The late twentieth century seemed to usher in the revenge of the nerds, as the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs changed our lives and reaped the benefits in massive personal gain. But now we’re witnessing the depletion of basic science by politicians who favor not just corporate interests but also an ignorant populace.
The Most Unknown, a documentary directed by Ian Cheney, surveys nine scientists — a geobiologist, molecular biologist, various physicists studying space and time, cognitive psychologists, and a neuroscientist — who take turns visiting one another to get a cursory taste of the other’s field. They ruminate about some of the grandest, if also the most basic, mysteries — like our perception of time or whether there’s life on other planets.
Some of their endeavors could lead to practical advances like medical cures or bring new meaning to human existence. Could others destroy us, or simply have no payoff at all? None of the scientists believe that; all the discoveries through the ages fuel their wonder and their search. Much of the film is beautiful — hot springs, the ocean’s depths, and deep space are photogenic — although Cheney preserves a few too many mundane “hello, how do you do”s, and the science isn’t deeply explained.
Still, the scientists’ fascination is contagious, and it seems clear that their curiosity should be sustained. That requires a level of funding that is endangered these days. But we may need to save the nerds if we’re going to save ourselves.
The Most Unknown
Directed by Ian Cheney
Abramorama and Motherboard
Opens May 18, Quad Cinema
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 16, 2018