"Science Fair" Natgeo documentary

“Science Fair”: this NatGeo documentary really shows how the young people will win

If indeed “The Young People Will Win”, this has been my week for it in indie documentary movies. Michael Moore elevated David Hogg in the previous review, and now in “Science Fair”, Jack Andraka (book “Breakthrough“), who won the ISEF world science fair medicine award, in Pittsburgh, in 2013 for his pancreatic cancer test, pretty much dominates the show.  The film opens with his award, his practically passing out on stage (he jumped out of his chair one second before his name was called);  but at strategic points throughout the film, Jack is shown, looking more like a baseball player than a nerd, narrating much of the process.  (In 2018, the Baltimore Orioles could have used him.)

The film is directed by Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster, was picked up by the National Geographic Channel but not shown, until Sept. 14 in New York, and then Sept. 21 in Los Angeles, where the 2017 international fair is held. On September 28, it opened in a small number of theaters nationwide, including the Landmark West End near GWU, where I saw it tonight with QA with one of the participants, Robbie, from Shenandoah Valley, West Virginia.  (NatGeo has often used Magnolia Pictures as a distributor, but this time it did it by itself.)

Robbie’s story was a little atypical: bad grades, but he did well on what he wanted, which was artificial intelligence, and driverless cars, and computer art.

I’ll throw in the fact that in the QA he mentioned that misused, artificial intelligence could exacerbate problems with police profiling of minorities.

But let’s get to some of the other eight contestants. Three of them went to Du Paul Manual high school in Louisville, KY and had a medical project inventing a new kind of stethoscope that could get much more detailed information from inside the body.  The kids had to use themselves as subjects, which could be interesting.  Well, it’s not as messy as a Holter Monitor, nor as simple as a Fitbit.

Another team, inspired by an African American female science teacher, came from Jericho, Long Island, New York.  Another came from Brookings, SD, with a Muslim female high school student who would place.

A team from northeastern Brazil, speaking Portuguese, did a major study on the Zika virus, particularly of microcephaly in babies born of infected mothers.  This is a public health problem with a herd effect, as some people are affected more than others, so there is a moral issue underneath (we saw a somewhat similar debate, much more dangerous, with AIDS and HIV in the 1980s).

But the winner would be a lanky kid Ivo Zell, from Germany, with his flying wing.  The film made the point that Germany has few natural resources, politically important before WWII, but today it needs to depend on its knowledge economy. (By the way, that makes the Copyright Directive in the European Union with its articles 11 and 13 sound really stupid.)

The film builds up suspense for the final contest in Los Angeles, and depicts the self-salesmanship required from the kids (one team irons its shirts in the hotel) as Jack Andraka explains some of the different easel designs that have been tried in different years.

The film also notes that science fairs started during WWII, in 1942, as part of the war effort, and President Kennedy pushed them after Sputnik.

In fact, I remember some science fair projects of my own.  Probably in eighth grade, around 1956, I did a project on what happens if mice ingested alcohol.  I had two mice in the basement, called A and B, and father was worried about any possible cruelty to animals.

Then in tenth grade (1959) I did a woodwork painted diagram of human anatomy (for biology class). I remember going to a library at Georgetown University for research.

In the fall of 1960, we did projects for the “Science Honor Society” initiation.  I did some sort of experiment substituting silicon for carbon, as if a pretext for alien life.  (It really won’t be – no, Alex Jones, David Hogg isn’t made of silicon. Life really does require carbon as a basis.  But you can substitute arsenic for phosphorus, and there are bacteria in Mono Lake near Mammoth Lakes, CA that do just that.  You could imagine a science fair experiment trying to design life for the methane seas on Titan – probably a paper-like sheet a bit analogous to the slime mold on Earth – itself an experiment on unicellular biological colonialism.)  At the initiation ceremony in my own basement on December 9, 1960, another student named Bob Bast gave a talk on leucocytes and “lysing” them, a talk prescient of how HIV infection would work when discovered twenty-five years later.  Too bad, I’ve sold the house, and due to renovation, I doubt any new owners will know what dad’s workshop and recreation area for events like this really was like during the Kennedy years.  In May 1961, the Honor Society did a trip to the summit of Mount Washington, NH, one of the most memorable events of my own coming of age. The physics teacher who sponsored the SHS would have to leave a couple years later and would die of Hepatitis B.

It’s worthy of note that Taylor Wilson, who had built a fusion reactor at age 14 in 2008, had entered the fair the same year that Jack won, but isn’t mentioned in the film.  He’ll get his own movie, for sure.  But so will David Hogg  — to help out the Miami Marlins.

QA clips: (sorry for poor lighting):




Name:  “Science Fair”

Director, writer: Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster

Released: 2018

Format: 1.85:1

When and how viewed:          Landmark West End, 2018/9/28 with QA, sold out

Length: 90

Rating: PG

Companies: Muck Media, National Geographic Documentary

Link: official

Stars:  *****

(Posted: Friday, September 28, 2018 at 11:45 PM EDT)