As Thomas Dolby used to cry, Science! Books and TV shows exploring scientific issues and processes proliferate on all levels, but movies generally approach that branch of knowledge by tossing sci-fi water balloons. Michael Apted’s new doc Me & Isaac Newton goes at the state of things with a straight face and Sagan-esque glow, profiling seven scientists about their methods, inspirations, and ambitions. Grandmotherly Nobel laureate chemist Gertrude Elion regales us with tales of years measuring pickle acidity before beginning leukemia research; Bombay-born environmental physicist Ashok Gadgil gives us a tour of Indian poverty as he tries to cheaply disinfect their water supply; theoretical physicist Michio Kaku waxes rhapsodic about string theory; primatologist Patricia Wright chats about her impromptu career as a lemur observer; and so on.
Who wouldn’t love to make this movie sound sexy—for once, high-achieving individuals who actually deserve media attention are getting some—but it’s a TV show and a facile one at that. Steering clear of anything technical, Apted gluts up the movie with MTV cutaways and impressionistic doodlings, not-so-obliquely implying that scientific accomplishment isn’t sufficiently interesting on its own. Apted wants to document his subjects’ synapses firing rather than actually explore the work. So, the scientists are encouraged to talk more about their feelings than their findings; I would’ve liked to hear Karol Sikora explain how his gene therapy stunts cancer growth, or Steven Pinker focus his engaging manner on the specifics of his language cognition research. However well-articulated the philosophies, it’s a long way off from Carl mooning up at the fake stars on PBS all those years ago, explaining relativity to high schoolers and making it sing.