Wanted: The Hoosiers of Science

I’ve been revising a chapter on collaboration in science for the book-in-progress, making an analogy to team sports. And it occurred to me as I was trying to find a way to procrastinate, that while science is a highly collaborative endeavor, most of the popular stories that get told about science are not. There’s no Hoosiers of science out there.

Now, admittedly, the sample of great pop-culture stories about science period is pretty small. But what does exist mostly concerns individual struggles– the lone genius who can revolutionize science by just thinking about it in isolation, but who must overcome personal issues first. Your Good Will Hunting/ A Beautiful Mind To the extent that there is a community of science, it generally takes the form of an obstacle to be overcome, an unduly skeptical audience that the protagonist needs to find the confidence to take on and beat. Or other scientists turn out to be frauds and deceivers– Allegra Goodman’s acclaimed Intuition about misconduct in a bio lab, or Carter Scholz’s Radiance about a fictionalized “Star Wars” missile defense program.

While there’s no shortage of sports movies where individuals need to overcome their own demons to realize their full potential, that’s only one form of great sports story. The other is the -pull-together-as-a-team tale, and there’s probably none better than the greatest sports movie ever, Hoosiers. The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is a fictionalized version of the “Milan Miracle”, when Milan High School (enrollment 162) beat Muncie High (enrollment 1,600) for the 1954 Indiana state championship. Gene Hackman plays an abrasive coach who brings in a new system, and is initially so unpopular that a town referendum threatens to remove him, but his players buy into the system and pull together to go on a dramatic run culminating in a state title. (Lots of detail available via the Milan museum…)

That’s not really a story you see in popular discussions of science, even though there are real life examples you could spin that way. Realistically, any kind of experiment is done in a collaborative manner– if nothing else, it almost always requires more than one pair of hands to get everything done– but for whatever reason, they’re often treated as an individual triumph. Even projects at a gigantic scale are somehow cast not as a large team pulling together, but the great effort of a small number of individuals. The Manhattan Project involved thousands of people, including pretty much anybody who was anybody in the middle of the 20th century in physics, but from a lot of the popular treatments of it, you’d think it was Robert Oppenheimer all by himself, with maybe a small assist from a wisecracking Richard Feynman.

This is less true within science (at least my corner of it– for all I know, biologists deliberately teach their students to be assholes). While physics does revere its great individual scientists, a lot of our foundational narratives are more collaborative than the popular image. The Solvay Conferences of the late 1920’s have attained mythic status for bringing together the best physics has ever seen, and the Shelter Island and Pocono conferences that gave birth to QED likewise. Stories about the founding of quantum mechanics always emphasize the vigorous give-and-take, including popular anecdotes like Bohr badgering Schrödinger while the latter was sick in bed. And the vast correspondence between the principal actors in the story shows them more as colleagues working toward a goal than rivals in a cut-throat struggle.

I’m not entirely sure what a Hoosiers for science would look like, but I think it’d be good to see one, a story where individuals who are difficult to work with come together for a higher purpose and by learning to get along accomplish more than they could on their own. Sadly, I suspect that the closest we’re going to get is the Stark-Banner scenes in The Avengers

(Hoosiers image above from this amusing ESPN “debunking” of the plot.)

6 thoughts on “Wanted: The Hoosiers of Science

  1. You are so right. There are no teamwork science movies, and I hate that, because that’s not how it works!

    I hate “Stand and Deliver” for the same reason. It’s a beautiful movie and a wonderful true story, but the movie got all the important parts entirely wrong. To make it more interesting, Hollywood completely distorted HOW Jaime Escalante pulled it off, and omitted the many people who helped him. Result? Lots and lots of eager new teachers or Teach For America members going into urban schools, convinced if they just work hard enough, they can do the same thing. A year or two later, they figure out they’ll never make that kind of difference without support from the community and the administration. And then they leave.

  2. How about “The Race for the Double Helix” – the 1987 movie with Jeff Goldblum. It’s been 25 years since I’ve seen it, but I recall it illustrating at least the two-man team cooperation of Watson and Crick, and the advice and management of Sir Lawrence Bragg, at the time the far more famous senior scientist. Of course the races and rivalries with competeting scientists and teams were part of the movie too.

    Don’t know whether this is exactly what you’re looking for, but it’s at least not yet another brilliant-loner vs. the world trope.

  3. Parts of Real Genius, particularly the lab scenes with Chris and Mitch, would work. SPOILER ALERT: Recall that Chris, who is (to put it mildly) eccentric, mentors the prodigy Mitch, and the two of them team up to overcome various obstacles, among them Kent and Prof. Hathaway, in the process of making their experiment work. And then, realizing the intended application of their experiment, they take action, rather than cracking as Laszlo Holyfield did.

  4. It was more of an engineering problem, but I seem to recall Apollo 13‘s depiction of the Earth-side efforts to keep the crew alive and get them back home as ‘everyone who knows anything about the mission is helping on this’.

    (Actually, that’s one sad thing about the movie adaptation of Contact: the book made it a lot clearer how many people were involved in the project, and that Dr. Arroway wasn’t the lone visionary as much as she was a major advocate. The book also added international elements: the five-person crew of the Machine had Dr. Arroway, a Russian man, a Chinese man, an Indian-born British(?) woman, and an African* man… and that was done deliberately, because it was felt that the Message was for the planet, not America. The book also mentioned Dr. Arroway phoning other radio observatories in other countries to confirm what she was seeing and to keep an eye on it once Vega set in New Mexico. Among other things. Of course, Sagan was an astronomer and had done space-based missions so he knew how much scientists rely on other scientists. (If he was prone to introspection, he also probably knew how the media would latch onto one or a few people as ‘the face of Science’.) )

    * I don’t remember his specific nationality, but he was depicted as a Nobel-prize-winning theoretical physicist.

  5. I remember Fat Man and Little Boy ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_Man_and_Little_Boy ) as a film about the team effort needed to construct the atomic bomb. I vividly remember where the idea of unsing an imploding sphere emerges during a discussion for exemple.

    However, I saw it roughly 20 years ago, so my memory is not to be trusted. And the described team seams to be a “small team”, not the thousands who were involved.

  6. Oppenheimer’s strength was looking at other people’s work and finding that nugget so they could be successful. And also, he wasn’t just interested in physics, his love of literature and art really made him a lot more than just a scientist.

    “He didn’t have Sitzfleisch, ‘sitting flesh,’ when you sit on a chair. As far as I know, he never wrote a long paper or did a long calculation, anything of that kind. He didn’t have patience for that; his own work consisted of little aperçus, but quite brilliant ones. But he inspired other people to do things, and his influence was fantastic” – Murray Gell-Mann

    I wish there was more media about the Manhattan Project, there are countless books but something like BBC/HBO style dramatic mini-series would be great to show such distinct characters.

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