Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Me and Isaac Newton can be called an inspirational vocational documentary. Seven scientists are
profiled not about their specific discoveries, but instead about their personal
relationships to science: what inspired them to begin and what keeps them interested. With a
relaxed pace, this Michael Apted feature uses interviews, verité footage and interesting
graphic montages to make its points.
The thoughts and ideas of seven scientists are revealed: how they became scientists,
how they pursue their work, what a moment of discovery is like, and their philosophical thoughts
about the place of science in the world. Specific discoveries and achievements are
touched upon, but the emphasis is the relationship of the scientist to the more abstract
problems of truth, God, hope, and discovery - mysteries from which some of them are able to build
"The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow stronger."
With that quote, we're launched into a realm of science that Nova and The Discovery
Channel overlook: who are scientists and why do they do what they do? What fires them up
to spend years in laboratories or think tanks, working on problems with no assurance of ever
What we find out from Michael Apted's handsome documentary is that scientists are not only
dedicated but often idealistic, with a full range of reasons for pursuing their profession. The
seven candidates singled out here are all engaged in significant work. Michio Kaku is helping to
build a Unified Theory of All Creation, picking up where Einstein left off. He started by
identifying with the Dr. Zarkov character in Flash Gordon serials, and as a child built a
particle accelerator in his own home. Karol Sikora got interested in chemistry making small bombs as
a kid - his father's death by cancer helped him decide to become a cancer researcher. Gertrude Elion was
a WW2 worker who because of the lack of male employees was able to prove herself as a pharmaceutical researcher. Her
motivation was the simple possibility of saving lives. Ashok Gadgil was struck by the enormous gulf
between the resources of the US, and his native India. As an environmental engineer, he charged
himself to find economical ways of bringing the basic necessity of safe drinking water to impovershed
people. And housewife Patricia Wright began what became a lifetime behavorial study of Madagascan lemurs,
by simply oberving that in her family of pet monkeys, the male monkey took care of the children!
A couple of the profiled scientists can trace their interest to family tragedies that inspired them to
say, cure a disease, but Me and Isaac Newton doesn't go in for background-color media tripe as
seen on the Olympics. The scientists are both poor and wealthy, with contrasting motivations, but share
a unifying theme, a commitment to the truth. As Ms. Elion puts it, they tend to be 'proof' people.
They're ready to believe in the concept of God, but prefer to consider his Universe
a puzzle that Man should be able to figure out, if he just applies himself.
Some of the scientists took established paths toward their professions, while others weren't so
clear where they were going at the beginning. Maja Mataric majored in art, neuroscience and computer
science. As her specialization, robotics took over, the art dropped away. She has a lot to say about
Artificial Intelligence, and believes that artificial beings may eventually be created that sustain
and even redesign themselves. Patricia Wright began to study those lemurs in the rain forest as
an uncredentialed enthusiast, and later was forced to double back and get a college
degree to continue her pursuit.
Contradicting the stereotype of the amoral scientist, these people can demonstrate their deep
connection to human needs and higher goals. Ashok Gadgil sees that his people's need is
for clean water, not atomic power, and has pressed his skills into devising a simple Ultra-Violet water
purifier. Michio Kaku is shown in newsfilm demonstrating against a Nasa project that would
put deadly nuclear fuel into
orbit, from where it could fall into the atmosphere and poison the whole planet, a la
Until the End of the World. He sees scientists
as conflicted over the fact that every new development has potential uses both good and sinister. Karol
Sikora acknowledges that there are those who would use genetics to create a super race of humans.
If proven they were at high risk to experience the early onset of disease, individuals might be
excluded from public resources for education, etc., exactly as in the movie Gattica.
In one nice segment, the scientists weigh in over whether their personal breakthroughs were big
'Eureka' moments, or smaller bursts of success. They talk about intuition, persistence, patience,
luck, and accident as major factors in their work. And they talk about failure. One speaks of the
value of purposely choosing a direction you know will be wrong, just to gain perspective on
an alternate path that might be better.
Michio Kaku is seen ice skating to clear his mind, throwing his body across a rink with the rules of
Isaac Newton (hence the title) to unwind and better free himself for concentration. Leaving a problem
for a spell and returning to it refreshed, is seen to be a valuable scientific strategy.
These people can really say they've made the world a better
and wiser place. Gertrude Elion's drugs have saved thousands of leukemia patients, many of them children.
Patricia Wright successfully preserved an entire rainforest by pushing through a national park to protect
its lemurs. After 110 minutes of fascinating footage, we see her celebrating with the people she's directly
benefitted. Michio Kaku dreams of cracking the codes of the universe and being able to
harness 'the theory of everything': to become Godlike. Me and Isaac Newton shows that science
can be personally rewarding, and spiritually fulfilling. It's an excellent inspirational item aimed
at an adult level, that will captivate and motivate kids as well.
HVe's DVD of Me and Isaac Newton is a good-looking package with a very high quality show inside.
It pulls material from a wealth of sources (I recognized stock footage from Powaqqatsi) but
uses it with discretion and taste. It avoids both the grab-bag look of sloppy
docus, and the overly slick look of shows with a lot of flashy graphics and nothing to say. When it
uses computer animation and graphic tricks, they're for a real purpose. Although the movie is very
selfcontained, it would have been nice to have perhaps a text extra explaining Mr. Apted's own thoughts
as to why he chose this particular subject; he's a renowned director who alternates between
docus (the latest in a series is 42-Up) and features (Gorillas in the Mist).
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Me & Isaac Newton rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 5, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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