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Brookhaven Lab using cinema to spread science to the masses

Chiara La Tessa, a researcher in the Collider-Accelerator

Chiara La Tessa, a researcher in the Collider-Accelerator Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory, recently led a discussion about the movie "The Martian" at the lab's Science on Screen event at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. Above, La Tessa at the Upton lab on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Art and science are often regarded as opposite ends of the spectrum, but at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, the two have merged into one.

In 2014, Brookhaven National Laboratory began holding Science on Screen events at the theater. The program features a movie screening followed by a discussion with a BNL researcher. The theater screened the documentary “Particle Fever” at the inaugural event that year.

Since then, such films as “The Day After Tomorrow” have been screened for the theater’s members. Science on Screen events are also part of a larger push for STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math — in educational curricula.

“When you’re making a film, you’re creating art, but at the same time, especially with science-related films, you want to be as accurate as you can,” said director of publicity Raj Tawney. “And sometimes lines get blurred as to what is reality and what is imagination. The scientists give you a realistic dissection of exactly what you’re seeing.”

At the latest Science on Screen event, held Wednesday, Chiara La Tessa, a researcher in the Collider-Accelerator Department at BNL, led a discussion about the science in the movie “The Martian.”

La Tessa has spent more than a decade in space radiation research. She said the use of art as an educational tool has changed the way people look at science.

“People see physics as something really boring, but look at the ‘Big Bang Theory,’ ” La Tessa said, referring to the hit television show. “Now even a nerd is hot.”

Formerly just STEM — STEAM without the arts element — the new effort integrates critical thinking with creative skills.

“With art it can be a bit easier to talk to people. I see it as an easier connection between science and the general public,” La Tessa said.

While the allure of science can sometimes become lost in the technical jargon, films such as “The Martian” have benefitted from technical accuracy, experts say. The film follows fictional astronaut Mark Watney as he survives life on Mars after being left behind by his crew.

“We’ve come a long way from those cheesy science-fiction movies from the ’40s and ’50s,” Tawney said. “Today, the audience demands a dose of realism in these science films.”

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