Geoscientist featured in documentary premiering at international film festival

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “The Most Unknown” could not have been a more fitting documentary film title for Jenn Macalady, a Penn State geoscientist who is featured in the film.

Macalady had no idea that a series of interviews — some conducted below nearly a mile of earth at Italy’s Gran Sasso research laboratory — would lead to a documentary that March 16 at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival. She even didn’t connect that the director, Ian Cheney, was one of the filmmakers responsible for “King Corn,” a documentary that impacted her early in her microbiology career.

She couldn’t have imagined the documentary would grace the big stage and that she would be invited to speak to crowds about her career as a scientist at a prestigious film festival.

“I had no idea that this film would be entered into any festivals or that it would premiere at any event,” Macalady said. “Most science documentaries air without fanfare.”

Watch the trailer to “The Most Unknown” here.

In the film, Macalady is one of nine in a chain of scientists, each interacting with the next, explaining why they seek to explain the most unknown yet pressing questions of science: What is dark matter? Where did life originate? Is there life elsewhere?

Cheney said the film links scientists with no previous personal or professional ties and asks them to explore what it means to dedicate one’s life to asking questions with no certainty that they’ll be answered. He said he was approached by Vice’s Motherboard and the Simon’s Foundation’s Science Sandbox initiative about making a film that focused on the processes of science, not the results. What emerged was an experiment in science storytelling.

“It’s easy to lose sight of the powerful human impulses that drive science forward: What’s under this rock? What lies around that corner? What is beyond the beyond?” Cheney said. “Wondering is a deeply human habit, and at the end of the day, it seems to me that questions drive science. Journalists and filmmakers sometimes lose sight of that and focus instead on just the answers. But the questions sustain the work. Spending time with Jenn and our other scientists was a reminder that science thrives on openness — to possibilities, diversity, new questions and experiments like this very film.”

Cheney said the film will have a widespread streaming release and perhaps a limited release in theaters. He plans to tie educational screenings to hands-on demonstrations, science talks and panels. Longtime documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog advised on the film.

Cheney said he picked Macalady not only for her work but because of her passion for science.

“Jenn’s work is outstanding, but it was also her adventurous spirit and unyielding curiosity that made her a great fit for our project,” Cheney said. “We knew she’d not only be a powerful ambassador to her own research, but also an engaging and inquisitive guide for the audience when she traveled to meet another scientist.”

Macalady, who has appeared in several documentaries and television specials, said she never expected that her love of microbes and astrobiology would take her on that path.

“I certainly didn’t have any intention of getting into the business of helping to make films and it’s not my main focus,” Macalady said. “What gets me up in the morning is finding out new things through research, but I also do really enjoy the challenge of translating what I do to the broadest possible audience. I think it’s crucial that we do that. I’m well aware that my funding comes from the federal government, which comes from taxes, and I think that it would be a real shame if people didn’t value what researchers do and what research brings to society. I think we have a duty to do our best to communicate to the broadest possible audience.” 

One thing remains unknown. She will see the film for the first time when it premieres.

“When you make a film, nine-tenths of what you put in the can goes in the trash, so what tenth of the amount we filmed will make it into the final cut is something I can’t even wrap my brain around.”

Find more on the film at Motherboard, VICE’s tech and culture site, here.

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Last Updated March 20, 2018