel Osorio y Sainz describing how 3D imaging is changing his job, and Pierre-Henri Gouyon presenting genetics and evolution with a sense of humour. “We have chosen men and women who are all recognised or up-and-coming in their disciplines and all of whom have their own personal charisma,” explains Prune Berge, who heads up Gallimard’s audiovisual department. “They agreed to come on stage, talk about their lives, their passions and to dialogue with the audience.” Each film presents the personal story of a researcher and his or her particular way of doing research.

Christine Rugemer

  1. Centre national de la recherche scientifique - FR

To find out more

  • Circo – La recherche nous est contée (Research told to us) original FR version, with English and Chinese subtitles.